Sunday, November 3, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 194: Fred Allen, The Life and Death of Vaudeville (#195)

Fred Allen, "The Life and Death of Vaudeville" (1956) from The American Stage: Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner:

When I get to talking about my interests, I can sound like "The Spanish Inquisition" sketch from Monty Python: My main interest is science fiction and fantasy literature. And comedy. Among my interests are sf-and-f literature, comedy--and politics. My main interests are sf-and-f literature, comedy, politics, and photography. And history. And insider stories about how historical people lived. And so on. (Oh also: Monty Python.)

So Fred Allen's memories of vaudeville life hits a sweet spot for me, the same spot hit by Harpo Marx's memoir, Harpo Speaks. (One of my high school English teachers had his own idea of what should be on the curriculum, which is why I can talk about Harpo Marx's life but not Catcher in the Rye.) For one thing, this excerpt from Fred Allen's (mostly completed) autobiography goes all over the place, listing various insider stories from vaudeville life.

To give you some idea of the breadth of this piece, here's a short list of some topics covered:

  • the vaudevillian smalltimer's love of diamonds--which are useful as collateral;
  • the smalltimer's habit of judging everything by their own showbiz lives, i.e., "Do I remember the Johnstown flood? Are you kidding? I and the wife were playing Pittsburgh that week...";
  • the off-season vaudeville centers and the strange habits they adopted, like celebrating Christmas in July (since they were often traveling in the winter);
  • various techniques for skipping out on hotel bills;
  • the variety and openness of vaudeville: "All the human race demands of its members is that they be born. That is all vaudeville demanded.";
  • how vaudeville families survived on the road;
  • how jokes were stolen and how a vaudeville association attempted to protect joke ownership;
  • and lots and lots of memories of individual acts and terrible theaters and funny events that happened to other people.

But there's a cloud to all this funny material, which is the problems of vaudevillians who attempt to get out of the uncertain showbiz life (which is exciting, unlike other forms of life); and the ultimate death of vaudeville, about which Fred Allen brooks no discussion: Will the TV bring back vaudeville? No. "Vaudeville is dead. Period."

Which only makes this wide and occasionally rambling reminiscence of the vaudeville life all that more interesting and valuable. We're not likely to see this sort of inside view again.

No comments:

Post a Comment