The new vaudeville -- rebirth of a family entertainment
Brunswick, Maine — Imagine a single evening's show that includes comedy, tap dancing, singing, juggling, mime, musical groups, and magical feats.
It's the old vaudeville bill, right?
Wrong - it's the new vaudeville.
In family-filled halls across northern New England, the historic form of entertainment that laughed, danced, and sometimes charmed its way into Americans' hearts for more than 40 years is undergoing a renaissance. And there are signs of a resurgence on the West Coast and in other parts of the country, too.
Picture these acts at a recent vaudeville night before 2,000 faithful at Maine's Festival of the Arts in Brunswick. Entertainer Benny Reehl struts onto the stage and announces that he is going to juggle with six members of the audience simultaneously. The crowded auditorium resounds with scoffs and chuckles. He proceeds to pass out six balls and pins to individuals scattered across the front rows.
After a hilarious set of instructions to the ''throwers,'' he begins to juggle three pins, then shouts, ''Go!'' in rapid-fire succession to each of the object-holders, who pass their pin or ball to him as he lobs one to them. Whether the exchange is succesful or not, he continues juggling and scrambling for success. He wins the audience; they roar with approval.
Clown, comic, juggler Randy Judkins - otherwise known as ''Jud the Jester'' presents ''Hat Check.'' For five minutes the audience is entranced as Judkins mimes a hat checker who is fascinated with a hat he receives. His skit spans juggling, acting, mime.
When the second half of the evening begins, the lights go up on 14 men playing mandolins. Add a musical saw, guitar, string bass, drums, and you have ''The Howitzers'' - a sight rarely seen since the turn of the century, when mandolin orchestras enjoyed wide popularity.
Later the ''Blue Sky Serenaders'' croon a tune. As Joel Eckhaus strums his ukelele and Bau Graves his guitar, vocalist Linda Pervier leads the trio in song. Though the Serenaders call their music ''old wave,'' their show gets new listeners.
Another recent event - the New England Vaudeville Festival in Claremont, N.H. - attracted an audience of more than 500. One of several additional upcoming vaudeville programs is an all-day performance - in the style of the old continuous-performance shows that stretched from early afternoon until late at night - by numerous vaudevillians at the Common Ground Festival in Topsham, Maine, at the end of September.
''Vaudeville is definitely on the rise around here,'' says Serenader Joel Eckhaus. ''It basically began the day after last Thanksgiving,'' he quips, ''with what we called our Leftover Turkey Variety Show.'' The show was an overwhelming success, says Eckhaus. With an expanded range of acts, the group has given six successful performances in New England this year.
One of the chief architects of the vaudeville revival is actor , mime, choreographer, director Benny Reehl. He and his wife have toured the countryside for the past five years with their highly successful vaudeville show, ''Buckfield Leather and Lather,'' staging it on a trailer in back of a restored 1928 Reo Speedwagon (not the rock group). Today, he is designing a vaudeville circuit for town halls across the state of Maine - a sort of rural version of the great Keith-Albee circuit that flourished on stages in New York, Philadelphia, and beyond at the turn of the century.
But what is happening up there in the backwoods between Burlington and Bar Harbor? Is vaudeville really coming back to life? And why in New England?
All-around entertainer Reehl says: ''Vaudeville has three principal elements - originality, versatility, and spontaneity. In contemporary entertainment, of these three elements, spontaneity is what I see least of. That's vaudeville's strong point.
''We are coming into a period when there's a tremendous need for a relationship between the audience and performer. It is not mind-boggling that I can juggle with six members of the audience.'' But, he adds, ''I can make magic happen by playing the moment with them, by sharing some of that love with the audience which all performers can bring out in people.''
And this applies not only to rural, but also to sophisticated audiences, Reehl says, because ''vaudeville acts are working off universals present in all people.'' Using his juggling as an example, he says: ''First, everyone wants to see you take risks, do something more than the usual three balls. Second, the audience is throwing the balls to me; what if they throw a bad ball? They think: how does he get out of it?''
But in the end, Reehl observes, ''it doesn't make any difference whether you've succeeded or failed. What counts is the spontaneity, what the audience feels; we succeeded together, we failed together, but we had a great time.''
It's also important to remember, says Reehl, that ''we're not trying to duplicate old-time vaudeville exactly - we are trying to duplicate it's spirit.'' For one thing the vaudeville of former times ''had a highly racial tone to it - because of the large influx of immigrants entering the country during that period - that would be unacceptable today.'' Also, Reehl explains, vaudeville went through several fundamental changes during the decades of its popularity, ranging from strict family entertainment to a turn toward the burlesque. ''We do the type of vaudeville aimed at family audiences.''
As to why vaudeville is sprouting in New England, Reehl explains it as a product ''of the hardness of the land and the weather. It develops a testiness, an adaptability, in people that has to show up in art.'' Another important factor, says Reehl, is that Tony Montagnaro, one of the foremost mimes in America, has based his mime theater and mime training center (The Celebration Barn) in South Paris, Maine. His instruction has produced a great majority of the performers involved in the vaudeville revival.
Reehl's wife, Denise, adds: ''People really want to see ingenuity again; they want to see that old style brought back. Also - and this is not necessarily a good reason - because of television many people have lost the capacity to concentrate more than 30 minutes. Vaudeville gives them a change every five to 10 minutes.''
Bau Graves, director of ''The Howitzers'' and member of the ''Blue Sky Serenaders,'' calls vaudeville ''entertainment on a human scale.'' He says one of the most important factors is ''learning to collaborate - there's always points where music, juggling, or dance can be mixed or sequenced.'' The diversity of entertainment - dance, music, singing, juggling - ensures that the program is fast-paced and, says Graves, ''it keeps the audience guessing as to what's coming next.''