Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Of research and vaudeville

The item on top of the work pile at the moment is a now very battered advance proof copy of a novel called The Little Shadows by the Canadian writer Marina Endicott, published in Canada last year and due for release in Australia in February. It's about a family in vaudeville, working the circuits along the border of the US and Canada; set from 1912-1917, it shows how their lives are affected by the forces of history.

With my curiosity piqued about vaudeville and its history in Australia -- obviously such an 'American' thing was going to make its way to Canada, but did it have a substantial history here? -- I went looking in the astounding new(ish) resource provided by the National Library, Trove, which -- well, go over there and have a look.

I spent many happy hours on this site last year and the year before when I was researching Adelaide and found, among other things, a great deal of family history buried among Family Notices and roundups from 'The Country', where the ferocious rivalry between my Scottish grandma and her bossy sister-in-law regarding the organisation of fund-raisers for the War Effort in Curramulka can be seen between the lines of often profoundly corrupted text.

Apropos of which, I decided early on that since this magical resource had been provided to me then the very least I could do was take an active part in the way it works: crowdsourcing to correct the scanned text, since obviously the resources don't exist for it to be done professionally. I decided that I would correct every article I used. There's no measuring this, but my guess is that, as with Wikipedia, the longer it goes on the more accurate it will be, as more and more people use it and contribute.

Anyway, vaudeville. Oh yes indeed. There's a thesis in this topic alone: 'Racism in the content and language of journalistic reportage of vaudeville in Adelaide, 1920-1940.' Here, for example, is a paragraph from The Advertiser of September 30, 1926:

Special interest is attached to the Southern Revue Company, which will be appearing for the first time in Adelaide at the Theatre Royal next Saturday, under the J. C. Williamson management. Many of the members of Joe Sheftell's revue are even blacker than negroes are usually painted, but this is not true about the chorus girls, who are much fairer than their men folk. One of the members of the company remarked while in Sydney "how mighty good every one has been to us." This is the first impression gained of Australia by one of the darkest of the members. He also explained that in the Land of Liberty "culled" folk have to travel in their own special "Jim Crow" railway carriages, and are segregated in special hotels and restaurants. This company includes many talented performers, who have been a great success in both Melbourne and Sydney — Minta Cato, the colored soprano; Joe Sheftell, the producer; Bob Williams, the comedian; McConn, Saunders, and Williams, the nifty steppers, and the chorus girls.
Did you blanch over that word 'culled'? Language is a wonderful thing when it come to the return of the repressed. It took me a few seconds to work out that it was merely an attempt at phonetic approximation of the accent of the unnamed  'dark member' (oh dear, it just gets worse and worse) and his pronunciation of the word 'colored' (interesting that the Advertiser was using American spelling in 1926).  I also enjoyed the snide reference to the Land of Liberty, implying that we in Australia have no such unenlightened attitudes, oh my wordy lordy no.

And as for the forces of history, I couldn't help noticing the tour dates on this one, from The Advertiser of September 21, 1929:

Trixie Wilson, the well-known ballet teacher, announces that the annual concert to be given by her students will be held in the Thebarton Town Hall on October 22. The programme will contain several spectacular ballets, solo dances, and vaudeville acts.
(And for anyone looking for ideas for fiction, there's a whole novel for you right there in the phrase 'Trixie Wilson, the well-known ballet teacher.') Unbeknownst to either the journalist or Miss Trixie, the 1929 Wall Street Crash was imminent: Black Thursday was October 24th, two days after the concert.

Vaudeville was a notoriously unstable and insecure profession even at the best of times, as Endicott's book makes clear, with acts being sacked and theatres closing down and impresarios going broke left and right. I wonder what happened to everyone in the wake of Black Thursday: to Miss Trixie, whose pupils' parents must have hurriedly reassessed whether the budget could stand ballet lessons? To those 'culled' troupers from three years before? To all vaudeville everywhere: the performers, the backers, the managers, the theatre owners, and the audiences, many of whom may have abruptly decided that going to the vaudeville was a luxury they could definitely do without? What happened to the nifty steppers, the Men of Mirth, the chorus girls, the acrobatic violinists and the 'Gypsy' dancers, in the wake of October 24th, 1929? Whatever did they do? Wherever did they go?


