Vaudeville Wars


How the Keith-Albee and Orpheum Circuits Controlled the Big Time and Its Performers
written by Arthur Frank Wertheim, published by Palgrave Macmillan

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Media Kit – Overview

Vaudeville Wars illuminates the exciting and intriguing story about how the tycoons of the two most powerful vaudeville circuits, Keith-Albee in the East and the Orpheum in the West, conspired to control the "big time." The story is even more amazing since many of these vaudeville entrepreneurs started out with no money, little education, and gained their early experience working odd jobs in traveling circuses.

In 1883, B.F. Keith started offering variety acts at his tiny Boston "dime museum." Business grew rapidly when he began running continuous shows throughout the day and evening. In the next decade, Keith and others revolutionized popular stage entertainment by breaking with the bawdy concert-saloon tradition associated with drinking and prostitution by offering instead wholesome amusement that appealed broadly to families and many sectors of society, from immigrant laborers to white-collar office workers, and eventually high society. Keith's motto was "cleanliness, comfort, and courtesy," and he strove to offer top acts from the U.S. and Europe in luxurious theaters.

These new vaudeville palaces came at a steep price. In the mid-1890s, Keith, and his partner Edward Franklin Albee, built "the model playhouse of the country" in Boston for over a half million dollars. The opulent grand foyer of the New Boston Theatre featured rose-colored walls, white marble floors, ornamental mirrors, antique cabinets containing Dresden china, neoclassical paintings, and Louis XV antiques. It was the first time in this country that exquisite objects of art, beautiful furniture and an atmosphere of elegance had crept into the foyer of a theater operating at popular prices. The 3,000- seat auditorium was equally stunning, and more than 115 uniformed attendants cared for the patrons' needs. Ticket prices scaled from 15 cents for a balcony seat to $1.50 for a box seat, reflected their goal to attract both the working and upper classes, and it was the successful start of a campaign to gentrify vaudeville.

Wertheim's Vaudeville Wars is the first book to thoroughly discuss the growth of the "big time" in the West. In 1887, Gustav Walter opened the first Orpheum in San Francisco, but it was not until Morris Meyerfeld and Martin Beck assumed leadership that the Orpheum circuit grew to operate theaters that stretched from the Pacific Coast to the Midwest.

During its zenith (from approximately 1890 to 1920) as a preeminent popular stage entertainment, vaudeville attracted two million patrons each day across the country. Offering two shows a day, the "big time's" playbills included performances by comedians, acrobats, dancers, singers, circus performers, animal acts and short "playlets". The most famous headliners and talented stage artists performed in the "big time." Vaudeville Wars includes vignettes on the early careers of Houdini, W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, Will Rogers, George M. Cohan and many others. Glimpses of Sarah Bernhardt and Mae West, and portraits of the ingenious impresarios Oscar Hammerstein and Marcus Loew, enliven this fascinating book.

In the early 1900s, the East and West circuits created an oligopoly called the Combine, a territorial alliance that gave Keith-Albee and the Orpheum control of the "big time" from the Atlantic to the Pacific Coasts. To protect their national network of hundreds of vaudeville theaters, the Combine used cutthroat tactics to suppress rival owners and to squash performers' rights (and their White Rats' union) through strikebreaking and blacklisting. Vaudeville Wars also describes how Sime Silverman (founder of Variety) and William Morris (founder of the current agency) futilely fought the Combine.

With the advent of movies in the 1920s, vaudeville's popularity started to decline. Using previously closed documents at the Kennedy Library in Boston, Wertheim shows how Joseph P. Kennedy masterminded a takeover of Keith-Albee/Orpheum through clever stock manipulations. Then Kennedy linked the company to RCA to form Radio Keith Orpheum – these transactions reaped Kennedy a fortune at the time. When the "big-time" venues, including the famous Palace, became RKO sound movie theaters, the curtain descended on the vaudeville wars.

Wertheim weaves an engaging story that reads like a novel from start to finish and shows that despite the battles between the performers and the circuit moguls, the vaudeville wars forged an electrifying entertainment that at its zenith brought joy to millions.

Arthur Frank Wertheim has written several books on 20th Century American culture, including The New York Little Renaissance and Radio Comedy. He has also edited three volumes of The Papers of Will Rogers, Will Rogers at the Ziegfeld Follies, and American Popular Culture. A former American history professor at the University of Southern California and other universities, as well as an administrator at the University of California, Los Angeles, his awards include a Fulbright grant to teach at the University of Indonesia.

How the Keith-Albee and Orpheum Circuits Controlled the Big-Time and Its Performers
By Arthur Frank Wertheim
Palgrave Macmillan
(Published May 2006)
ISBN: 1-4039-6826-8; $69.95; 336 pages; Hardcover

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