Sunday, September 17, 2006

What A Night For A Vaudeville

Once upon a time - specifically, from the 1870's until the early 20th century - the middle-class sought its entertainment in live theatre. This was vaudeville: coming to a large old theatre directly near you would be a dizzying variety of acts.


Besides the injuns, there were troubadors, comedians, jugglers, magicians, Shakespearean orators, conjurers, psychics, animal acts, sometimes human oddities, and much more, traveling all over the United States making a meager living entertaining other people who made a meager living.

Eventually, vaudeville shows began to include "moving pictures" and soon enough, a night at the movies replaced a night at the theatre. The film industry drained much of vaudeville's greatest talent: the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Abbot & Costello, Judy Garland, and many more leapt from the circuit to the studios.

Now with the middle class itself rapidly disappearing, a curious nostalgia for vaudeville has led to occasional revivals. In fact, I performed in one ten years ago: a British-style music hall revival that played to great success in Providence, Rhode Island.

There is an annual vaudeville event produced here in L.A. by the Alex Film Society at a beautiful old vaudeville house in Glendale, and last night was the night!


Miss Sarah accompanied me, and more who were invited did not come. Andrew, for instance, was preparing to reclaim his lost youth by downing 100 ounces of beer in as many minutes during a Sunday football match. Having no obligations like that on which to attend, Miss Sarah and I shared a delicious Peruvian dinner before finding, to our surprise, that the Alex was packed with patrons young and old. Some people came in vintage costumes - we even saw a young woman wearing pewterish facial makeup with shocking red lipstick, and a black veil trailing from her wide-brimmed hat. A family had costumed their children in home-made flapper gear, resplendent in fringed dresses and headbands.

We were probably there mostly because of the main musical act: Janet Klein and her amiable parlor boys played delightful songs and were charming in every way. They went so far as to lead a sing-along and somehow they managed to get all but the grumpiest handful of us on our feet to simulate climbing up, up, up a mountain and going down, down, down, down the hill.
The evening also featured an Abbot & Costello cover band, a duo named Davis & Faversham who conjured Bud and Lou for a few rollicking minutes. Amazing how well "Who's On First?" holds up in 2006.

We got into the spirit of things, whistling and cheering for the mute girl in the lacy costume who announced each act by displaying placards and doing a little flirty dance. We stayed with juggler Beejay Joyer as he made five attempts at a particularly difficult trick, even after he insulted an "obnoxious family" in the audience. We were dazzled by Michael Greiner's glass harmonica, rubbing out "Jesu Of Man's Desiring" and "Ode To Joy" on his water glasses. We were genuinely amazed by the physically impossible costume changes (about a dozen of them) by the slight-of-hand guru couple from Bulgaria. And we even did that "up, up, up, up the mountain" thing.

Well, most of us.

After an intermission, enjoying the night air in the theatre's impressive courtyard (while not enjoying the coffee: colored water, courtesy of Nescafe!), we got to the "moving pictures."
One A.M. is a Charles Chaplin short dated 1916, in which he plays a very different character than his tramp: a wealthy playboy returning home from a night of partying. This short is mostly a solo act, with Chaplin's character attempting to go to bed while every object in the house thwarts his progress.

This was followed by a 1940 talking film starring Buster Keaton as a clumsy cub reporter stuck on a train between a dangerous mobster and his estranged wife, Pardon My Berth Marks.

There was nothing "nostalgic" about the joy we found in the entire evening. While it cost more than an 1880 nickel, we had two and a half hours of solid entertainment for the admission price and everyone left the theatre feeling tired.

No, our joy was not a dusty museum exhibit, and neither is vaudeville. There is no need for an announcer to prep us with the conceit that we are "going back in time" to revive some defunct ritual of entertainment. The artists and the audience are very much alive, and we all like to get out of the house and see something happen right in front of us. We don't even mind sitting with our fellow Americans to enjoy it as a community.

In fact, at the beginning of the program we stood and sang the national anthem, just like they do at sporting events.

2 comments:

Hal Johnson said...

I remember the Alex as a grand ol' theater. I worked in a Fox Theater in high school, and the company that owned that chain also owned the Alex. I worked there one night for a premier. It was so boring to me that I don't even remember the movie, but I remember how wonderful it was to work in the Alex. It was (is?) reputed to be haunted.

Algernon said...

I would not be surprised. The good old theatres always are, aren't they?