Why vaudeville for THE TROUPE? The Orbit Team January 9, 2012


I’m going to level you up here: I kind of pulled the premise of my third novel out of my ass.

I remember that moment vividly: It was late 2008, and I was driving down 15th Street here in Austin, talking on the phone with my agent (yes, I was That Guy that day – for a some reason, most of my important editing conversations happened while driving back then). I was about to finish signing my first contract with Orbit, and the topic of an “option” came up – an “option” being a fancy legal term for “first dibs”, in this case being first dibs on my third novel.

So that begs the question: did I have any ideas for a third novel?

I was completely new to publishing at the time (and still am, pretty much), but I knew I didn’t want to let any major editor down, and I really knew I didn’t want to look like an idiot and say, “No, no, I don’t have any ideas for a third novel, I’m completely fresh and you’re all totally drunk and you should never have hitched your wagon to my star.” So, sitting at a green light, I wondered what to say.

But what is strange is that I did I have an idea for a novel running through my head.

I had read an article on vaudeville that day. He had pointed out that vaudeville was one of the first moments of American mass cultural cross-pollination: the rails opened every theater in the country to touring, so people had the first chance to see things they had never seen. before.

And I remember thinking, “How interesting. It would be fun to write about it. Specifically, I thought it would be fun to write a little fairy tale about vaudeville, one about art, creation, and the nature of perception.

And that’s more or less what I said. (Although I probably have to pause to change gears from time to time.)

More than three years later, and here we are, with LA TROUPE which should be released in February. It was quite a journey. But I’m incredibly grateful to have read this article and found myself in the position of choosing vaudeville as a fantasy subject.

Because, quite frankly, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I don’t say such things cavalierly – I really mean it. LA TROUPE makes me prouder than anything I’ve done. And I hope you will know why.

But I’m grateful that I chose vaudeville for a few more reasons. On the one hand, it reduced my workload considerably: vaudeville was one of the most bizarre, surreal and disconcerting periods in American entertainment. It didn’t take a lot of chin tapping and head scratching to make the topic interesting; he needed no hooks, no spins; I didn’t need to find clever and unusual perspectives from which I could explore this commercial-slash-culture-slash art form. If anything, I didn’t know where to start. I kind of stumbled and fell into an abundance of riches.

But I knew it. I grew up in vaudeville, in a way: when I was a kid, on Sunday mornings, we watched Laurel and Hardy, and we watched the Marx Brothers again and again – duck soup and A night at the opera were favourites. I lived off tapes and tapes of old Looney Tunes, which are, if you didn’t know, about as vaudevillian as they come. And of course what 80s kid didn’t watch The puppet show? who, well, is a vaudeville show, of sorts.

Somehow almost everyone over 20and and 21st Century America grew up on vaudeville. Vaudeville shaped our concept of comedy, the very grammatical structure of humor and performance. We wouldn’t have a comedy sketch or stand-up comedy today if vaudeville hadn’t been the means and form of entertainment, its circuits touching from coast to coast. We certainly wouldn’t have the movies – after all, the first cinemas were vaudeville theatres.

(A fun little anecdote – the east coast vaudeville tours were the Keith-Albee tours; the west coast, the Orpheum tours. The two initially fought over tracks and territory, but when movies and radio became the dominant form of entertainment, the former foes merged into Radio-Keith-Orpheum, which later became, of course, RKO Pictures, which would go on to be owned by the likes of David O. Selznick and Howard Hughes. other than Joe Kennedy, family father at JFK, briefly owned a controlling portion of the stock during the conversion to a movie studio.)

