Archive for October, 2009

Ethel Waters: Baltimore, Broadway, and Billy Graham

Posted in African American Interest, Hollywood (History), Radio (Old Time Radio), Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 31, 2009 by travsd

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From poverty and marriage at age 13, Ethel Waters was to go on to earn one of the highest salaries in vaudeville ($3000-4000 a week), becoming a huge star of stage and screen.

Waters got her feet wet on the TOBA circuit, debuting at Baltimore’s Lincoln Theatre at age 17. By the mid-twenties, she was a star of black vaudeville, and other opportunities started to open up. In 1925 she had a double breakthrough, inking a contract to record for Columbia Records, and securing a booking to succeed Florence Mills at the Plantation Club. In 1927 she starred in the Broadway show Africana at the Daly Theatre. In that year, too, she crossed over into mainstream vaudeville, debuting at the New York Palace. By the following year, she was headlining at the Chicago Palace. In 1930, she starred in Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds with Mantan Moreland and Buck and Bubbles. In 1933 she introduced the song Lena Horne was later to become famous for “Stormy Weather”, at the Cotton Club. That year she also made the short Rufus Jones for President featuring a pint-sized Sammy Davis, Jr. A star of radio and live performance throughout the 30s and 40s, she also principal roles in the films Cabin in the Sky (1943) and Pinky (1949) . She was in both stage and screen versions of Carson McCuller’s Member of the Wedding (1950 and 1952, respectively). For the last two decades or so of her life, she would only sing spirituals, and criss-crossed the country with evangelist Billy Graham, paving her way for her inevitable passage to Glory in 1977.

Here she is performing “Am I Blue” from the 1929 picture On With the Show:

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Fanny Brice: Funny Woman

Posted in Broadway, Comediennes, Jews/ Show Biz, Radio (Old Time Radio), Singing Comediennes, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2009 by travsd

 

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Best known today via Barbara Streisand’s portrayal of her in the musical films Funny Girl and Funny Lady, Brice was actually rather unlike Streisand in appearance. Tall and gangly like Olive Oyl, with two bright crescent-shaped eyes on either side of her parrot-like nose, Brice was always using this mug for low comedy effect, crossing her eyes, and so forth. She usually spoke with a Yiddish accent for laughs, although she didn’t actually speak that way herself. Brice made her fame parodying the sort of women she wasn’t (cinematic vamps and high-class society dames with English accents), thereby allowing the audience to laugh at them and her at the same time. She also became very well known for singing sentimental character songs crafted around the names “Sadie” and “Rose”.

The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Born Fanny Borach in 1891, her parents ran a saloon in Newark where Fanny sang and danced as a child. Her father was a drunk from Alsace. Her mother, who wore the pants in the family, was from Hungary. The mother ran the saloon, but the father drank the profits. So they moved to Brooklyn, where the mother sold real estate, which you couldn’t drink, at least.

At age 14, Fanny won an amateur contest at a Brooklyn theatre when she sang “When You Know You’re Not Forgotten by the Girl You Can’t Forget.” She took the name “Brice” from a  neighbor. She got a job early in the chorus of a Cohan musical starring Victor Moore The Talk of New York (1907) but was fired for joking around during rehearsal.

Hired by the Columbia Burlesque Wheel, she commissioned two songs from the then unknown Irving Berlin. One of them was “Sadie Salome, Go Home”. She was a hit in The College Girls in 1910. She performed in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1910 and 1911. Like Jimmy Durante, she was one of the few to make it big in show business PRIOR to working in vaudeville. When she worked in vaudeville it was strictly prestige dates such as Hammerstein’s Victoria and the Palace. A number of Shubert musicals followed, such as The Whirl of Society (1912) and The Honeymoon Express. In the years 1916-23, she returned to the Follies. In the late 20s, it was back to vaudeville.

Her one shot at a real starring role in a talkie, the 1927 vehicle My Man (based on her theme song) was not a real hit. As Joe Smith of Smith & Dale said, “She was a very funny girl, but a good actress for only about fifteen minutes.” The truth was, she couldn’t act—she mugged too hard, and played her roles from too great a distance. You can see it in the 1936 film The Great Ziegfeld: in her big dramatic scene, in which she plays herself, she is definitely weeping tears of glycerine.

