The Palace was a show business Mecca. All the top acts would play there: Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, the Marx Brothers, Nora Bayes, Smith and Dale, Frank Fay, Jack Benny…the list goes on and on. The Palace was a cherished showcase gig because the audience was full of bookers, scouts, agents, and fellow performers. Comedian Ed Lowry said opening day at the Palace was as exciting as the Kentucky Derby. The sidewalk out front, called the Palace “beach” was a popular hangout for industry professionals looking to network. For a vaudevillian, to have “played the Palace” was to have died and gone to heaven. Which is why that expression lives on in popular idiom, long after anyone even remembers what it used to mean.
Only a vaudevillian who has trod its stage can really tell you about it. Audiences can tell you about who they saw there and how they enjoyed them, but only a performer can describe the anxieties, the joys, the anticipation, and the exultation of a week’s engagement at the Palace. The walk through the iron gate on 47th Street through the courtyard to the stage door, was the cum laude walk to a show business diploma. A feeling of ecstasy came with the knowledge that this was the Palace, the epitome of the more than 15,000 vaudeville theatres in America, and the realization that you have been selected to play it. Of all the thousands upon thousands of vaudeville performers in the business, you are there. This was a dream fulfilled; this was the pinnacle of variety success.
The Palace became the focal point of a new twentieth-century aesthetic of snazz, of pizazz, of (as Variety abbreviated it) “show biz”. It reigned supreme until vaudeville was no more. Most folks measure the death of vaudeville from the time the Palace played it’s last to-a-day in 1932. After that, various combinations of film and variety bills were tried for a number of years. In the 1950s, there were successful vaudeville revivals there headlined by the likes of Judy Garland. And since the 1960s, it has been a legit Broadway house, buried inside a hotel, but as glorious and glamorous inside as ever. (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is currently playing there).
We are two years out from the Palace’s centennial, and I give you advance notice that I am planning big things in order to mark the occasion. Stay tuned!
To learn more about vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.