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 – Book Review: American Historical Review

Arthur Frank Wertheim. Vaudeville Wars: How the Keith-Albee and Orpheum Circuits Controlled the Big-Time and Its Performers. (Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History.)New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2006. Pp. xvii, 332. $69.95.

By Kathryn J. Oberdeck
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Recognized as an important site of cross-class entertainment that brought “respectable” audiences to acts once relegated to “lowbrow” variety houses and appreciated for its important role in introducing moving pictures to U.S. audiences and routinizing entertainment formulae that became the basis for early radio and television, vaudeville has proven a seemingly inexhaustible source of insight into cultural experiences and contests ranging across lines of class, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, “respectability,” and just plain fun. As recent historians have mined vaudeville's varied performances for illumination of these dimensions of everyday life, however, they have focused primarily on the performative strategies of vaudeville artists and the even more elusive and contradictory meanings potentially found in vaudeville by its audiences. The business of vaudeville, especially as shaped by the increasingly corporate strategies of the men who built, managed, and controlled its largest theatrical circuits, while certainly part of these cultural analyses, has tended to occupy a background that explains limits imposed on performers' creativity and sources of vaudeville formulae. In this book, Arthur Frank Wertheim brings the strategies of big-time vaudeville's most powerful magnates to the foreground.

For these purposes the standard headliners of the vaudeville story—vivacious songsters like Sophie Tucker, future film comics like Buster Keaton or W.C. Fields, or African American stars who struggled against vaudeville's racial discrimination, like Bert Williams—take a back seat to the men who turned modest beginnings in dime museum and immigrant beer-garden establishments into a lucrative national industry. Principal among these are Benjamin Franklin Keith and Edward Franklin Albee, who rose from New England farm and artisanal backgrounds, through stints in circus work, to develop Keith's Boston museum enterprise into a magnificent chain of theaters offering palatial splendor and purportedly respectable, inoffensive comedy at popular prices. On the Pacific coast during the same late nineteenth-century decades Keith and Albee were growing their circuit, German immigrants Gustav Walter and Morris Myerfield were transforming San Francisco's German immigrant–based entertainment venues into a western circuit of Orpheum theaters, capitalizing on the period's railroad expansion by building enough theaters across the vast territories between Chicago and San Francisco that performers could tour without having to endure overly long and unproductive jumps between houses. Eventually, the Keith-Albee interests and the Orpheum circuit, overseen by Myerfield and his booking agent Martin Beck, entered a contentious but lucrative booking arrangement that divided the country into eastern (Keith) and western (Orpheum) wings offering performers uninterrupted forty-two-week tours when the combine's booking wizardry worked best. Consolidating the combine required a host of once independent impresarios to join the fold, a process that produced the “wars” of the title between the Keith-Orpheum interests and impressarios like Oscar Hammerstein, Sylvester Poli, Percy Williams, and the independent agent William Morris, as well as Sime Silverman, founder of the vaudeville sheet Variety. Wertheim covers in fascinating detail the cutthroat strategies through which the combine forced these colorful personalities to play vaudeville their way by interfering with financing for new theaters, blacklisting actors who dared perform for competing vaudeville concerns, and luring recalcitrant managers with attractive exclusive rights to mount big-time vaudeville within agreed-upon territories.

Performers themselves enter Wertheim's story at many junctures, although their experiences with the combine and its rules and often ruthless contracts are given more prominence than their performances. The efforts of union leaders like George Fuller Golden and Harry Mountford, who led the White Rats union for vaudeville actors through a variety of negotiations and conflicts with the Keith-Orpheum Combine, receive the most fulsome, and welcome, attention. Though courageous in their efforts to get better conditions for actors in the way of commission fees, contract terms, and routes, vaudeville's unionists were notably unsuccessful in their efforts to use union organization to improve the actors' lot, largely because participants in the Keith-Orpheum Combine were especially ruthless in their dealings with unions but also because many actors agreed with the rhetoric used by the combine to form a company union—that they should be artists, not artisans.

Overall, Wertheim charts a crucial dimension to vaudeville history that figures importantly in shaping the more cultural, expressive elements of vaudeville that recent scholarship has foregrounded. He is well read in that scholarship, as his bibliography and the notes reveal (although many of the latter are available only on an accompanying website,, and has also done painstaking primary research. Contractual limitations on book length forced the excision of many citations in the book. Readers may wish that instead the publisher had paid more attention to copyediting and concision, as the main complaint one might have is that the writing is too often unnecessarily repetitive. Some attention to these details might have saved space to include between the covers evidence of the admirable scholarship that produced the work.

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