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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