Brice divorced her husband, jailed gangster Nick Arnstein in 1927 and married impresario Billy Rose in 1929. A number of Rose vehicles followed, such as Sweet and Low (1930), and Billy Rose’s Crazy Quilt (1931), with Phil Baker and Ted Healy. She did a Ziegfeld Follies in 1934, where she introduced her popular character Baby Snooks. In 1936 she separated from Billy Rose. Illness (spinal neuritis) and divorce caused her early retirement from the stage. She moved out to L.A. where she starred as Baby Snooks on radio, and took bit parts in movies for the remainder of her career. Brice died in 1951 of a cerebral hemorrhage.

The 1939 film Rose of Washington Square is supposedly based on Brice’s relationship with Arnstein. Unfortunately, it stars Alice Faye and Tyrone Power, which is sort of like casting mayonnaise and white bread in a story about mustard and pumpernickel. Lacking any hint of humor or spice, the film also makes the traditional Hollywood mistake of featuring 1939 music and fashions in a story set twenty years earlier. Funny Girl (1968) gets it better, but somehow seems to be more about its star Barbara Streisand than about Brice. The film focuses on Brice’s problematic relationship with Arnstein (Omar Sharif), who comes off in the movie – unaccountably – as a saint. the 1975 sequel Funny Lady is about Brice’s rocky marriage to Rose. Brice herself managed to make a cameo from beyond the grave in the 1983 Woody Allen film Zelig, thanks to Modern Movie Magic.

To find out more about history of vaudeville and major vaudevillians like Fanny Brice, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

Walter C. Kelly: The Virginia Judge

Posted in African American Interest, Irish, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2009 by travsd

WALTER C. KELLY, “The Virginia Judge”

bcdd6379b8762e02Grace Kelly’s uncle Walter was one of the few unalloyed racists in big time vaudeville. While many, such as Al Jolson or Sophie Tucker may have put on blackface, the racism of their acts were a complex mixture of love, scorn, homage, condescension, admiration and disrespect. No such hash complicated Kelly’s feelings. His act consisted of his interpretation of life in a courtroom he had witnessed as an aspiring ward politician in Newport News, Virginia. The characters were chiefly the no-nonsense Southern judge who presided there…and the parade of tremulous, “no-account” blacks who faced his summary justice. Much humor was accomplished by the unsentimental swiftness and the wit with which he brought sentence – a form of humor not foreign to fans of Judges Wapner, Judy and the many others that have graced television screens since the 1980s.

JUDGE: First case on the docket—Sadie Anderson.

PRISONER: Yes, sir, that’s me.

JUDGE: Thirty days in Jail. That’s me.

** * * *

JUDGE: Jim, this is the third time you have been here for cutting people. Tell me, how old are you?

JIM: I’se jest twenty-fo’, Jedge.

JUDGE: Well, Jim, you will be just twenty-five when you get out.”

*****

JUDGE: Rufus Johnson, you are charged with larceny of two chickens from the premises of Howard Brooks on Brierfield Road. What have you to say about it?

RUFUS: Well, Jedge, I never was near Mr. Brook’s house and the Lord may strike me down dead if I stole those chickens.

JUDGE: Well, Rufus, you stand aside for ten minutes, and if the Lord don’t strike you, I will give you thirty days.

*****

It’s all very amusing until you remember that the Lord struck plenty of black people dead for stealing chickens and equally minor – often nonexistent – crimes. Lynching was a palpable reality at the time of these comedy routines, and at the time the Virginia Judge was making audiences fall down in the aisles, black people in the South weren’t laughing. If your only exposure to the racial politics of American justice is a movie like Sounder, you still already know that a black man on trial for petty larceny in the South was no joke.

Nevertheless, people loved Kelly. He started out in an amateur capacity, making his fellow Democrats laugh at a smoker at Big Tim Sullivan’s club in 1900. Vaudeville engagements resulted and within a few weeks, he climbed up the ladder from Tony Pastor’s to Keith’s Union Square, and then a tour of the Keith and Proctors wheels. By 1904, he was a headliner at Percy Williams’ Alhambra. He continued to do the Virginia Judge bit until the demise of vaudeville. For the last stretch, he worked as much as he wanted to and earned one of vaudeville’s highest salaries. But the fact that he refused to perform on a bill with the legendary Bert Williams in 1909 will tell you the color of his money.