Elisabeth said...

Wonderful research and now I must both resist the urge to judge the past by today's standards - today's standards, which will undoubtedly cop their share of judgement in the future - and go off to explore Trove.

Ampersand Duck said...

Oh wow, such a good post.

(WV = herickat)

Casey said...

"Did you blanch over that word 'culled'? Language is a wonderful thing when it come to the return of the repressed. "

How about giggling over the word 'blanch'

Don't mind me. I've got Howard's 'blemish' on my mind.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Oh my lord how did I not see that? That is hilarious. And proves my point, no?

Phill said...

Were it not for the quotation marks could "culled" refer to the dictionary definition of "removal of rejected members of a group"?

Perhaps a double meaning in there.

Thanks for the pointer to Trove. A wonderful resource.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Yep, Phill, that was indeed what I meant.

Anonymous said...

That was loverly.

My dad's mum was a music hall performer in Grimsby, England, just before the crash. she "accepted the attentions" of the grandson of a wealthy industrialist and they were soon married. within months of the crash, both the music hall and the fortune had evaporated and my grandfathers personality disorders (well what looks like them from this distance) came to the fore. they were ten pound poms in '49. Things got pretty messy.


Christine said...

In another part of my life, about twenty years ago, I met a woman in her eighties who spoke about her days as a music hall performer. She was very old and her grip on things was diminshing, sadly. I wonder whether anyone has recorded the stories of people like her. Trove is a gem...and affords countless hours

paul walter said...

The antics of Gambaro demonstrate to us, that Vaudeville is indeed, still alive and kicking.

M_C said...

Lovely post and thanks for reminding me to visit Trove again. Such a fantastic resource. A few years ago, I stumbled on it and found a photo of my grandmother aged 17 in the SMH, and another photo of my great-grandparents at Mascot greeting family just after the war. My family had no idea these photos existed, so it is indeed a treasure trove.

Anonymous said...

Although there's plenty of overlap between genres, it's necessary to make certain distinctions between vaudeville, minstrelsy, and burlesque. They're similar but not the same.

I appreciate the pun, but in my experience the more typical (and more phonetic) American colloquial spelling would have been "cullud".

For some fascinating views into the deep metaphysics, read John Berryman's long poem cycle "The Dream Songs", and James Dickey's great short poem "Buck Dancer's Choice."

The less grumpy j_p_z

wv: "zyfghave"

What is it exactly that the zyfghave-nots are lacking?

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Yes, the characters in the novel make the distinction between vaudeville and other forms of popular theatre, notably music-hall and burlesque, several times (vaudeville is regarded, at least by its performers, as less declassee, if I can put it like that), though I don't think anyone here has said they're the same thing, have they? I too thought "culled" was weird, especially given that the journalists of the 1920s were a zillion times more literate and print-aware than most contemporary ones and you'd think either the reported or the editor would have realised what "culled" looked like when written down. I will see if my Norton Anthology has either of the poems ...

Anonymous said...

"I don't think anyone here has said they're the same thing"

No of course you haven't, but since you folks live in another place and culture I can't tell what you effectively perceive of this stuff or why; the subtext of my point was that "minstrelsy" was an explicitly racist genre, whereas most "vaudeville" merely reflected the norms and mores of its time. Insofar as you could call it "racist" (and the whole thing is fraught with difficulty), it would largely be of the fish-don't-know-they're-wet variety.

I can't tell what Australians know, or think of, these various regional subcultures (vaudeville was as much Northeastern and white-ethnic, viz. Jewish and Irish, as it was anything, whereas minstrelsy is very Southern).

