Media Kit Book Review: Journal of American History
Vaudeville Wars: How the Keith-Albee and Orpheum Circuits Controlled the Big-Time and Its Performers. By Arthur Frank Wertheim. (New York: Palgrave, 2006. xviii, 332 pp. $69.95, ISBN 1-4039-6826-8.)
By M. Alison Kibler
Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania
The behind-the-scenes business of vaudeville was as dramatic as the daredevil acrobats, risqu com comedians, and fashionable divas on stage. Arthur Frank Wertheim's business history of vaudeville, Vaudeville Wars, vividly captures the personalities, achievements, and tragedies behind the rise and fall of the most popular live entertainment industry in the early twentieth century. Vaudeville's leading promoters, Benjamin Franklin Keith, Edward Albee, Morris Meyerfeld Jr., and Martin Beck, took variety shows from dime museums, concert saloons, and beer halls to the pinnacle of respectable American popular culture by appealing to families and offering opulent theaters and high-class acts at affordable prices. The engine that drove that "mass" culture phenomenon was a national vaudeville empire that crushed the vaudeville performers' union and overtook independent theater owners and agents.
Historians have already described vaudeville's central role in the development of American mass culture. Wertheim retraces many of those steps here, but his portraits of the winners and losers in the vaudeville business are often original. Short and stubborn, Keith brought the values of his farm-family upbringing in New England to his business ventures. "Tempermental and spiteful," Albee, Keith's right-hand man, left his cold, religious family to work in theater (p. 24). Those New England gentiles clashed with Jewish immigrant entrepreneurs Meyerfeld and Beck, who had engineered the West Coast Orpheum chain of theaters. Despite their disparate backgrounds, which created an atmosphere of suspicion in their negotiations, these two sides established a successful east-west alliance. In 1907, the new network, known as the Combine, protected territorial rights for each circuit and consolidated a national booking system. This was vaudeville's golden spike.
Wertheim offers compelling portraits of some of the lesser-known players in the vaudeville business÷agents such as William Morris, who lost out to the United Booking Office, the writer/publisher Sime Silverman who challenged the Combine in his weekly trade paper, Variety, and labor leaders such as Harry Mountford. Though the Combine survived those challenges, vaudeville still slid into obscurity because of the magnates' excesses, the rise of motion pictures, and the depression.
Wertheim demonstrates that the business side of vaudeville, like the rapid-fire acts on stage, had its own hectic culture. The central booking office in New York City was a "whirlwind of activity," with theater managers, bookers, and agents shouting at each other across a big table (p. 157). Despite the noise and urgency, the process was far from chaotic. Agents consulted vast file drawers with information about performers, and managers "churned out [vaudeville bills] like a well-oiled machine" (p. 161).
Though rich in detail, the descriptions of moguls are sometimes misleading. Wertheim presents Keith's self-congratulatory statements about "refining" vaudeville as fact, whereas scholars like Kathryn Oberdeck have shown that vaudeville's gentrification was highly contested. Wertheim's chronicle of battling vaudeville circuits is often engrossing, but the story here is insular, rarely referring to trends outside of this theatrical venue. Nevertheless, this comprehensive examination of the inner workings of vaudeville is a powerful reminder that in America cultural history is business history.
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