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Bringing vaudeville to life online

By Jim / April 5, 2006


Although vaudeville flourished for only about 50 years, its influences can still be felt almost a century after the majority of its theaters were converted to movie houses. Turning popular entertainment into big business by bringing "polite" variety performances to audiences of all ages and from all classes, vaudeville spawned such latter-day film, radio, and television stars as Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and the Marx Brothers, and furnished prototypes for the modern day stand-up comic and decades of television variety shows. Since 2000, researchers and scientists from seven universities have been working as a team to bring vaudeville back to the people, online if not onstage, and the early results of those efforts certainly deserve an audience. Ladies and gentlemen, the management is proud to present Virtual Vaudeville.

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Given the technology behind the headlining exhibits at Virtual Vaudeville, its home page is deceptively basic with only two 'feature' navigational options - and the second one is the best place to start, as Learn about Vaudeville acquaints visitors with the history of the art form in general as well as its continuing influence on our current culture. After an introduction to the form, Learn then provides more specific information about one of its stars, comedian Frank Bush, with newspaper clippings and contemporary descriptions of his performances. (Bush also makes a headlining appearance later in the production.) Finally, notes about New York's Union Square Theater (the virtual home for Virtual Vaudeville's interactive presentations) offer period photographs, drawings, and a newspaper article describing the "most radical and elaborate an outlay of over $50,000."

Having set the scene and introduced the main act, See The Show presents both the theater and a recreated performance in a surprisingly immersive 3-D interactive virtual reality. Like the site itself, See The Show is best experienced by saving the first navigational option for last and jumping ahead to a 3-D 'Fly Thru' of the Union Square Theater as it existed in 1895. Starting from high above the stage in the cheap seats, the Fly Thru offers visitors nine distinct vantage points from which to survey the theater, while text and still images related to the construction are displayed to the right of the interactive. (One of the nine points of view accessible in the interactive is the stage itself, just in case you're feeling the lure of the virtual limelight.)

While the images don't approach the quality of photorealism (and there are occasional gaps in the recreation where you can actually see through the virtual floors), the details illustrated, from carpet and wallpaper patterns to architectural features and even the designs on the chair legs, definitely leave you feeling that you'd recognize the place if you walked through its doors today. In terms of navigational capabilities, the Fly Thru augments the standard zoom-in/zoom-out and panoramic rotation options with linear, side-to-side, up-and-down, and even forward and backward movements - allowing you to check the view of the stage from any seat in the house, or virtually walk down the aisles and through the short hallways to your high-priced private box.

Familiar now with your virtual surroundings, you can jump back to See The Show's main attraction - a routine by 'ethnic comedian' Frank Bush. One of the country's most popular performers in his prime, Bush's ethnic caricatures, which would be considered entirely politically incorrect today, were popular among the culturally diverse audiences of his time - embraced by the very groups being stereotyped, or accepted in the knowledge that vaudeville thrived on equal-opportunity satire, and that eventually every group would find itself the target of the humorist. But should any virtual visitors still wonder if offending the audience was an acceptable practice during the days of vaudeville, the site offers this directive from Union Square operator, B.F. Keith;