Friday, September 27, 2013

The Life and Death of Vaudeville

Fred Allen (1894–1956)
From The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner

Fred Allen with dummy, circa 1916. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
When comedian and radio personality Fred Allen died in 1956, The New York Journal-American ran his obituary in three installments over three consecutive days. The writer summarized Allen’s peripatetic career:
In his 45 years of trying to make the world laugh, about 25 of which he spent succeeding, the writer-comedian with the bellhop eyes (“they carry up to four bags”) covered the country but never really settled down. He never owned a house or a car because “they make me nervous,” but he “dwelt” in many places. . . . He spent years in Hollywood making pictures, but he spoke of California thus: “The climate is fine. If you’re an orange, it’s ideal.” . . .

His mind, which could dig right to the heart of matters and usually bring out the humor in them, caused him confusion and headaches. For instance, though he left a legacy of 4,000 books on humor in his library, he never could figure out why people laughed. “It’s mysterious,” he once said. “I know how to make people laugh—and I know approximately when they’ll laugh—but I haven’t the vaguest idea why they laugh.”
Allen got his start in vaudeville in the years prior to World War I; he was billed as “The World’s Worst Juggler.” In the early 1950s, after he retired as host of the radio program The Fred Allen Show, his friend S. J. Perelman branded him “The Great Sourpuss”—and he meant it fondly. Allen wrote his own material, with only occasional help of a series of assistants (one of whom, for five years, was future novelist Herman Wouk. Allen’s prolificacy was such that he once quipped that he was “probably the only writer in the world who has written more than he could lift.” 

Just prior to his death in 1956, he had been working on Much Ado About Me, a memoir covering the two decades of his career as a stage performer, before his transition to radio during the early years of the Depression. The nearly completed manuscript (which ends in the year 1928) was rushed to press after his death and includes the following selection, which recalls the glory days of vaudeville.

Notes: Most of Allen’s vaudevillian allusions are clear from context. Among the more obscure references: Kimberley is the capital of South Africa’s Northern Cape Province, an area noted for its history of diamond mining; thus, Kimberley gravel (page 568). The comedy duo Olsen and Johnson (p. 577) were John “Ole” Olsen and Harold “Chic” Johnson; their heyday occurred during the waning years of the Depression, when their Broadway show Hellzapoppin' ran for 1,404 performances. Gus Sun (p. 581) was the pseudonym of former circus juggler Gustave Klotz, who became a booking agent for minor vaudeville acts.

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Vaudeville is dead. The acrobats, the animal acts, the dancers, the singers, and the old-time comedians have taken their final bows and disappeared into the wings of obscurity. For fifty years—from 1875 to 1925—vaudeville was the popular entertainment of the masses. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.