The vaudeville life -- from peach pits to hot showers

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American Vaudeville, As Seen by Its Contemporaries, edited and with commentary by Charles W. Stein. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 335 pp. $20. ``Even though the jobs were few and far between, I always put a little makeup on the edge of my collar so that everybody would think I was working,'' muses George Burns about his leaner days in ``American Vaudeville.'' This anecdote is typical of the revealing nuggets Mr. Stein has dug up in his research on this entertainment form that for 30 years provided family audiences with clean, fast-paced, skillful shows.

Except for his short explanations at the beginning of the pieces, Stein allows the contemporaries, through essays, newspaper articles, and memoirs, to describe the life and business of vaudeville.

The cumulative effect is a glimpse of the whole picture -- what this entertainment was all about, why it got so big, and how it fitted into contemporary society. We learn how performers polished a joke till it worked every time (well, almost), and what a revolutionary thing clean and wholesome entertainment was. Vaudeville mogul Edward Albee talks about discovering talent.

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Some of the most fascinating are written such stars as Lillian Russell, George Burns, James Cagney, Fanny Brice, and Will Rogers. Groucho Marx recalls when he and his brothers played crowds who pelted them with ``sticks, bricks, spitballs, cigar butts, peach pits.'' Irate crowds weren't the only thing vaudevillians had to contend with; constant travel, deceitful managers, and appallingly difficult lodgings were perennial -- and colorfully described -- banes.

But we also learn about the swank side of vaudeville. When vaudeville really got rolling, top performers were paid $3,000 a week, and the opulent conditions (hot showers!) drew performers like Alfred Lunt and Ethel Barrymore from the legitimate stage.

The overly long chapter on vaudeville's decline is not much fun to read. But Alfred Lunt's capper, if not a ``wow finish,'' at least provides a gentle tribute that crystallizes the feeling in this fine collection: ``[Vaudevillians'] sincerity was greater than their artistry -- their eagerness to please was beyond their capacity to please -- but they gave their hearts and their lives and it was not their fault that that was not enough. God bless them, every one.''

Catherine Foster writes the Boston arts column for the Monitor.

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