Popular entertainment always has been with us, sometimes as state sponsored spectacle and always as a business, whether “legitimate” theater, traveling medicine shows, river boats, carnivals, or saloon hall performances. Modern mass pop entertainment culture, however, began to take shape in the latter half of the 19th century when communications and transport technology had advanced to the point that individual performers could be known and seen by large numbers of common folk separated by vast distances. Music halls and grandly named “opera houses” popped up in towns large and small along the railroad routes. A San Franciscan and New Yorker meeting for the first time easily could find they were fans of the same stars.
Vaudeville was at the heart of the change. Benjamin Franklin Keith (1846-1914) usually is credited with molding the American version of vaudeville. He built the remarkably sumptuous Bijou Theater in Boston in 1883 and decreed that popular variety acts performed on its stage would be free of "vulgarity and suggestiveness in words, action, and costume." This Victorian stuffiness was a master stroke, as it was again half a century later for Disney. Family friendly entertainment meant a mixed gender and mixed age audience at a time when a burgeoning middle class had money to spend. Other theater and opera house owners copied his strategy and found themselves with packed houses. By the end of the 1880s a national vaudeville circuit was in place. Performing troupes traveled city to city within the US and internationally, gathering fans as they went.
Why did vaudeville go into decline in the 20th century? The simplest answer is “the movies.” That’s not the whole of it, but the largest part. By 1920 movies offered grander spectacles and bigger stars at a cheaper price; the best performers soon deserted vaudeville for Hollywood with its bigger paychecks and vastly bigger audiences. Vaudeville’s response was to attempt to retain a portion of its audience by becoming less family friendly; many of the venues added strippers in the 1920s. (The 1968 flick The Night They Raided Minsky’s about this event is complete fiction, but it is enjoyable and Britt Ekland never looked better.) This helped slow the decline of ticket sales but it changed the format so much that vaudeville was no longer distinguishable from burlesque, so arguably it hastened the demise.
Among the legacies of the era are the halls and opera houses scattered around the country in which the vaudeville acts performed. These buildings often were sizable and fairly elaborate even in relatively small towns. Many still exist and have found new life refurbished as concert halls. Built in 1882, the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, (Mauch Chunk was the name of the town before 1953) is a typical example. A century ago it hosted famed acts and performers of the day including Al Jolsen, Mae West, and John Philip Sousa. In 1927 it became a movie house. The Mauch Chunk Historical Society acquired the property in the 1970s and began a restoration. Today the site hosts a range of rock, jazz, and folk artists.
I was at the Mauch Chunk Opera House last Friday with a friend (Hi, Ken) to see the Canadian contemporary folk duo Dala (Amanda Walther and Sheila Carabine) whose performance we had caught a few years ago in Morristown, NJ. They play and sing mostly their own material, but mix in a few covers, Arlo Guthrie’s Coming into Los Angeles for one. “They are charming, clever, and talented.” I’m quoting myself from 2011. If you get a chance, give them a try.
In an era when so much of our entertainment is in our own dens on our own electronic entertainment equipment, live music is still a rewarding alternative, and it seldom sounds better than within old vaudevillean walls.
Dala – Not Alone