GENUINE vaudeville in Baltimore has been dead since the early 1950s. (We're not talking here about burlesque, an offshoot of vaudeville, or the strip show, an offshoot of burlesque you can see tonight on The Block.)
But now comes the National Museum of Live Entertainment Inc., a nonprofit group headed by Donald Hicken. He is talking about reopening the Hippodrome Theater, 12 N. Eutaw St., as a sort of "Smithsonian of live entertainment.
"There's still something magic that happens in live entertainment," he says, "and it's even more magic as we move away from it. We're going to keep the lamp lit."
Vaudeville once flourished in that lamp glow in Baltimore . . .
In 1904, at Pearce and Scheck's Amusa Theater, 414 E. Baltimore St., the top act was "Johnny Jones and His Trained Dogs." Critics called it "polite vaudeville," but the Jones routine ushered in the golden age of vaudeville in Baltimore.
Theaters sprang up all over town. In the World War I years, there were performances at the Academy of Music, 516 N. Howard St.; the Bijou, 1100 E. Baltimore St., and Blaney's, 315 N. Eutaw St., where the great George M. ("I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy") Cohan held forth.
By 1920, there were magicians, soft-shoe dancers, dog trainers, ventriloquists and stand-up comic acts all over town. At Keith's, on West Lexington Street, an act had them rolling in the aisles: "Onaip," or "piano" spelled backwards, in company with Rajah, a clairvoyant and a young tenor named Morton Downey.
The Maryland, 615 W. Franklin St., offered the best of the circuit, while the Victoria, 415 E. Baltimore St., featured Yiddish vaudeville. (The word comes from the French Vau-de-Vire, the valley of the Vire in Normandy, famous for light convivial songs.)
By the mid-1930s, vaudeville was packing them in at the Hippodrome. One show, in 1939, featured Ronald Reagan and Jane Wyman, "a comedy team," in "Louella Parsons' All-Star Hollywood Review." It played to ho-hum reviews.
Felice Iula was running a three-a-day vaudeville show at the Stanley, Howard and Centre streets. The State, on East Monument Street, was raffling off sets of dishes between acts.
But radio and movies did vaudeville in. Gone from Baltimore theaters were the likes of:
"Hey, Moe, run up the curtain."
"Whaddaya think I am, a squirrel?"
You would think that we would not miss that, but we did, and in 1950 there was a brief revival of vaudeville. But on the night of May 31, 1951, the curtain came down on Pee Wee King and the Cowboys at the Hippodrome. As they twanged through the last notes of "Tennessee Waltz," the applause rose and fell, the house lights went up, the audience filed out, and vaudeville -- at least as we'd known it for much of the century -- was dead in Baltimore.
Can Hicken and company bring back the magicians, soft-shoe dancers, trained dogs and ventriloquists? Probably not, but there must be a place for a new kind of vaudeville, a vaudeville for the 21st century, if you will, that will turn the lights back on and bring the crowds back to the magnificent Hipp.