Vaudeville's back: 'Did ya hear the one about the . . . '
Ladeeeeezz and gentlemennnn! Step right up! It's a barrel of monkeys, it's a gaggle of gags. They joke, they juggle, they flub their lines with the greatest of ease. Before your very eyes, grown men will fall through floors, blow giant soap bubbles, play hambone concertos on their knees.Skip to next paragraph
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Yessirreeee folks, vaudeville is banana-peel-slipping its way back into the footlights. American theater has a new Clown Prince.
Started in Boston a century ago, American vaudeville has been rollickingly revived over the last decade in San Francisco. And like many other West Coast trends, these clown revues are seeping into the artistic water table and heading east. This new generation of vaudevillians, inspired by comedians from Charlie Chaplin to Jackie Gleason, are touring the United States and Europe, performing everything from ventriloquy to mime. In July, New York's Theatre Guinevere presented the city's first Festival of Clown Theater, which ran for five weeks and will be repeated next spring. Next fall, New York will further enshrine the resurrected art form with a major ''vaudeville nouveau'' festival.
''It was an art that flourished during the '30s, in times of economic depression,'' said Geoff Hoyle, a former clown with the Pickle Family Circus. ''People today are looking for a way to laugh at their problems, which is what these new clowns are doing.''
Mr. Hoyle, one of those ''new clowns,'' does his acts in San Francisco - where the term ''new vaudeville'' now encompasses a hodgepodge of acts from the tightrope and trapeze acts of the Pickle Family Circus to the political commedia dell'arte of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Over the last several years the city has spawned such celebrated hams as the Flying Karamazov Brothers, mime Leonard Pitt, soap-bubble blower Tom Noddy, and i fratelli Bologna (a local comedy team that plays the comic Permanent Press Corps in the new film ''The Right Stuff''). Their material ranges from the slapstick to the sophisticated and often downright cerebral. Clown Bill Irwin (whose solo ''Regard of Flight'' had Manhattan audiences rolling in the aisles last summer at the American Place Theater) calls the new vaudeville ''American Kabuki.''
But back in 1883, Benjamin Franklin Keith had something else in mind. One hundred years ago Keith, a former circus employee, built a small ''theater'' out of a vacant candy store in Boston near the old Adams house on Washington Street. His ''Gaiety Museum,'' America's first vaudeville theater, featured a midget called Baby Alice, a stuffed ''mermaid,'' a chicken with a human face, and a young comedy team named Weber and Fields (no relation to W.C.).
Keith recruited top-notch stage talent, forbade vulgarity, and encouraged the attendance of women and children. His family approach worked: By 1910 vaudeville was the most-patronized form of stage entertainment in America. By 1928, about 1 ,000 vaudeville theaters (at least one in in every 48 of the United States and every province in Canada) were entertaining an total of 2 million people.
Long before Keith, however, vaudeville, or ''variety theater,'' as it is known in England, had been developing in Europe for centuries. The term vaudeville is a contraction of the French phrase ''Chanson de Vau-de-Vire'' (''Song of the Valley of Vire''). Oliver Basselin, a celebrated 15th-century minstrel, composed a number of lighthearted songs which he named after the Vire section of Calvados in Normandy, his birthplace. Eventually the term was applied to entire shows of such songs, interspersed with variety acts.