Vaudeville: An American Masters Special

A Prance Into the Past
PBSs Vaudeville: Those Really Were the Days

Tom Shales, The Washington Post -- " 'Frivolity,' says writer John Lahr, 'is the species' refusal to suffer.' He isn't referring to television, the frivolity machine in nearly every American home, but instead to one of its most illustrious predecessors: vaudeville. Live acts in a real theater before a live audience.

Lahr's father, Bert, was a star on vaudeville stages before becoming immortal as the Cowardly Lion in MGMs 'The Wizard of Oz.' But most vaudeville stars went on only to anonymity. Their craft and the rich contribution they made are lovingly celebrated in 'Vaudeville,' an enchanting American Masters special…

Narrator Ben Vereen traces vaudeville from its origins in British music halls, the Yiddish theater and elsewhere. An intelligent script by Greg Palmer, who conceived the project, talks about not only the Eddie Cantors and Burns-and-Allens but also the near greats and the merely goods who were not 'going for art,' as Lahr notes, but 'going for money.'

Some of the zippiest recollections come from saucy June Havoc, the actress once best known for being the sister of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Their lives on the vaudeville circuits, and eventually in burlesque, were recounted in the stage, screen and TV versions of 'Gypsy.'

Havoc would make a great guest on a talk show like Charlie Rose's or Tom Snyder's, but the producers of such programs don't want stars from the old days. They want stars from the new days, even if they're the biggest droning bores on Earth. Havoc obviously has a wealth of tales to tell, including one about an act that sounds insanely grotesque: a woman who lets rats run up and down her arms while another rat, on top of her head, was induced to toot into a kazoo.

In priceless clips, they pass in review again: acrobats, contortionists, dancers, comics, jugglers, hillbilly bands and the unlikely likes of Trixie Friganza, a hefty gal who almost beat her bass fiddle to death…

There's many a sad side to this happy story. Black performers could appear on the same stages as white acts in some states, but in many of the same states they had to sit in segregated balconies or were banned from the audience altogether. The old minstrel tradition of 'corking up,' or blackening ones face, extended even to artists who really were black…

All this lore and reminiscence - of the bad as well as the beautiful - makes 'Vaudeville'" a heartbreaking as well as heartwarming two hours. This, one can plainly see, is the show business that Irving Berlin said there was no business like. How right he was."