Friday, August 27, 2010

Comedy in the Roaring 20s

The “Roaring 20s” were packed with laughter and big-time comedy. Stars like Charlie Chapman, Buster Keaton, Eddie Cantor, and Sophie Tucker had them rolling in the aisles.  The Vaudeville era was at its height, and the transition was being made from the stage to the movie screen. “Talkies” were still in the future, and the silent screen was paramount. What happened over the next few years was nothing less than amazing.

According to Variety, “by the end of 1926 only a dozen big time vaudeville houses remained – the rest had converted to film use. Some vaudevillians sped the process by filming their acts as sound shorts. When movie theatres could offer top line acts on screen at a nickel a seat, why would anyone pay more to see lesser talents live? In December 1927, Julian Eltinge proclaimed that vaudeville was ‘shot to pieces,’ and was no longer able to attract "big names.

“By the early 1930s, the one-two punch of talking film and the Great Depression wiped away the last vestiges of vaudeville. Headliner Sophie Tucker noted that by 1931 'the movies had a death grip on vaudeville.' She pointed out that the vaudeville audience was not the same. Theaters were full of children impatient with stage performances and eager to cut to the films. With the newspapers and motion-picture magazines telling the public the “scoop” about the private lives of stars, a lot of the illusion and glamour of the stage were gone.

“Tough as times were, Tucker kept on performing. She was headlining at New York's Palace Theater in February 1932 when a fire broke out backstage. To prevent panic, Tucker remained onstage to coax the audience out of the theatre – despite the sparks that threatened to ignite her flammable sequined gown. The Palace soon reopened, but by that November it became a full-time movie theatre -- an occasion many point to as the death of big-time vaudeville.

Charlie Chaplin & Buster Keaton Link:

“With the Palace gone, the remaining circuits evaporated as vaudeville theatres became movie palaces. Although many theatres still presented acts between films, the number of available gigs kept shrinking. This took a brutal toll on thousands of performers. In her frank autobiography, actress and vaudeville veteran June Havoc explains...

Charlie Chaplin, "Table Ballet"

“Show business as I knew it had simply dwindled and vanished before my eyes. The happy island of vaudeville which had been my kindergarten, elementary and junior high school had sunk into the sea and left me treading water. I was an animation of the ancient quote: 'You can take the girl out of vaudeville but can't take the vaudeville out of the girl.' I was a displaced person. I didn't understand it. I only felt it.”
- Early Havoc (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959), p. 2.

Silent Ladies:

I hope you enjoy the vintage music covers on this page and links to YouTube performances from actors of vaudeville and the great silent screen. Next Tuesday, I’ll have a new 1920s mixed media painting ready for preview.