Wednesday, January 29, 2014

No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous by Trav S. D.

I love Vaudeville.

Not that I love every goofy, borscht belt joke or watch the 3 Stooges on a loop (I swear!), but there’s something so strange and appealing about the scene, Hollywood before Hollywood was a thing, a massive cultural phenomenon that, aside from the filmed work of some of it’s bigger stars, has been largely forgotten by the public.

Trav S. D., who apparently runs a modern Vaudeville revue of some sort, gives the whole movement a popular history that anyone could enjoy. Thoroughly sourced and pithily written, Trav spends time with not only the most well-known stars of the Vaudeville stage, such as the Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Buster Keaton, but he also turns his eye to lesser performers--sword swallowers, contortionists, freaks, weirdos and lunatics--and, in doing so, brings out what a strange, wonderful world Vaudeville really was.

I particularly enjoyed the first couple chapters, where Trav traces Vaudeville’s history back to the travelling minstrels and theater troupes  in the Middle Ages, and even further, to the wild bacchanals of ancient Rome. While it seems like a little bit of a stretch to view Caligula as an early P. T. Barnum, if the shoe fits... From these inauspacious beginnings, Vaudeville developed from “Men Only” burlesque beginnings to the biggest show on earth, and then, in the span of only about a decade, was completely wiped out by motion pictures.

Although it’s doubtful that most of us would trade, say, Scorcese’s output to watch a man set himself on fire onstage, there is something sad about the disappearance of Vaudeville. Nowdays, unless you live in a large city, you probably don’t have much access to live theater and you certainly can’t see the large variety of things present in the average Vaudeville program. Trav also makes a fairly convincing, if somewhat rose-colored, case for Vaudeville’s inclusiveness of minorities and women and posits the movement on the whole as a net positive. I’m inclined to agree. In many ways, the rise and fall of Vaudeville seems like a uniquely American event, one brief moment when the melting pot came together to watch the world’s fattest lady do... whatever she did.

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