The Vaudeville (and Burlesque) of Dolly Parton

Female pronouns, to a certainty, and in this case, probably plural

Dolly Parton (b. 1946) is a one-woman industry at this stage. A true biography naming all of her accomplishments would need to be book-length. But the rationale for this post can be summed up in an exchange I had with my wife after a West Fest event a couple of years ago. An audience member asked who I thought some contemporary successors to Mae West might be. I was momentarily stumped and then named some people in contemporary burlesque I admired. Afterwards, though, my wife suggested Dolly and a light bulb went on, for it kind of fits. Yes, the two women are different culturally. West was as Brooklyn as it gets, and from Irish and German immigrant stock. Dolly is from the hills of East Tennessee. But the image Parton has molded, the mixture of sex and camp-comedy, the hair, the make-up, the outfits, the association with drag performers and gay men, and — the elephant in the room — the bold exaggeration and emphasis on her mammary assets, all relate her to Mae. During World War Two, naval personnel nicknamed lifejackets “Mae Wests” because they puffed out your chest when you put them on. Times being what they are, Parton frankly makes whole comedy routines about her jugs. Like West, her persona evokes a cathouse madam. More than this, much like Cher or Bette Midler, her persona is well within the tradition of vaudeville’s great singing comediennes, performers like Sophie Tucker or Blossom Seeley. And like many a vaudevillian, her origins were in poverty.

The daughter of a Tennessee sharecropper, Parton was already singing on local radio by age ten. As a kid she was already writing songs, often with her uncle Bill Owens. One of them was a country hit for Skeeter Davis. They day after high school graduation she moved to Nashville to pursue her dreams in earnest. Her career got a big boost when country star Porter Waggoner chose her to co-host his popular syndicated tv program (1966-1974). During this period, she had a string of country hits in duets with Waggoner. But she also made solo records, like her hair-raising 1970 version of “Mule Skinner Blues”. In 1973 she released the haunting, evocative “Jolene”, which went to #1 on the country charts, and has emerged in time to be considered one of her tent pole accomplishments among fans of her work. Her next single, “I Will Always Love You” (1974), cast an even longer shadow, for not only did it go to the top of the country charts but it was a #1 pop hit for Whitney Houston nearly two decades later. The song was composed as a goodbye to Waggoner when Parton left his show to focus on her solo career.

Mine was a country music loving family and also avid consumers of tv variety shows so I feel we were ahead of the curve in knowing about Dolly prior to her big mainstream success. We saw her on things like Hee Haw, Cher!, and The Mac Davis Show; talk show hosts like Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, and Dinah Shore loved her and booked her all the time. She was always bubbly and funny and pretty much stopped the show with her conversational and performative antics. In 1976, she had her own syndicated tv variety show Dolly! which raised her profile yet again, though the strain on her voice caused her to cancel it after one year. During this period, she had her first pop hit “Here You Come Again” (1977), which went all the way to #3 — pretty high for a country artist. This was the era when artists like Glenn Campbell and Willie Nelson were also crossing over. “Here You Come Again” was played on the radio constantly — we used to love to imitate Dolly’s “Munchkin Voice”. Her high-pitched register and vibrato have always been signature elements of her sound.

In 1978 she did this! Although she was too old-fashioned to pose nude:

In 1980 she co-starred with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in the comedy 9 to 5, scoring a #1 pop hit with the film’s theme song, carrying her into superstardom. This was followed by The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) with Burt Reynolds, and then she had another #1 pop hit with “Islands in the Stream” (1983), a duet with Kenny Rogers, written by the Bee Gees. Then came the movie Rhinestone (1984) with Sylvester Stallone, which sort of crested the wave on the idea of her as major movie star, but she did return for things like Steel Magnolias (1989), and Straight Talk (1992) a romantic comedy with James Woods. After this she starred in lots of made-for-television movies, and made cameos in theatrical movies as herself.

Meantime, in 1986 Parton bought a controlling interest in a 25 year old amusement park in East Tennessee and renamed it Dollywood. It is now a major tourist destination. Since then she has acquired a whole string of similar tourist attractions, amusement parks and dinner theatres. This is what we mean by an empire. She is an extremely savvy business woman.

Since 1989 she has also been heavily invested in film and tv on the production end. Some of the projects her companies have co-produced have included the AIDS documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), the Father of the Bride remakes, and the tv series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A recent project is the Netflix show Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings (2019), which adapted eight of her songs into dramatic stories. She made the talk-circuit round to plug it. If you want to see show biz veterans like Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers giggle and blush like abashed children, just watch them interview the ribald and sassy Dolly Parton.

To find out more about  the history of vaudeville and variety entertainment, including tv varietyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.