In 1926, live vaudeville was slammed with a new type of competition in the form of variety on the silver screen. Warner Brothers came out with Vitaphone that year, a means of syncing up sound recording with films. Experimental talking shorts (almost all starring top vaudevillians) followed. These little films were almost precisely analogous to a vaudeville act in length and format. Very often done in one single long shot with no edits (much like the earliest silent films), the film would simply depict the performer doing their act, as though it were for a live audience.
This innovation was a double edged sword. On the one hand, it was deadly competition for live vaudeville. Edward Albee declared Vitaphone to be on the “opposition list”, i.e. off limits to big time vaudeville acts, just as he had done earlier with radio. But the acts chose Vitaphone (or its competitor Fox Movietone) just the same.
On the other hand, films did vaudeville a service even as they were killing it: by preserving it. In addition to the original flood of Vitaphone shorts in the late 20s and early 30s, Warner Brothers did a series called Vitaphone Vaudeville from 1934-36 that captured small bills of 4-5 acts for distribution to cinemas. Between these two series and Fox Movietones, the studios (probably without meaning to) made it possible for us to sit down today and look at a record of many of the major and some of the minor acts of late vaudeville.
Since, 1991 The Vitaphone Project has made a Herculean effort to find and restore these old Vitaphones. Many of their efforts are now available as Warner Brothers re-releases on DVD, can be seen on Youtube (or on this blog), or in regular screenings curated by the Vitaphone Project’s Ron Hutchison at the Film Forum. For more on the Vitaphone Project go here.
And now some more exciting news. This week, the American Vaudeville Theatre and Travalanche, in collaboration with Vaudevisuals.com will be launching Vaudephone, our latter-day tribute to the original Vitaphone and MovieTone vaudeville series, revitalized for the Vimeo Age. Every week, look for a new Vaudephone segment starring a contemporary variety star. We launch tomorrow with our first guest, the terrific Poor Baby Bree. Please check it out!
To find out more about the history of 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.