In contrast with this 2017 post, which reported who YOUR favorite vaudeville performers are, today we share a short list of those whom we deem to have cast the longest and widest shadows in terms of influence on the culture and on other performers. Many of these entertainers cast ripples that are still being felt today. We list them in no particular order. Just click on the links to learn more about the stars in question:
Weber and Fields: The mother of all comedy teams, they influenced acts as wide ranging as the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy and countless more. Plus, they went on to help found and shape the institution we now know as Broadway. PLUS, they were the first hugely successful Jews in American show business. Incalculably influential.
Lillian Russell: I had real difficulty deciding whom was the best female singing single to put here. Women were the biggest stars in vaudeville. There is a long chain of highly successful ones leading way back before vaudeville even existed. Where to cut it off? Who was most successful? Who was “Eve”? Two pre-vaudeville examples helped pave the way: Jenny Lind as the angelic type, who helped make it acceptable for “proper” ladies to attend the theater; and Lola Montez as the naughty type, who helped set the template for what stardom would be like. Lillian Russell merged aspects of both, and came along just as vaudeville was getting off the ground, and became Tony Pastor’s biggest star, and later starred with Weber and Fields. Her early advent, the scale of her stardom, and her colorful private life I think make her the most pivotal of the “singing comediennes.”
Al Jolson: People who know him only for The Jazz Singer don’t know the first thing about him. People seem to remember him only for wearing blackface** today, but blackface was near universal in his day. If anything, he is the pivotal figure in transitioning American show biz into its POST minstrelsy period. Just about every male singer of the first third of the 20th century (and many who came afterwards) patterned themselves after his big-over-the-top show biz style. Top star of Broadway, movies, and radio, for decades he was the entertainer all others were measured by.
Walker and Williams: This seminal African American vaudeville team are responsible for so many firsts: first to be stars in white vaudeville, first on Broadway, first to make record albums and movies. They popularized the cakewalk among whites as well as blacks. Many African American performers patterned themselves after this successful team, and you can see their influence in white comedy teams as well. When George Walker died an early death, Bert Williams went on to further triumphs as an artist and was widely admired by peers and audiences of all colors, in spite of the prejudices of the times.
Houdini: The great magician and illusionist was not only influential among his peers in the invention of new tricks, stunts and escapes, but he was a towering innovator in the field of self-promotion, one of the reasons his name remains a household word to this day. Houdini was so influential in his time, he had scores of imitators and even impostors using close variations on his name (e.g. “Boudini”)!
Frank Fay: The reason you don’t see Bob Hope or Jack Benny here is that, influential though they were, they both patterned themselves after Frank Fay, widely heralded as the first modern stand-up comedian and m.c. Fay’s humor seems to have been anchored to his own era; what has survived doesn’t seem to have weathered the passage of time well, or in a way that we can understand. Nor was he able to become a major movie star like many of his peers and acolytes. But in his time he was considered King. The monologue at the top of every late night comedy tv show can be traced back to the Great Faysie.
Eva Tanguay: Tanguay pushed the envelope in terms of content, becoming notorious for both her onstage and offstage behavior, but in a way that was also kind of crazy and funny. Performers like Mae West, Sophie Tucker and Texas Guinan owed a lot to her. Oddly, Tangay may be even more influential in our time than in hers. Countless modern stars take the path blazed by Tanguay; in her own time few performers dared.
Fred Karno: Karno is the man who trained and developed Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel and dozens of others who are lesser known today, and so his impact extended well beyond the vaudeville stage — it would come to reach millions through motion pictures. Further, his “Speechless Comedians” were widely imitated on the stages of the day.
Vernon and Irene Castle: Vaudeville’s premier dance team, they were a downright craze in the teens, not only popularizing individual dance steps, but making dance (esp. modern styles) socially acceptable in the first place. Thus they were at the center in a cultural revolution. There were entire product lines with their branding on them
Gus Edwards: Edwards was the premiere producer of vaudeville kiddie acts. Not only were his sketches and productions widely imitated on vaudeville stages, but the young people he presented in those acts grew up to become stars themselves, among them people like Eddie Cantor, Groucho Marx, George Jessel, Eleanor Powell, and dozens of others.
To learn more about vaudeville and all of these vaudevillians please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.