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.

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.

''Because of the comedy and dancing, it has been labeled 'New Vaudeville,' '' says Mitzi Sales, managing director of the Berkeley Repertory Theater, where two of San Francisco's most celebrated clowns recently met head on in, ''Geoff Hoyle Meets Keith Terry.''

''These two guys did everything off the cuff, no script, and had the audience crazy with laughter,'' Ms. Sales says. ''The energy and talent of people like Geoff, Keith, and Bill Irwin are so diverse, it bursts the seams of traditional theater. They had to create a new style of performance art.''

In fact, ''Geoff Hoyle Meets Keith Terry'' brings the house down - literally (but more on that punch line in a minute). Like traditional vaudeville revues, it begins with a flurry of stunts and acrobatics, playing off late arrivals in the audience. Keith Terry, a talented percussionist whose credits range from Indonesian gamelan concerts to the Newport Jazz Festival, opens the show by marching on stage with a garbage can on his back, four frying pans on his chest, a whistle in his mouth, and a horn in his pocket - the old one-man-band gag.

Amid the stunts and guffaws are moments of brilliance. Terry captivates the audience with a solo ''body music'' concert. Unaccompanied, he shuffles and stomps, slaps his shoes, hambones his knees, and drums his thighs in a display of percussive genius.

The revue climaxes with Hoyle's uproarious 20-minute satire of Shakespeare's King Lear. In the middle of each performance, Hoyle recruits two unsuspecting women from the audience to play Cordelia and Goneril, daughters of Lear, played by Hoyle with a paper crown and milk-crate throne. He also doubles in the role of one Stanley Service, a slobbering Elmer Fudd in trench coat and Wellington boots, who narrates (or, as Service says, ''Alistair Cookes'') the Shakespearean tragedy.

Like most of the new vaudevillians, Geoff Hoyle came to the profession by a circuitous route. He was born outside Hull, the English seaport. His father hand set type for a living and possessed a raw, ironic, working-class wit which he exercised at family weddings and funerals. Young Geoff took after dear old Dad and earned a reputation as the grade-school cutup. He acted out Roman mythology in Latin class and once ate his French textbook behind the teacher's back.

But he was eventually the beneficiary of university Shakespearean training - although he preferred hoi polloi humor of Spike Mulligan TV sitcoms and Art Carney on ''The Honeymooners.'' He studied mime with Etienne Decroux (Marcel Marceau's teacher) in Paris, played street theater in London, and in the early 1970s arrived in San Francisco to apprentice with the Pickle Family Circus as Mr. Sniff, a mischievous clown whose nosy shnoz constantly led him astray.

The clowning of the Pickle Family Circus was original and central to its performances - which impressed Hoyle and so many of the other vaudevillians who, like Irwin and Terry, got their training there. ''The big draw of Ringling Brothers today is tigers,'' Hoyle said. ''Clowns are lost in a three-ring circus. By contrast, we take our clowning seriously.''

Meanwhile, back at Berkeley Rep, Terry plays bumbling straight man to Hoyle's antics. The floor caves in. The EXIT sign explodes. The sleeve of Hoyle's tuxedo rips off. And when the show finally ends, it ends for good: with Terry getting caught in the curtain and pulling down the entire set, lights and all.

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