From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Much has been written about the American institution of vaudeville, but readers would be hard-pressed to find an account as humorous and sharp as writer and performer Trav S.D.'s tasty chronicle. Although critics in the early 20th century lambasted vaudeville as crude, sometimes clever, but generally "trite and empty," the author points out that from 1881 to 1932, vaudeville "was the heart of American show business," so ubiquitous that "if you were beyond the reach of vaudeville, then you were really in the sticks." He comments on the artistic and commercial ties between vaudeville and Hollywood's glamour industry and Broadway; they often shared performers in hit plays and films (though Trav S.D. also reveals how essential managers were to the medium, since "performers, as Jesus said of the poor, are always with us"). There are candid moments about the resistance to hiring black players in a few fascinating segments about minstrelsy and blackface, as Trav S.D. writes of the trials African-American legend Bert Williams endured. Throughout, the author, a humorist, never forgets to get his laugh quota, whether he's talking about audiences (Midwestern crowds were tough: "Do they like me? Hate me? Are they alive? Hello?") or burlesque ("a sort of bush league for broad comedians"). The result is a well-researched, riotous book about a cultural mainstay, "the theatrical embodiment of freedom, tolerance, opportunity, diversity, democracy, and optimism." B&w illus. (Nov.)
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Late in the nineteenth century, America's variety theatrewhich was notorious for the brawling, drinking, thieving, gambling, stripping, whoring, and cursing that went with itwas supplanted by the comparatively clean-cut vaudeville. "Don't say 'slob' or 'son of a gun' or 'Holy Gee' on the stage unless you want to be canceled peremptorily," one manager's memo read. Trav S.D., himself a performer, describes with infectious relish such acts as a banjo-playing Shakespeare reciter, a one-legged tap dancer, a man who wrote backward, a comic lecturer on human anatomy, a drag trapeze artist, and "The VaggesWorld Champion Bag Punchers." Vaudeville withstood critics from Hitler to Henry Ford, along with innumerable tough crowds (Yale students were reportedly among the worst), to become a big business with a lasting impact; Bob Hope, George Burns, Fred Astaire, Buster Keaton, and the Marx Brothers all got their start there.
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