For a dead art form, there's a lot of life left in vaudeville.
A turn-of-the-century theatrical experience that put the emphasis not so much talent as personality, exuberance and speed, vaudeville may have been the ultimate example of giving the people what they want. Singers, dancers, comedians, sword-swallowers, plate-spinners: Everyone was welcome on the vaudeville stage, as long as they could keep the paying customers happy.
"Vaudeville," an "American Masters" special airing at 8 tonight on PBS, is fleshed out with vintage film clips (many from the silent era), reminiscences from surviving vaudevillians and narration from Ben Vereen. It lovingly paints vaudeville as a distinctly American art form -- though its origins were overseas -- wondrous in its variety and far-reaching in its legacy.
Thriving roughly from 1880 to 1930, vaudeville was democracy put on stage. A hybrid of the English music hall, Yiddish theater vTC and burlesque, it offered audiences 10 or more acts for one admission. Of course, few of those acts pleased everyone, but therein lay vaudeville's genius: If you didn't like one act, you waited 10 minutes and someone else would appear.
Today, vaudeville is remembered chiefly as a breeding ground for some of America's greatest comics. The Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Bob Hope, and Abbott and Costello all honed their comedic skills for years on the vaudeville stage before America came to know them via radio, movies and, later, television.
The talents of such giants are well-known, however, and "Vaudeville" spends little time on them. Instead, it rescues from obscurity dozens of acts you've probably never heard of, with "talents" rarely seen nowadays.
There's A. Robins, the Banana Man, who would conceal an entire living room inside his cloak and silently set it up on the stage; Hadji Ali, the famed regurgitator, who would drink water and gasoline, then start a fire by bringing up the latter and extinguish it by bringing up the former; Chaz Chase, who ate cigarettes, matches, paper and anything else he could put his hands on; Little Tich, who performed acrobatics on stilts that were almost as long as he was tall; and Gus Visser, whose act consisted of singing "Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me" accompanied by a duck that would quack every time the word "Ma" came along.
Of such talents were legends made, and "Vaudeville" does its best to revive a few of them. It also offers a chance for some aging vaudevillians to enjoy a last few minutes in the spotlight. The Nicholas Brothers, June Havoc, Bobby Short, Joey Faye and Carl Ballantine -- all speak glowingly of the experience they gained on the vaudeville stage, frequently as warm-ups to the more established acts.
Vaudeville had its less savory aspects, however, and they're here too -- especially the reliance on ethnic humor, which sounds offensive to modern ears. That's especially true of minstrel shows and blackface performers, once-popular forms of entertainment that are, fortunately, all but extinct.
"Vaudeville" would have benefited from a more considered approach to its subject -- it tends to jump from entertainer to entertainer and topic to topic without much warning -- but that's a small quibble. If nothing else, any television program that devotes a substantial block of time to the largely forgotten Bert Williams, one of the first great African-American entertainers, deserves to be seen.
Maybe our tastes haven't changed that much. After all, what is channel surfing -- flipping from channel to channel in search of something to watch -- if not the vaudeville format adapted to the video age?
What: "American Masters" special
When: 8-10 tonight
Where: PBS (Channels 22, 67)
Pub Date: 11/26/97