The seminal aesthetic event of my life was a television viewing of The Wizard of Oz when I was five or six years old that left me inarticulate, inconsolable, bawling. I’ve never been able to put my finger on just why the film had this effect on me. We didn’t even have a color tv. But I found it devastatingly moving and I’ve been seeking that feeling ever since. Certain experiences have come close. Silent films and early talkies usually succeed. Sometimes the winning quality seems to be the pictorial artifice that dominated the era’s sensibilities. Just as often though the transcendent moment seems to emerge from the very opposite – the truth of the document. For example, cylinder recordings of the voices of P.T. Barnum, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, usually less than a minute long, have shaken me to the core. I had an experience like this over the weekend in seeing Eva Tanguay’s 1917 film The Wild Girl at Cornell’s Cinema department.
The bulk of the rarely screened film (concerning a gypsy girl who’s secretly an heiress) was beautiful, but that’s not what won me over. The remarkable part was a brief prologue where we see Tanguay as Tanguay, sporting a number of her famous outfits, like the “flags of the world” dress, and the “tree branch outfit” represented in my book No Applause (the subtitle of which, The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, is copped from Tanguay’s own tagline). While Tanguay’s career stretched into the 1920s, her heyday was the aughts and teens. I hadn’t been aware that there was any footage available of the great Tanguay demonstrating her vaudeville act. As with those audio recordings of great 19th century figures, it was an impossible surprise, a real-life impression of something you thought you’d always have to imagine. Such impressions, once made, never leave you. It was an incredible experience.
The screening of The Wild Girl was actually the second part of a two-part Tanguay program put on by Cornell. The first part was a “progress report” on a theatrical work-in-progress about Tanguay being devised by local musician Mary Brett Lorson, backed up by her band the Soubrettes. It was a novel presentation, much like throwing noodles and every other soup ingredient up against a wall to see what will stick. Commencing with the 1922 recording of Tanguay’s signature song “I Don’t Care”, the piece went on to include several original pieces of music by Lorson, documentary readings of writings by and about Tanguay (including an amazing encomium by no less than Aleister Crowley), interpretive dances by Ashley Kirsner, projected still photos of Tanguay, and clips from The Wild Girl. My reaction to all this is one Lorson would perhaps never expect. Never having heard her music before, I found it far and away the strongest element in the piece: heartfelt, inventive, tuneful, and above all achingly melancholy. One piece seems to work a variation on Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” but filtered through an avant-garde sensibility that reminds me a little of Phillip Glass. I am so enthusiastic about Lorson’s music, that I am going to buy whatever CDs she has available, including a CD of these pieces as soon as she produces it.
However: I am less certain that there is a theatre piece here. Unless she is planning some arid deconstructionist collage full of smashed together “found bits”, I think the documentary readings belong in a documentary. The dances, I’m sorry to say, don’t belong anywhere in particular. And, as Lorson herself admitted in the post-show Q & A, her musical compositions actually pre-date her idea of attaching them to Tanguay (whom her great-grandmother had designed some of those amazing costumes for). Tanguay was a compelling character. I’m not so sure her life makes an compelling play. Whereas I can think of at least three really great stories to tell about Sophie Tucker, I can’t really think of a single one from the life of Tanguay so gripping that it justifies a theatre piece. My feeling is, just make a concept album out of this material. The strongest element in Lorson’s presentation was Lorson and her music. No need to hitch it to Tanguay.
Another notable takeaway from the event though is the exciting news that a biography on Tanguay by writer Andrew Erdman is forthcoming. I and colleagues had often talked about this glaring void in the show biz bio canon. Good or bad, this book will fill a niche, and will be welcomed with open arms by the small fraternity who care about the now-obscure star. Erdman was present at the program, taking part in the readings, and humorously fielding questions during the Q & A.
There was a galling aspect to the remarks during the closing session, however. Lorson made the remark that she’d “read a couple of books on vaudeville and they only made a couple of mentions of Tanguay.” I happen to know of a vaudeville book that not only spends several pages on Tanguay, but is partially named after her tagline. It is a book that is in most libraries and bookstores in the country, received three raves in the New York Times, as well as the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Variety, Entertainment Weekly and about 60 other publications, as well as having been covered on two NPR shows, WNYC, WOR, etc. Unless she did her research in the caves of Tora Bora, I don’t know how the book can have escaped her attention.
Furthermore this wonderful book, published in 2005, calls Eva Tanguay “the first rock-and-roller” and compares her to Janis Joplin and Tina Turner (page 132). A recent Slate article by Jody Rosen uses this idea as its thesis. Whether he got the brilliant idea himself, or he got it out of a certain book will no doubt remain an infuriating mystery. But it does gall to sit there and have some other writer praised for an idea you not only had, but PUBLISHED four years earlier. I accuse no one of anything. Ideas do bubble up through the zeitgeist. It is however a matter of record that the flag was already planted at the Pole in 2005. And one does become suspicious when one Googles “Eva Tanguay” and sees my squib on her on this blog as entry #5 (just below Rosen’s far more recent Slate piece). Lorson never Googled “Eva Tanguay”?
Does this all sound self-serving, that I’m trying to make it all about me? Quite so. And you know who would have approved? Her initials are “E.T.”
To learn more about the roots of variety entertainment, for the LOVE OF GOD consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever the very best books are sold.