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"Hindsights"


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Vaudeville -
Not Just a Naughty French Word

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

Mr. and Mrs. Poole were an ordinary couple from Illinois except that every night before a cheering crowd she threw knives at his head, and he shot pieces of chalk from her ears. Their vaudeville routine followed a troupe of one-legged acrobats and a pair of boxing monkeys.

Vaudeville was a fast-paced variety show featuring a series of live acts. It was a popular form of entertainment in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in cities. Many rural folk were reluctant to accept Vaudeville at first.

The word Vaudeville is French and may be a mispronunciation of the term "Vau-de-Vire," an area of northern France known for its bawdy drinking songs. It was those French origins that made many rural Texas suspicious of it.

The French had a reputation for immodesty. To Texans even polite French words sounded naughty.

To make matters worse, some people confused Vaudeville with Burlesque which was a more provocative style of adult entertainment, often with sexual overtones. Burlesque, from an Italian word meaning to joke, mock or ridicule, was Vaudeville's dirty little brother.

For these and other reasons, Vaudeville didn't always have the best reputation, especially in the more conservative parts of the country.

In 1884 a San Antonio newspaper described the city's Vaudeville dens as "a blot on civilization," especially after assassins killed gunfighters Ben Thompson and King Fisher in a wild shootout at Jack Harris's Vaudeville Theater, "a vile place fronting San Antonio's Main Plaza."

Vaudeville even had a less than sterling reputation in show business circles. Serious thespians coined the term "legitimate theater" to separate themselves from the low-class beerhall singers, can-can dancers and medicine show barkers who were the original Vaudeville performers.

But once Vaudeville caught on in the countryside, people couldn't get enough of it.

Fredericksburg Texas - Vaudeville at Klaerner's Opera  House
Vaudeville at Klaerner's Opera House
Courtesy of Fredericksburg Standard

Klaerner's Opera House, Peter's Hall and The Palace Theater in Fredericksburg hosted regular vaudeville shows. So did the Arcadia Theater and Pampell's Opera House in Kerrville.

Other shows performed in tents. In January 1923 the Grandi Brothers Stock Company came to Fredericksburg, set up a tent at Marktplatz and stayed a week. Ads claimed the tent was "double walled, as warm and cozy as your living room and absolutely water-proof."

Cost for a ticket was 40 cents for adults and 10 cents for children.

Knowing the conservative nature of rural Texas communities, managers were careful to stage shows that were "strictly clean and moral." The style came to be called "polite Vaudeville."

At the same time theater managers carefully screened new acts. They sent "impolite" scripts back to actors in blue envelopes, leading to the phrase "blue material," a reference to content that was too hot to handle.

It was interesting to note that just about every act that passed through the Hill Country in those days had "recently returned from a tour of Europe where the cast entertained the crowned heads of state." Singers and dancers were "fresh from the Broadway stage."

Of course there was no way to check the validity of those claims. The internet hadn't been invented yet.

The typical "polite" Vaudeville show featured singers, dancers and comedians in addition to all kinds of interesting specialty acts.

An early Vaudeville show at Peter's Hall in Fredericksburg starred Baby Edna, world's champion child buck and wing dancer.

Another show featured Lady Pat, a horse who could add, subtract, multiply and divide. Lady Pat could tell time. She could pick out the flags of different countries.

Some Vaudeville shows staged boxing and wrestling matches. Dancers performed serpentine dancing, also called skirt dancing, a toned down version of the can-can. Monologists recited Shakespeare and "Casey at the Bat."

But there was trouble ahead for Vaudeville. Radio hurt ticket sales in the 1920s. Then an exciting new form of entertainment knocked Vaudeville for a loop.

In 1927 talking pictures took the country by storm. By 1935 most Vaudeville theaters converted to movie houses and the top talent left Vaudeville for radio and Hollywood.

But in its day Vaudeville was the theater of the people. It had something for everybody. It was the most democratic art form in American history.

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" December 15, 2021 Column



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