When vaudeville expired, Kelly was big enough a star to jump to Broadway shows and Hollywood films, including a 1935 adaptation of his Virginia Judge material. In 1938, the Lord struck Walter C. Kelly dead in the form of an errant – or perhaps deadly accurate – motorist.  Le’s jes’ say he got runned over  by a karma.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Harrigan and Hart: The Early Years

Posted in Bowery, Barbary Coast, Old New York, Saloons, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Irish, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 26, 2009 by travsd

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Today is Ned Harrigan’s birthday. Harrigan was one of George M. Cohan’s favorite performers, and the inspiration for the eponymous song.

From my book No Applause:

The two biggest Irish comedians to come out of the variety scene, becoming the most popular stars of the American theatre of the 70s and 80s, was the team of Edward “Ned” Harrigan and Tony Hart. A New York native, Harrigan made his debut in San Francisco in 1867, singing (to his own banjo accompaniment) at some of the principal stages of the Barbary Coast: Butler’s Melodeon, the Belle Union, the Olympic, Gilbert’s Melodeon and the Pacific Variety Hall. Clog dancing was also one of his specialties. From singing and dancing, he worked his way up to comedy sketches, playing an impressive range of character roles: blackface parts**, a Swedish servant girl, Chinese laundrymen, Irish landlords, and so-called Dutch (or German) characters.

His first partner, Alex O’Brien, was such a drunk that Harrigan was forced to bring him to the “House for Inebriates” on a wagon. His next partner Sam Rickey worked with him clear across the continent, arriving in New York in 1871. Advertised as “the noted California comedians” they did their Dutch sketch “The Little Frauds” at the Globe Theatre on the Bowery. Unfortunately, Ricky was an even bigger drunk than O’Brien was, and wound up in the gutter himself.

When Harrigan was 26 he hooked up with Hart, only 16 years old and then calling himself “Master Antonio”. Born Anthony Cannon, in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1855, he was placed in reform school at age 9 for announcing that he wanted to go into the theatre. He escaped and ran away to New York, singing, dancing and doing odd jobs at circuses, saloons and minstrel shows. By the time he and Harrigan joined their fortunes, Cannon had become famous for one particular number, a tear-jerker called “Put Me in My Little Bed”, which he sang dressed as a young girl. Audiences were crazy about Hart. Nat C. Goodwin said: “Hart caused more joy and sunshine by his delightful gifts than any artist of his time. To refer to him as talented was an insult. Genius was the only word that could be applied. He sung like a nightingale, danced like a fairy, and acted like a master comedian.”

Harrigan hired Cannon to replace Ricky as “Fraulein” in his sketch. That was when Cannon changed his name to Hart, deciding that sounded better with “Harrigan”.

A regular gig at New York’s Theatre Comique allowed the team to demonstrate their many talents. The variety show was 3 ½ hours long, followed by an afterpiece of 40 minutes. Harrigan and Hart might do several different turns in this course of such a show: blackface routines, brief sketches interspersed with dancing, juggling and singing. By 1876, when they assumed joint ownership of the Theatre Comique, the afterpieces became so popular that they became the focal point of the entire performance, and variety was dropped…

FOR WHAT HAPPENS NEXT GO HERE.

(c) 2004 Trav S.D.

To find out more about the history of vaudevilleincluding Harrigan and Hart, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad. 

The Dolly Sisters: Alike as Two Peas

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Broadway, Burlesk, Dance, Singers, Sister Acts, Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 25, 2009 by travsd

 

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Two, two, two Dollies in one! The Duncan Sisters were more talented, the Hilton Sisters were more freakish, but no sister act was more beautiful, or more beautifully outfitted, than this pair of Hungarian identical twins.

Born Yansci and Rozicke Deutsch in Budapest in 1892, the girls moved to Brooklyn at age 5, where they quickly became “Jennie” and “Rosie”. Their mother enrolled them in ballet school; this was to be the full extent of their formal training. A completely unreliable Hollywood movie has them doing Hungarian folk dances in a social club in 1904 to cover their uncle’s gambling debts. The verifiable record has them debuting professionally at Keith’s Union Square in 1909. Legend has it that they chose the name Dolly because a friend said they were as cute as little dolls.

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In 1911, Ziegfeld booked them for the Follies, and in so doing created the personae and mystique that was to be the basis of all their future stage (and offstage) success. For their Siamese twin dance routine, Ziegfeld draped them in fabulous costumes of the sort that were to be their mainstay throughout the rest of their careers, accentuating the latent exoticism of their almond-shaped eyes, black hair, and small, svelte bodies, with Asiatic finery, jewels, head-dresses and finger-cymbals. They seemed to be from the Far East, and back then, Hungary was pretty far east. To this reviewer, the whole concept bears an unfortunate resemblance to the miniature twin goddesses in the 1961 Japanese horror film Mothra. “Return the egg! Please, return the egg!”

Throughout their careers, they were as famous for who they were dating, who they were marrying, and how much money they had, as for any stage “accomplishment”. They went around with the likes of Diamond Jim Brady and the Prince of Wales. When they were marrying, they tended to do it tandem, perhaps each independently following the rhythmic imperatives of their identical DNA. In 1913, Rosie married Jean Schwartz, author of the Jolson hit “Rock-a-bye Your Baby (With a Dixie Melody)”. The next year, Jenny married Harry Fox, inventor of the Fox Trot.

Jenny and Fox made a sort of team for awhile, appearing at the Palace and Hammerstein’s Victoria together and in revues like the 1915 Stop! Look! Listen! Jenny and Dolly starred in separate films in 1915, Rosie in D.W. Griffith’s The Lily and the Rose, and Jenny in The Call of the Dance. In 1916, they were back as a permanent team again, starting a relationship with the Palace that was to last many years, and co-starring in the Far East espionage thriller The Million Dollar Dollies.

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The Dollys not only had twin marriages, they had twin divorces. Jenny divorced Fox in 1920; Rosie and Jean Schwartz split up in 1921. In the 20s, Paris became their home base, becoming the toast of the town with engagements at the Folies Bergere and the Casino de Paris. Their last American engagement was the Greenwich Village Follies of 1924.

Like Josephine Baker and Peggy Hopkins Joyce, the Dolly Sisters became closely identified with the spirit of the 20s, the opulence, the decadence, the frippery and the frivolousness. They mattered not for how they sang or danced, but how they looked while doing it. Nor did they have any desire to be artists. It was clear that, to them, the stage was just a means to an end. Once they were well fixed (by the late 20s), they retired, and spent all their time dating royalty and gambling in Monte Carlo.

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Rosie and Nechter

In 1927 Rosie married tobacco heir Mortimer Davis, whom she traded in for department store heir Irving Netcher in 1931. In 1933, Jenny was involved in a major auto accident with her fiance, the French aviator Max Constant. She endured 15 separate operations to restore her once matchless face, selling off her jewelery in the process. In the end, it was futile; her looks were forever gone. It is said that she regretted having survived without her beauty. In 1941, she proved it by hanging herself.

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In 1945, George Jessel made the lives of the Dollies into a preposterous bio-pic starring June Payne and Betty Grable. The film was a huge hit in its day – but it has nothing to do with the Dolly Sisters. In 1962, the seventy year old Rosie unsuccessfully attempted suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills. She was to live on in ignominious old age for another eight years.

Here is a clip from that Jessel film:

To find out more about vaudeville past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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To learn about silent and slapstick comedy please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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SARAH BERNHARDT: The Divine Sarah

Posted in Frenchy, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Silent Film, Stars of Vaudeville, The Hall of Hams, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2009 by travsd

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THE DIVINE SARAH

Her birthday is today. Bernhardt was the greatest star of the 19th century. If she didn’t already exist, it would have been necessary to invent her. So great was her fame (and, apparently, her talent) that thousands of English-speakers in Britain and America paid to see her performances despite the fact that they were all in French.

She was born in 1844, the illegitimate daughter of Judith Van Hard, a Jewish Dutch woman. The father took a powder, but he was evidently a man of means, for he set her up with a sizable trust fund before disappearing. Judith was a “kept woman”, not so rare an occupation during the Second Empire. She changed her name to Bernard first, the “h” and “t” were added later.

