George Ade and Vaudeville


Today is the birthday of the great American humorist, journalist, novelist and playwright George Ade (1866-1944). Ade is sadly neglected today. I only discovered him because an old 30 pound dictionary I used to work out of as a teenager and young man had a list of Great Books at the back. I’ve kept that list, and still use it as a guide in my reading to this day. It accounts for my peculiar frame of reference.  I remain kind of pokey in my consumption of works created after the mid 20th century. Oh, I’ve read plenty of books written since then. But it must be said that my reading of modern works is selective; I don’t “keep on top of things”. At any rate, “Ade” is on the list between Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine and Sir James Barrie’s The Admirable Chrichton, and that is how I got to know him. I sought out and read several of his books when I was in my early 20s. His name beginning with “A”, and all.

Ade is best known for his Fables in Slang (1899), a hilarious book of satirical “moral tales” that skewer contemporary types at the turn of the century in Ade’s native midwest. (He was from Indiana) He seems a precursor to Sinclair Lewis, whom we wrote about a few days ago, in this regard. Ade has a funny way of turning phrases, and loves to achieve an ironic effect through the use of capitalization. His portraits are an entertaining window onto life a century or so ago. It’s a world some of us know best from its portrayal in movies like Life with Father or Meet Me in St. Louis, populated by traveling salesmen in straw boaters, moony-eyed high schoolers in soda shops, women who couldn’t vote, young men improving themselves with correspondence courses etc etc, and everywhere the symptoms of change, good and bad. Modern times were invading the world of the horse and buggy, and the humorous clash of it all is recorded here.

Like many scribes of his day, Ade wrote sketches and playlets that were produced in big time vaudeville. In fact, a sketch of his, called “Speaking to Father”, starring Milton Pollack was on the very first bill at the Palace in 1913. His first one-act for vaudeville “Mrs. Peckham’s Carouse” was written for and starred May Irwin; she began touring with it in 1906. Other Ade vaud skits included “Marse Covington”, and “The Mayor and the Manicure”. Some critics panned them; others called them “masterpieces.” Ade himself referred to his weakness for vaudeville, his “life of shame”.

One of the stories from Fables in Slang is below. My reason for choosing it ought be obvious for regular readers of this blog: it touches on the vaudeville life. 


Once Upon a Time there was a Specialty Team doing Seventeen Minutes. The Props used in the Act included a Hatchet, a Brick, a Seltzer Bottle, two inflated Bladders and a Slap-Stick. The Name of the Team was Zoroaster and Zendavesta.

These two Troupers began their Professional Career with a Road Circus, working on Canvas in the Morning, and then doing a Refined Knockabout in the Grand Concert or Afterpiece taking place in the Main Arena immediately after the big Show is over.

When each of them could Kick Himself in the Eye and Slattery had pickled his Face so that Stebbins could walk on it, they decided that they were too good to show under a Round Top, so they became Artists. They wanted a Swell Name for the Team, so the Side-Show Announcer, who was something of a Kidder and had attended a Unitarian College, gave them Zoroaster and Zendavesta. They were Stuck on it, and had a Job Printer do some Cards for them.

By utilizing two of Pat Rooney’s Songs and stealing a few Gags, they put together Seventeen Minutes and began to play Dates and Combinations.

Zoroaster bought a Cane with a Silver Dog’s Head on it, and Zendavesta had a Watch Charm that pulled the Buttonholes out of his Vest.

After every Show, as soon as they Washed Up, they went and stood in front of the Theater, so as to give the Hired Girls a Treat, or else they stood around in the Sawdust and told their Fellow-Workers in the Realm of Dramatic Art how they killed ’em in Decatur and had ’em hollerin’ in Lowell, Mass., and got every Hand in the House at St. Paul.
Occasionally they would put a Card in the Clipper, saying that they were the Best in the Business, Bar None, and Good Dressers on and off the Stage. Regards to Leonzo Brothers. Charley Diamond please write.

They didn’t have to study no New Gags or work up no more Business, becuz they had the Best Act on Earth to begin with. Lillian Russell was jealous of them and they used to know Francis Wilson when he done a Song and Dance.

They had a Scrap Book with a Clipping from a Paducah Paper, which said that they were better than Nat Goodwin. When some Critic who had been bought up by Rival Artists wrote that Zoroaster and Zendavesta ought to
be on an Ice Wagon instead of on the Stage, they would get out the Scrap Book and read that Paducah Notice and be thankful that all Critics wasn’t Cheap Knockers and that there was one Paper Guy in the United States that reckanized a Neat Turn when he seen it.

But Zoroaster and Zendavesta didn’t know that the Dramatic Editor of the Paducah Paper went to a Burgoo Picnic the Day the Actors came to Town, and didn’t get back until Midnight, so he wrote his Notice of the Night Owls’ performance from a Programme brought to him by the Head Usher at the Opera House, who was also Galley Boy at the Office.

Zoroaster and Zendavesta played the same Sketch for Seventeen Years and made only two important Changes in all that Time. During the Seventh Season Zoroaster changed his Whiskers from Green to Blue. At the beginning of the Fourteenth Year of the Act they bought a new Slap-Stick and put a Card in the Clipper warning the Public to beware of Imitators.

All during the Seventeen Years Zoroaster and Zendavesta continued to walk Chesty and tell People how Good they were. They never could Understand why the Public stood for Mansfield when it could get Zoroaster and Zendavesta. The Property Man gave it as his Opinion that Mansfield conned the Critics. Zendavesta said there was only one Critic
on the Square, and he was at Paducah.

When the Vodeville Craze came along Zoroaster and Zendavesta took their Paducah Scrap Book over to a Manager, and he Booked them. Zoroaster assured the Manager that Him and his Partner done a Refined Act, suitable for Women and Children, with a strong Finish, which had been the Talk of all Galveston. The Manager put them in between the Trained
Ponies and a Legit with a Bad Cold. When a Legit loses his Voice he goes into Vodeville.

Zoroaster and Zendavesta came on very Cocky, and for the 7,800th Time Zoroaster asked Zendavesta:

“Who wuz it I seen you comin’ up the Street with?”

Then, for the 7,800th Time, by way of Mirth-Provoking Rejoinder, Zendavesta kicked Zoroaster in the Stomach, after which the Slap-Stick was introduced as a Sub-Motive.

The Manager gave a Sign and the Stage Hands Closed in on the Best Team in the Business, Bar None.

Of course Zoroaster and Zendavesta were very sore at having their Act killed. They said it was no way to treat Artists. The Manager told them they were too Tart for words to tell it and to consider Themselves set back into the Supper Show. Then They saw through the whole Conspiracy. The Manager was Mansfield’s Friend and Mansfield was out with his Hammer.

At Present they are doing Two Supper Turns to the Piano Player and a Day Watchman. They are still the Best in the Business, but are being used Dead Wrong. However, they derive some Comfort from reading the Paducah Notice.

MORAL:  A Dramatic Editor should never go to a Burgoo Picnic–especially in Kentucky.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult 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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