Vaudeville is rooted in us. It’s on Youtube. It’s on Saturday Night Live. It’s in Bugs Bunny. It really is the first modern form of American entertainment, and here’s why:

  1. It was transient. There’s a reason a lot of great American novels are road stories: the place is big, and a lot of its heart is just about getting from place to place. But in the middle of the end of the 19and Century, the world became much smaller for the first time: railways connected all parts of the country, from sticks to major cities. Suddenly it has become much more popular and much more lucrative for the entertainment to come to you than for the entertainment to go. And speaking of arrivals…
  2. It was for everyone. At 19and Century, the immigrant and working-class populations in America exploded. The towns were full of poor, hard-working families trying to fend for themselves and get decent jobs in the factories or on the docks. And these people, like everyone else, wanted entertainment. Vaudeville recognized this and produced a form of entertainment they would find funny with anyone else. Which meant…
  3. It was definitely not high art. Let’s face it – we as Americans are suspicious of any form of entertainment that requires a degree or education of some sort to be understood. We’re all about egalitarianism here – we shouldn’t have to improve to understand what you’re doing. Vaudeville understood this feeling. He wasn’t trying to broaden minds or make us think or see the world in a different way – they were just trying to put asses in seats. Which means…
  4. It was mercenary. Money was the one and only god of circuits. You could make a good living in vaudeville if you played your cards right and got along well with the booking offices, who basically ran the tours. Circuits fought for turf and actors fought for bits (because theft was fairly common in vaudeville – one actor found the old man in the front row of his shows had telegraphed the hit jokes to his son in California. The jokes he told that night were told across the country in less than five hours.) Theater owners reported the successful acts to the booking offices, who decided where best use them and where they would fit into the poster. — but that was all decided by the bottom line. But they also had to consider…
  5. The subject of ethnicity. I will shock you now – people weren’t racially sensitive in the 19and and early 20and Century, even here in America, one of the most diverse countries on the planet. We are not Sweden, nor Japan: we have many, many different types of people here. This, of course, causes divisions. And vaudeville, so mercenary and so aware of the working-class nature of its audience, took advantage of this. He pilloried the Jews, the Italians, the Germans, the Blacks, the Irish, you name it, they made fun of one way or another. But at the same time, each of these peoples was entitled to a place on stage, even if sometimes they were allowed to be themselves (like mariachi bands), and sometimes they weren’t at all – there was a Jewish duo who made their fortune playing the jester. German immigrants. And when they were in a place with a prominent German culture, they changed it to whatever ethnicity the crowd was willing to make fun of: Greeks, Chinese, whatever they needed to do. But they never, ever performed as Orthodox Jews. I wonder how much it bothered them, but I think like most vaudevillians, they were there to make money, not to expand their minds. Which is, for better or worse, a very American thing to do. Just check your local box office for confirmation.

The problem with vaudeville, I could tell, was that there would just be too much to write about. There were so many weird acts that I knew I couldn’t use them all. My favorite was Hadji Ali, the famous regurgitator – which was a type of act that actually involved the actor, literally vomiting up unusual objects in an unusual way. (Like I said, anything to put asses in seats…)

But vaudeville wasn’t just surreal fantasy. It was a business, and it was discriminatory, and a lot of its actions were pretty racist, if not the very definition of racism. It didn’t just start and end in minstrel shows (many of which had almost nothing to do with race and became a bizarre culture in their own right) – look at Chico and Harpo Marx.

Chico, of course, is the loud, boisterous, conniving Italian jester; and Harpo, with his huge red wig, workman’s overcoat and tattered trousers, was originally the clownish Irishman, probably originally portrayed as a drunken tramp. Whether or not it’s harmless fun, well… That’s a matter of opinion.

Vaudeville was, in short, human – a human culture seeking to fulfill a human desire. To forget vaudeville, with all its flaws and complications, would be to forget our own history, to forget ourselves.

But LA TROUPE, after all, is not just vaudeville. It’s not even entertainment. It’s more about perception – how people see themselves, others, and the world – and it’s the question of perception that all forms of entertainment are based on.

What do you see of yourself in an act? What do you see of others? What does your entertainment say about you?

And, if you sing the world differently – if your art says the world is something it’s not – does the world change with it? Or, perhaps more interestingly, are you going to change?

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