For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the theatre, and vaudeville in particular. It’s been so long, in fact, that I can’t remember when it first started. Warner Brothers’ old Bugs Bunny cartoons often featured popular songs of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and I learned snippets of some over the years, most often with the word “carrot” inserted for good measure. The older cartoons sometimes featured actors I would later recognize from their ink and paint counterparts- Edna May Oliver, Hugh Herbert, and Eddie Cantor, for example. A little jazz-singing owl introduced me early to the plot of Al Jolson’s first talking hit film, The Jazz Singer.
But all the credit can’t go to Bugs. As I delved deeper and deeper into the world of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, I discovered that all of the leads had come to movies via the stage. Judy Garland of course first appeared as Frances Gumm, of the singing Gumm Sisters. Ray Bolger and Jack Haley were successful hoofers, as was Buddy Ebsen, the ill-fated first man of tin. Bert Lahr had survived the broad burlesque halls, and would return to the stage after an unsatisfying run in Hollywood. Frank Morgan had been an actor for years, following in his brother’s footsteps. Most intriguingly, Billie Burke, all pink fluff and trembles, had been married to the greatest producer Broadway had ever known, Florenz Ziegfeld, and been his widow for only seven years at the time …Oz was made.
Vaudeville, like most theatrical events, is remembered in shadows. Except for some brief routines, often recorded decades after they’d been introduced, much of what we know is based on scratchy wax records, blurry film, and starry-eyes autobiographies, often ghost-written and almost always obscured by decorum and years. There are books upon books, many written by the performers themselves, others by historians who get most of their material from those same performers’ books. A few ambitious ones go to the newspaper archives, or the theatrical collections, scouring the scrapbooks for some juicy tidbit overlooked, or ignored, by those that came before.
With a very few exceptions (see Mrs. Ziegfeld, by Grant Hayter-Menzies), any books about the Follies written in this century are for the most part compilations of the work of others, or fictional accounts that tend to stray uncomfortably from the truth. Many wander into the territory of exploitation, dramatizing the worst rumors for the sake of storytelling. I wanted to write about the Follies, the year 1919, and all the great characters that made the show offstage as fascinating as what happened at the New Amsterdam. However, I wasn’t comfortable with “filling in the blanks,” on my own, or drawing conclusions on sketchy evidence. I found such so-called ‘histories,’ pretentious, and yet writers were producing such books every day. I haven’t the time to devote to full-time research, so the odds of finding sources that hadn’t yet been used were slim to none.
Poetry seems to me to be the art of words that will work for this project. The brevity inherent will offer readers an impression of the times, without burdening them with a list of facts or dry, awkward paragraphs of pontification. There are stories that are told again and again-- W. C. Fields whacking Ed Wynn with a pool cue, Billie Burke flinging a diamond bracelet into a corner during one of many battles with Flo, with an eye on where it landed to retrieve it later, Bert Williams taking the freight elevator to his room after wowing audiences night after night onstage…. I feel like these anecdotes, told with grace and art and respect might make a collection of poems that would interest more than just us vaudeville buffs. There’s romance, tragedy, humor, music—actually, many of the same elements found in any edition of the Follies. 1919 was the year Actors Equity came into its own, and the year Prohibition went into effect. The Great War was over, and Woodrow Wilson pushed for a League of Nations to prevent another such global conflict. And still they danced.
I have twenty-five pages of poems so far, and perhaps a few more brewing. I’ll post one or two here, and would love some feedback on all of it—interest, form, clarity. It’s a labor of love, and my intentions are good, but I might cross some lines. I know there are other buffs out there that will keep me honest.