Ron Hutchinson’s Vaudeville Telegrams

I stumbled across something great today while preparing my many talks for my San Francisco junket. It’s something I’d wanted to share for years, but misplaced. When I was researching No Applause years ago, Ron Hutchinson shared with me several telegrams chronicling the last days of a failing vaudeville act. I included the following paragraphs in earlier drafts of the book, but they were cut. When Ron passed away a few weeks ago, I searched for my copies of these telegrams, but no soap. I’m not sure if I ever had them. I might have just scribbled notes from his originals, or I may have sent them back to him, or something. At any rate, at least I have the section of the book with the salient takeaways. Herewith: 

…Private collector Ron Hutchison (Director of the Vitaphone Project, an organization that preserves the finest cinematic record of original vaudeville on the planet) has in his possession a stack of telegrams from the late 20s, representing the correspondence between a desperate couple of married vaudevillians and the wife’s parents. The exchange simultaneously chronicles the evaporation of vaudeville and the dissolution of their relationship.

“Mama, is it possible to send me twenty five dollars for pictures? Have good bookings but no lobby” reads one from 1928. Large amounts of money borrowing appear to take place, followed by the occasional promise to pay some back. Hopeful messages (“Things will break our way when we reach Dallas”) are followed up with bad news: (“Tried to work but failed – can’t even sell car”). Note that this is prior to the Great Depression. Somewhere between March and April 1929 events took a distinct downturn. “Getting started again after the wreck. [italics mine] Rhoda in jail in Roswell, N.M.” They’ve clearly had an automobile accident and their colleague Rhoda is in the cayuse in the middle of the desert. A couple of weeks later the husband wires, “You have kept writing and wiring your daughter that you wish she would come home. I suppose she will eventually. She left me in Muskogee with a man. This I can prove. She and Rhoda are two of a kind. I have done my part and was not drinking. If she says so it is not true.” A few days later, a doctor wires to tell the in-laws that the husband attempted suicide. Six weeks later the wife wires from San Francisco: “Bob showed up and we got the police after him. Haven’t heard anything since.”

I have suppressed the names of these people for the sake of their family’s dignity. I have no idea if this husband-wife team was talented, if they worked hard, or if they knocked ‘em dead in Roswell (maybe that’s why Rhoda wound up in jail). What I do know is I never heard of them. Their pain and hardship was no less real because of that, but my point is, when vaudeville died, America never felt their absence. The audience cared about the stars, and the stars went right on working in the new and higher profile entertainment industries which came into being to succeed vaudeville. Show business, like any other, is at bottom guided by consumer choice. Millions of people, of means modest or great, daily make a decision about what type of show will bring the most excitement, the greatest joy, the biggest “wow”, for the least money, and at the greatest convenience. No one agonized about these choices, they just said, “H’m…I think I’ll do x on Tuesday night.” Increasingly, live vaudeville didn’t make the cut…

To learn more about vaudeville, please see my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous