The preposterous pose of superiority assumed by many a legit performer while touring vaudeville is best illustrated by the example of London stage actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Born Beatrice Rose Steall Tanner in 1865, she became a major star of the West End and a favorite of playwright George Bernard Shaw. Among numerous important roles, she was the original Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion.
“And what is vaudeville?” she replied.
Albee humored her with a brief description.
“Will there be other people on the program with me?”
He responded in the affirmative.
“Wouldn’t it be awful to meet them?”
As discussions were proceeding, she called her Pekingese “Pinky Panky Pou” on the telephone and said “My little darling, I am making apologies for being late. I am with these horrible men in the vaudeville business.”
$2500 a week changed her tune lickety split. Nevertheless, she found still had enough self-possession not to talk to anyone else on the bill, and to complain constantly about conditions to the management. In 1910, she arrived back in New York with a one-act play, called Expiation, which was full of murder and people screaming. If you’ve been wondering how a plain old dramatic play can exist on a bill with tap dancers and acrobats, remember plays like Expiation. “Mrs. Pat” returned to the States a couple more times with similar demonstrations of her histrionic artistry, before expiring in 1940.
And here’s a little film on her made by someone in the UK, including a fairly hilarious elocution lesson by Mrs. Pat herself:
o learn about the roots of variety entertainment, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss 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