Since minstrelsy is the thing that leaves a strong taste in the mouth, as it were, it's possible that its visibility would encroach on perceptions of the other genres, esp since there was overlap.

I hope you can find the Dickey poem anthologized (it may also be online). But Berryman's "Dream Songs" is a book-length work. Not all of it is great, but enough is to be worth your time, esp if you're interested in the complications of minstrelsy, race, image and interior life, and all the metaphysics thereto. Plus it's some good writin'.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

I should perhaps have been clearer about what I was calling racist, viz the arch language of the journalist. The complexity of the other stuff is a given, especially when one factors in the year.

Anonymous said...

Well that makes sense.

btw, here is a link to the Dickey poem:


certainly not exhaustive on the subject, but poignant and coming from an unexpected angle, as Dickey so often does.

-- japerz

Anonymous said...

btw, just as a matter of peculiar interest...

when I was a kid in NYC/Brooklyn back in the 70s, before the age of the multiplex, many or most of the movie theaters (in Brooklyn at least) were big old re-purposed vaudeville theaters, which still had the stages, the red carpets and curtains, the wings, the upper boxes, sometimes even footlights or an orchestra pit, and incredibly elaborate faux-Greek statuary kitsch decorations. They screamed "showbiz!" and we used to sometimes climb up on the stages and dance in front of the screen before getting kicked out by management. My memories of old movies like "The Poseidon Adventure" and the bad, later "Planet of the Apes" movies are all tied up with the bizarre flora and fauna of embalmed vaudeville.

Nowadays if you don't get the main multiplex screen with the stadium seating, you're stuck in something like a conference room or a small airplane. Yecch. Life just tastes like styrofoam anymore, dunnit.

Grumble grumble complain kick hedge...

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

I miss those theatre trappings too, though there's one cinema in Adelaide that has faithfully kept its art deco design inside and out, and (I think) still has an old organ down on the stage where they used to play to entertain the masses till the movie came on. It might even date back to the days of silent movies with live organ or piano players.

Fine said...

Anonymous, we know quite a lot about those sorts of things, because although it may be a US genre, it flourished in Australia as well.

Vaudeville did continue onto the post-War era and was finally knocked off by television. Some of those performers were employed by television to teach the young 'uns to sell a song and a joke as well as write material. I'm thinking of the incredibly popular In Melbourne Tonight who used old vaudeville performers like Buster Fiddess and Joff Ellen as performers, writers and mentors for people such as Graham Kennedy and Bert Newton. They recycled there old sketches and wrote new material.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Fine, Anonymous is actually J_P_Z whom you might recognise/remember from LP.

Anonymous said...

Oh, another recommendation just for fun...

If you want to read some hilarious there-at-the-time 1930s-era reporting on the NY burlesque circuit and its bizarre folkways, pick up "My Ears Are Bent" by the late great reporter/journalist Joseph Mitchell. An astoundingly good read, what they used to call a "ripping" one: Mitchell is positively worshiped by those in the know, in the annals of modern American reportorial prose. He's the guy who, after publishing the classics "My Ears Are Bent," "Joe Gould's Secret" and the assembled reportage that makes up the worth-its-weight-in-gold collection "Up in the Old Hotel," never published another line, although he continued to show up to his office at The New Yorker and work every day for something like another 30 years. No one knows why he did it, although if you read "Joe Gould's Secret" you get somewhat of a hint.

Marvelous stuff, all of it, but "My Ears Are Bent" has the unique energy and tang of youth trying out its strength for the first time.

The j_p_z Book C_l_u_b

wv: "procryst"

Would that be the owner of the proverbial "procrystian bed," or the arch enemy of the Anticryst?

paul walter said...

Not often do I compliment Fine, but Graham Kennedy and Rosie Sturgess doing George and Joyce used to split my sides.
Rosie underplayed to perfection, to Kennedy's decrepit George. Thinking back,recall Buster Fiddess and Dawn Lake doing something similar, but not as subtle; more burlesque.