WWI and Vaudeville (an Armistice Day post)

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We who have not felt the sting of a proper World War in 64 years cannot appreciate the deuced inconvenience such a development can be, especially where important matters like show business are concerned. Prior to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, successful British and American entertainers spent a good deal of their time on boats. Performers like Houdini, Will Rogers and W.C. Fields literally had steamer trunks with customs stamps from the great world capitals plastered on them. When the shooting started, all that dried up. Americans were deprived of their favorite British Music Hall stars for the most part; though some brave Americans continue to travel to the embattled countries. Some, like the indefatigable Elsie Janis traveled right into the war zones to entertain the troops.

Patriotism in the era amounted to a mania. Prior to America’s entry into the conflict, thespians likeAlla Nazimova could present pacifist playlets in the vaud houses. Once we entered the war, such messages were out; George M. Cohan’s “Over There” was more in keeping with the times. As will happen in wartime, even the most heterogenous cultural institution of all — vaudeville — spoke with a single voice on this issue. Shortly after America joined the war, George M. Cohan called a special meeting of vaudevillians to see who would join the war effort. Every hand shot up.Vaudeville vets like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks did their part by crisscrossing the nation selling millions in war bonds. And some were to pay the ultimate price. Vernon Castle, one-half of the nation’s premier dance team enlisted in the RAF (he was Canadian) and died in a crash.

The official Armistice, 88 years ago today, was to result in the usual post-war boom. This one brought a flood of entrepreneurial capital that was to result in investments in new entertainment media like network radio and talking pictures…and thus the end of vaudeville.

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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14 Responses to “WWI and Vaudeville (an Armistice Day post)”

  1. […] did his bit in World War I, enlisting in the army, where he wrote and produced the show Yip! Yip! Yaphank! which contained the […]

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  2. […] First World War had many great repercussions for the act. First, the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania brought […]

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  3. […] a brief apprenticeship with Arbuckle and a short stint in the army in World War I, Keaton went on to make 19 perfect shorts (1920-23) and 10 perfect features (1923-28) for his own […]

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  4. […] but wasn’t too successful. He became friends with a young performer named Jack Pearlman. When World War I broke out the two friends changed their names to less ethnic sounding alternatives, Lahrheim’s to […]

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  5. […] 1,030 German-American women and children were killed, took the heart out of the community. And then World War I and its jingoism prompted German-Americans to assimilate rather than suffer the bigotry of their […]

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  6. […] enlisted in World War I, serving as a drum major with the Europe outfit in France, where he wrote several patriotic tunes. […]

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  7. […] in 1914 to play Charlot’s Revue while on his honeymoon. The trip was cut short by the outbreak of World War I, however. Back in New York, he teamed up with Al Lee, Ed Wynn’s former straight-man in an act […]

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  8. […] full act of all eight family members only lasted five years. Bryan left to serve in World War I. After being discharged he stayed out of the act, helping to co-write Gallagher and Shean’s theme […]

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  9. […] Elsie spent World War I patriotically entertaining the troops, sometimes quite close to the front. “The war was my high […]

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  10. […] formed a single, before hooking up with Estelle Collete, whom he married in 1917. After serving in World War I, he developed the act that merits his inclusion in this section. In his own […]

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  11. […] take: positions with the Denver Symphony and San Francisco People’s Symphony; Navy bandmaster in World War I. In 1919 he formed his own orchestra specializing in a style he called “symphonic jazz” – […]

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  12. […] to work the Keith circuit, including 10 weeks at Keith’s Union Square—not too shabby. During World War I he was mislabled a German and that was it for his career. He died shortly after the war in […]

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  13. […] performing with a dog named Whiskey. Born in 1888 in Switzerland, he came to the States during the First World War . He achieved the highest fame possible in his line during that era. 1918 was the peak for him in […]

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  14. […] but it was really malignant cancer. She was receiving radium treatments when the outbreak of World War I caused her to flee the country. Meanwhile, the press had accidentally reported that she had died. […]

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