The new vaudeville -- rebirth of a family entertainment
Imagine a single evening's show that includes comedy, tap dancing, singing, juggling, mime, musical groups, and magical feats.Skip to next paragraph
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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.