Will it Play in Austin? ‘Vaudeville!’ at the Ransom Center

A stunning exhibit at the Ransom Center guides visitors through the often problematic relics of America’s popular entertainment past — and America’s past itself

Unidentified photographer, [Yale Theatre in Austin, TX], ca. 1911. Gelatin silver print, 20.5 x 25.3 cm. Interstate Theater Collection, Harry Ransom Center. Originally at 618 Congress Avenue, the Yale Theatre was among the earliest nickelodeons in Austin. Featuring stars of vaudeville like Buffalo Bill, movie houses could bring variety to larger audiences without having to wait for a star visit their town.

“In vaudeville, ‘there is always something for everybody,’ just as in every state and city, in every county and town in our democratic country, there is opportunity for everybody, a chance for all.”

That idealistic bromide, appearing just to the left of a small stage complete with footlights and red velvet curtains, is attributed to Edward F. Albee in the Harry Ransom Center’s “Vaudeville” exhibition.

A prominent impresario during the heyday of traveling entertainments, Albee and other producers marketed the performance circuit to audiences as a quintessentially American way to spend their time and money. In the process they created quintessentially American stars like Harry Houdini, Mae West, W. C. Fields, Bert Williams, Burns & Allen and Barbette.

Culled from the Ransom Center’s vast holdings by curator Eric Colleary, “Vaudeville” guides visitors through stunning and often problematic relics of America’s popular entertainment past — which is to say America’s past itself.

The exhibition “Vaudeville!” Photo by Pete Smith. Courtesy Harry Ransom Center

Although centuries-old drawings of traveling Roman mimes illustrate the distant ancestors of vaudeville, the decades leading up to its golden age saw the rise of minstrel shows as a favorite pastime and a major cultural export internationally. Minstrel heavily influenced later iterations of the “variety show” and the national networks of itinerant minstrel companies like Christy’s Minstrels or Haverly’s United Mastodon Minstrels provided the early basis for what by the 1860s would become the coast-spanning system of vaudeville circuits.

The exhibit actively works to humanize minstrel’s legacy by featuring the life of Burt Williams, a successful African American blackface performer and director. Unpleasant though the exploitative history of blackface is, Colleary has selected items and designed the gallery in order to contextualize minstrels’s relationship to popular culture while deemphasizing especially triggering materials. This exhibit offers the burnt cork rather than grinning Jim Crow.

Stationary vaudeville exhibitions like Barnum’s American Museum or even small time saloon acts on the frontier realized tremendous popularity when the dawn of the locomotive travel made touring feasible in the early 1880s. Tony Pastor and other theater owners gradually linked a nation of small towns, metropolises and outposts into an interlocking network forever hungry for fresh talent.

Poster for Sam Devere’s Own Company, featuring Thomas Ryan and Mary Richfield, ca. 1900. Popular Entertainment Collection, Harry Ransom Center.

An interactive map even lets patrons follow the routes of the Orpheum, the Alexander Pantages, and other circuits to see what cities appeared on the schedule in any given state. Comic sketches, acrobatics, animal tricks, magic, blackface performance, celebrity appearances, early film, ethnic humor, and more could all play the same stage on the same night (often two shows a day) before packing up and lighting out for the next stop.

It seems quaint now, but the vaudeville circuit generated an explosion of minor (and a few major) celebrities on a scale familiar now to our Hollywood-oriented star culture. Of course, that amount of energy and tumult also demanded an enormous amount of paperwork, advertisements and memorabilia. 

But in America, we are quick to dismiss popular culture and often decry it as trite or unsubstantive. While the wealthy were raising funds to build opera houses, citizens across social strata were paying to see Bill “Bojangles” Robinson dance or Carrie Nation throw an axe. They were producing and affirming an American culture full of rowdiness, contradiction and encounters with difference.

The handbills, poster and other (usually fragile) artifacts that evidence this formative period are sadly scarce. But the perennial wonder of the Ransom Center is the depth of its collections. The 202 items on display present both a cohesive narrative about the rise and decline of vaudeville and a sense of its expansiveness. Audio experiences, rare film clips, props like Houdini’s leg shackles, and costumes further fill out the distinctly American and decided rowdy golden age up through the 1930s.    

Herbert Mitchell (American, 1898-1980), [Ethel Waters], 1931. Gelatin silver print, 35.5 x 27.8 cm. Theater Biography Collection, Harry Ransom Center. Ethel Waters got her start on the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA) circuit, one of the only major vaudeville circuits to employ African American performers. Her talents as an actress and blues artist quickly made her one of the most celebrated entertainers of her generation.
At the end of the Ransom Center’s wide exhibit hall stands an early commercial radio and television, coffin-size relics from the days when those devices were polished pieces of wooden furniture. Of course, these portals to mass media would spell the end of the the vaudeville circuit, but Colleary has taken pains to ensure that its legacy endured well into the 20th and 21st centuries through musical theater, stand up comedy and television shows like Laugh In and Saturday Night Live.

In this way, the Ransom Center’s “Vaudeville!” at the Harry Ransom Center will likely be a reminiscence for some, mind-boggling for others, but it will be informative for all.

Faced down by the radio and television, the diminutive stage holds central prominence in the gallery. It has been outfitted with appropriate lighting, crimson curtains, a few sample speeches and even an audience of benches. It stands empty but beckoning visitors to tread the boards, to fulfill a hard-to-place desire to live the life of a traveling performer.

But this stage is also quite different from those of vaudeville and is entirely absent of “freakshows” and demands for ethnic stereotypes. In fact, this stage has a ramp for wheelchair access in a hall with no fee for entry and a commitment to context and representation.

It is, perhaps, not a model of a vaudeville stage but instead a model for the vaudevilles, the popular entertainments of America’s theatrical future.    

“Vaudeville!” continues through July 15 at the Ransom Center. Admission is free. hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/2018/vaudeville/

Ticket for a box seat at the Bowery Theatre, New York, ca. 1840. American Theaters Collection, Harry Ransom Center.
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