One day (according to legend), Sara, a highly sensitive girl, announced her intention to become a nun. Her mother and her group of posh friends (including Dumas pere) laughed in her face. (What nice people!) In response, Sara threw one of her tearful tantrums, and, based on the performance, it was jokingly suggested by one of the party that she should go on the stage. This being a group of idle people with nothing better to do, they followed up on the project. The gang brought her to the Comedie Francais to see her first play. She was so moved by the experience she was reduced to a sobbing wreck.

The die was cast. Sarah was to enroll at the National Conservatory of Music and Declamation. Her early career was bumpy. Upon graduating, she was hired by the Comedie Francais and acted there a short time, until she made the mistake of slapping one of the leading ladies during an argument. She then moved to the Gymnase and then to the Odeon. Her first breakthrough was as Cordelia in King Lear. In 1868, she played the female lead in a play called Kean and from there on in, she was aa star of unbelievable magnitude. The Comedie Francais eventually took her back. She played all the great roles of the age: PhaedraThe Lady of the CamelliasAndromache. The fame surrounding her genius was abetted by whispers about her scandalous love life.

In 1879, she made her first trip to London, where she was a smash success. The following year she came to America, where the same was the case. She toured the whole continent on her own special train, the Sarah Bernhardt Special. She got a taste of America’s love of variety, when her frontier “Camille” was supplemented by can-can dancers and a xylophone player. Here’s what Ed Howe of the Atchison Globe said of her in 1881:

At exactly 8:31 last night, Sarah Bernhardt made her appearance on the stage of Toodle’s Opera House [St. Joseph, Missouri], walking down the center as though she had but one joint in her body, and no knees…with reference to Camille in French, it is about as interesting to an American as five acts of a Chinese drama running three months.

Hey, I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.

Bernardt with booker Martin Beck. The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Bernardt with booker Martin Beck. The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

In the teens, Bernhardt toured the Keith circuit twice, receiving sky-high sums for her troubles. In later years, she continued to play roles much younger than she (as was the custom), and with an amputated leg. She also starred in many filmed versions of her plays, spreading her fame and her genius even further. This legendary person finally conceded mortality in 1923.

Here is a clip from her 1912 film Queen Elizabeth. She was 68 years old at the time:

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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The Gravity Defying Nicholas Brothers

Posted in African American Interest, Dance, Hollywood (History), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2009 by travsd

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Brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas (born 1914 and 21 respectively) literally grew up in a vaudeville house. Their parents ran the house orchestra Nicolas’ Collegians at the Standard Theatre, Philadelphia. Fayard recounts watching the shows every day after school. There he saw the likes of Bill RobinsonBuck and Bubbles and Reed and Bryant, whom Fayard called his “first great influence”. Fayard taught himself to dance by watching these great performers and he then transmitted the knowledge to his brother and their sister Dorothy. The Nicholas trademark – the split – was lifted from a dancer named Jack Wiggins. The three made their debut at the Standard in 1930 as “The Nicholas Kids.” Dorothy, who didn’t like the late hours, soon dropped out, but the Nicholas Brothers kept at it and became something of an overnight legend. If you will note the birth dates at the top of this entry you will observe that Fayard and Harold were all of 16 and 9 when they made their debut, but they were already stopping the show wherever they went. Self-taught though they were, the children were clearly prodigies. Leaping head-high into the air, landing in a full split, and then coming up out of the split as though yanked by a giant unseen hand – and all in less time than it takes to type this – such was the stuff of the Nicholas Brothers.

Their reputation proceeded them all the way to New York, where they secured a long-term engagement at the Cotton Club in 1932. Vaudeville by now was winking out. A good many of the vaudeville theatres by this time were presentation houses, but the Nicholas Brothers worked these venues as long as there were engagements to be had. Prestige dates followed through the thirties: Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds in London (1936), The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, and the Broadway show Babes in Arms (1937) where their choreographer was Ballanchine.

They both longed for movie stardom, and indeed, did work in many Hollywood films in the thirties and forties – but it was almost always a dance turn. They rarely got a chance to prove that they could act, or that they could carry a picture as the stars they were. Eventually, the team split, with Harold working in Europe and Fayard in the U.S. In 1991, they were given an award by the Kennedy Center.

The gentlemen were very present in the PBS American Experience Vaudeville documentary. Harold Nicholas (who died in 2000) in particular comes across as a justifiably bitter man. His brother Fayard passed away in 2006.

 

To find out more about the Nicholas Brothers and vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever excellent books are sold.

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