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: Theatre Survey

Vaudeville Wars: How the Keith–Albee and Orpheum Circuits Controlled the Big-Time and Its Performers. Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance. By Arthur Frank Wertheim. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006; pp. xvii _ 332, 38 illus. $69.95 cloth.
DOI: 10.1017/S0040557407000750

By Steve Nelson, New York University

As Woody Allen famously remarked about show business, “If it wasn’t a business, they’d call it show show.” In the age of Disney and Time–Warner, such an observation seems almost quaint. In Vaudeville Wars, Arthur Frank Wertheim aims to tell us how this now powerfully self-evident business came about. His narrative centers on the second generation of American entertainment entrepreneurs who followed in the footsteps of nineteenth-century pioneers like P. T. Barnum and Tony Pastor. If Barnum and Pastor made amusing people their business, B. F. Keith and his contemporaries made it an empire, and in the process laid the foundations for today’s entertainment conglomerates.

Vaudeville was no accident: in the same way that Walt Disney turned cartoons and amusement parks into powerful, carefully crafted family entertainments, so Keith and other late nineteenth-century impresarios forged vaudeville from preexisting forms and the innovations of others. They pitched it as family fare not out of moral conviction but as a sure route to the largest audiences and profits. Keith in many ways typified the hard-nosed Scottish brand of American businessmen that included Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan. He combined a rigorous Protestant work ethic with the natural huckster’s tenacious sense of opportunity—as a teenager he peddled pictures of Abraham Lincoln after the president’s assassination and hawked fake “endless matches” on street corners. Keith’s entree into show business came as a circus grifter hustling bogus medicine-show-type health gimmicks and concoctions. His longtime partner, Edward Franklin Albee, once said that Keith “reminded me more of P. T. Barnum than any man I ever knew” (6). In Boston in 1880, Keith launched his career as Barnum had, with a dime museum.

To capitalize on the success of dime museums in Boston’s rival to the south, Keith called his first establishment “The New York Dime Museum” and presented novelties in the Barnum manner. His feature attraction was “Rherma, the Mysterious Lady Warbler,” who, according to Keith’s ballyhoo, “laughs, talks, sings, a living head severed from the waist” (13). Some months later, Keith added the “Three Headed Songstress,” another singing illusion that gave the impression of three heads on one body (14). He was off and running.

Keith’s rise to fame and power, his partnership with E. F. Albee, and the development of continuous performance as a vaudeville staple are all well documented here. Wertheim also gives appropriate and deserved attention to Gustav Walter, the colorful and commodious (over 300 pounds) founder of the Orpheum Circuit, Keith and Albee’s West Coast rival. Like Keith, Walter began his career at the right time and place. San Francisco was a booming, raucous town in the late nineteenth century. Its Barbary Coast and Kearny Street amusements were as lively and immodest as any on the East Coast. Unlike Keith, Walter did not begin with a booze-free approach to popular entertainment. Coming from the boisterous tradition of the German beer hall, he expanded its natural clientele with the simple observation that women also drink and like live entertainment. Billing his Vienna Gardens at Sutter and Stockton Streets as “A Picturesque Family Resort,” Walter’s admission charges were 25 cents for adults and 10 for children. Unlike many of the popular all-male concert saloons of the day (early 1880s), Walter kept things clean and filled his bills with international concert fare, variety acts, and farces.

The real story here, however, is Wertheim’s examination of popular entertainment’s evolution as big business on a national scale. Along with the Shubert brothers (their counterparts in the “legit” realm), Walter, Keith, and Albee learned early on that owning the real estate, controlling booking, and staying ahead of the competition were keys to success. They played hardball and were ruthless in their desire to remain on top. For a while, it worked. But despite lavish theatres, topname performers, and healthy ticket revenue, there were clouds on the horizon. After World War I a new element emerged: for the first time motion pictures were seriously competing with live theatre for audiences. For a while, combination shows (film and live acts on the same bill) allowed the vaudeville magnates to stay competitive, but the Big Time was getting stale. After sound arrived (with Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer in 1927), vaudeville’s days were numbered.

In January 1928, the Keith–Albee and Orpheum Circuits merged, but the company’s continuing financial weakness made it a prime takeover target. E. F. Albee was outmaneuvered by a brash Irish-Catholic Boston venture capitalist named Joseph P. Kennedy, who took control and ultimately removed Albee’s name from the chain’s marquees. Seeing movies and radio as the future, Kennedy engineered a yet bigger merger—fusing the Keith–Albee–Orpheum vaudeville empire with FBO (Film Booking Offices of America, a film production and distribution company) andDavid Sarnoff’s RCA(Radio Corporation ofAmerica) in October 1928 to form RKO. A year later, the stock market crashed. On March 11, 1930, E. F. Albee died, still wealthy but despondent and nearly forgotten, at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, the same hotel in which—some sixteen years earlier—B. F. Keith had gone to his reward. As Wertheim rightly observes, Albee “failed to realize that show business had become a complex industry . . . he lacked the vision necessary to create an entertainment conglomerate such as RKO” (275).

Vaudeville as performance genre and American cultural phenomenon has received extensive scholarly examination in recent years, including the lively 2005 chronicle by Trav S.D., No Applause—Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous. However, scant attention has been paid to the entrepreneurs who made it happen. Wertheim’s ably written chronicle of vaudeville’s moguls provides a welcome and solidly detailed look at American entertainment’s first empire. However rapacious they may have been, Keith, Albee, and Walter championed a brand of variety performance that still retains a cherished place in American popular culture. You sure won’t see anything like it on Time–Warner Cable.

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