Today is the 100th anniversary of the World War One Armistice. Not long afterward, soon to be President Warren G. Harding promised “a return to Normalcy” and people longed for that. None more so than showfolk (our usual beat on this blog) whose lives had been disrupted by the conflict.
Prior to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, successful British and American entertainers had spent a good deal of their time on boats, dividing their time between the U.S. vaudeville circuits and the music halls of the British Empire and Continental Europe. 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 had 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 like Alla Nazimova could present pacifist playlets like War Brides in the vaud houses. Once we entered the war, such messages were out; George M. Cohan “Over There” (introduced by Nora Bayes) was more in keeping with the times.
As will happen in wartime, even the most heterogeneous cultural institution of all — vaudeville — spoke with a single voice on this issue. Shortly after America joined the war, Cohan called a special meeting of vaudevillians to see who would join the war effort. Every hand shot up. Irving Berlin wrote a slew of tunes and produced his 1918 patriotic Broadway revue Yip Yip Yaphank.
Vaudeville vets like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks did their part by crisscrossing the nation selling millions in war bonds. Chaplin made his propaganda movie The Bond, and later his full-on WWI comedy (the first ever) Shoulder Arms. Other World War One Comedies followed; I wrote about them here.
Gummo Marx was drafted; he ended up leaving his family act the Marx Brothers and being replaced by Zeppo. At the same time, many so-called Dutch or German dialect comedians, such as Grouch Marx, feeling the weight of anti-German sentiment, dropped those kinds of characters from their repertoire. 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. James Reese Europe commanded a whole musical unit — and was finally murdered by one of his own musicians while he was still in uniform.
Afterwards, the prosperity of the Roaring Twenties may have been vaudeville’s greatest era. Like Edwin Starr sang about a later conflict a half century later: “War –what is it good for?”
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please consult my critically acclaimed book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments. And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc