Bringing vaudeville to life online

By , csmonitor.com

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.

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 reconstruction...at 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.)

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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;

"Don't say 'slob' or 'son-of-a-gun' or 'hully gee' on this stage unless you want to be cancelled peremptorily. Do not address anyone in the audience in this manner. If you have not the ability to entertain Mr. Keith's audiences without risk of offending them, do the best you can. Lack of talent will be less open to censure than would an insult to a patron."

The virtual performance lasts about 10 minutes, and like the Fly Thru, is far from photorealistic (think video game rather than Star Wars), but by a few minutes into the routine, you've largely stopped noticing imperfections in the rendering and are simply absorbing the show. Also like the Fly Thru, Bush's act can be experienced from multiple vantage points - from the cheap seats, to reaction views of the audience (just like the Oscars!), to the performer's own rather jumpy vista from onstage. (But we shouldn't be surprised that the Bush-eye view is so shaky - steadicams wouldn't be invented for another century.)

Hoping from one vantage point to another takes a few seconds as a new QuickTime stream is selected, but the new feed picks up from the same point in the performance that the previous one was cut off, so the effect is that of seeing alternating views of a continuous presentation. (If you'd rather review a specific moment, or start from scratch when you change location, a scrollbar below the movie frame allows movement to any point in the act.) And in the 'nice attention to detail' department, the programmers at Virtual Vaudeville also manipulated the audience reaction and sound quality to match seat location - so if, for example, you're sitting in the upper balcony, you'll be losing some of the monologue to distance, enthusiastic laughter, and boisterous neighbors.

Of course, even if you hear every word, some of the period and ethnic allusions won't be familiar to modern ears, so as Bush recites his lines, a small box below the movie screen provides links to general information, the script, unfamiliar terms, and even explanations of why particular jokes would have been considered funny to the contemporary audience. If any of these links are selected, the information loads into a window beside the screen, allowing viewers to read as the performance continues, or pause playback long enough to digest the text.

In deference to differing computer and connection capabilities, both The Fly Thru and See The Show features are available in multiple file sizes - with several screen resolutions for the video imagery, varying amounts of detail in the theater tour, and even basic QuickTime movies of the Frank Bush act, without the multiple vantage points or synchronized footnotes. And finally, for those who are interested in how the recreations were recreated, About Virtual Vaudeville reviews the challenges faced and solutions employed in producing the website, and offers plans for future acts - including world famous strongman Sandow the Magnificent, comic singer Maggie Cline, and sketch comedians, The Four Cohans. (If and when it is complete, a full, multi-act vaudeville production will be a truly impressive accomplishment.)

We can listen to tapes of Bob Hope from the Golden Age of radio, see the early films of Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers, or watch clips from Milton Berle's "Texaco Star Theater," but (archival materials notwithstanding) we don't have access to the medium that gave them all their start. Virtual Vaudeville does more than simply exhume some long-forgotten scripts - it places the performance, and us as the audience, back in its original setting. And short of rebuilding a Vaudeville theater and populating it with flesh-and-blood actors, this is as close as we're going to get to the real thing.

Virtual Vaudeville can be found at http://www.virtualvaudeville.com/index.htm.

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