Before there were television and film stars, before radio serials, the best entertainment value was vaudeville. Working people could crowd into a theater and enjoy up to 20 acts for pocket change.
Legends such as Cab Calloway, Jack Benny, Bobby Short and George Burns got their start there. Countless others tirelessly worked the vaudeville circuits, too.
Vaudeville may be a shadowy memory to most people these days, but Seattle-based producer Greg Palmer brings back its full glory for two hours tonight at 8 p.m. on KCTS-TV in "Vaudeville: An American Masters' Special."
Among the amazing clips of dancers, jugglers, singers and comedians that made the transition into films and popular culture are countless forgotten acts.
Like Hadji Ali, the famous regurgitator who drinks glasses of water and kerosene before vomiting them up in a flammable spray.
If you had an act that could keep people entertained for 10 minutes, you could be in vaudeville.
"Vaudeville" boasts some more famous acts, too, like the crisp choreography of the Nicholas Brothers, the roaring pipes of Baby Rose Marie and the antics of little Billy Barty.
Interviews with vaudeville performers such as Barty and Rose Marie, along with thoughts from comedian Robert Townsend and theater critic John Lahr, son of the late Bert Lahr, provide some good stories and illuminate the harsher realities.
The incessant touring and nonstop shows. The harsh treatment by
circuit owners. The infamous history of perpetuating ethnic stereotypes. `Vaudeville" will keep you hooked, but you won't find anybody singing `"hanks for the Memories."
"Very few of the people who were involved in vaudeville were in the least nostalgic about it," Palmer said in a recent phone interview. "They worked like dogs . . . It would be like asking a coal miner to wax nostalgic about working down in the mines."
Its history with minstrel shows and blackface performers doesn't inspire nostalgia, either. But the special goes beyond the condemnation of cork by daring to show, Palmer said, "that it's not all bad." In a segment on black performers in vaudeville, it's noted that comic legends such as Bert Williams and Dewey "Pigmeat" Markham used cork as part of their act. Even performers who didn't use blackface were molded and advertised along racial stereotypes.
"It was important to me to show that people like Bert Williams and the Nicholas Brothers, and (pianist) Eubie Blake, yes, in many ways, were forced to play a racial stereotype which by any stretch of the imagination we'd find offensive now," Palmer said. "But they were such consummate artists that . . . there was a transcendence in Bert Williams work, and he overcame that stereotype."
Vaudeville has always been a favorite subject for Palmer, known best for his work in the critically acclaimed PBS series "Death: The Trip of a Lifetime." He remembers his mother suggesting he read Fred Allen's biography "Much Ado About Me" when he needed to do a report in high school. From that, and his standing interest in legends such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, Palmer's love for the roar of the greasepaint grew.
The success of "Death: The Trip of a Lifetime" allowed him the opportunity to turn his interest into a project, but the idea for "Vaudeville came from a chance rereading of a favorite book.
"I realized that practically every single great vaudeville act was filmed sometime between 1895, and if you go through the `Ed Sullivan Show,' 1972," he said. "And it would be possible to do a show about vaudeville that wasn't just old vaudevillians talking about what it was, but you could actually show the acts."
As it turns out, the three dozen or so interviews with vaudevillians became a critical aspect of the show. The average age of the performers featured, Palmer said, was 84. Seven stars have died since their interviews for "Vaudeville," which underlines how important the timing was for the project. In 10 years, making "Vaudeville" might have been impossible.
"Even though television owes so much to vaudeville, there's never been either a television or film documentary about it, and the people who are in it, and showing the acts and things like that," Palmer said. "Some of the footage has been seen before, but this was the first documentary of its kind, ever."