Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Vanishing Vaudeville: A Guest Post by Mary Miley, author of The Impersonator

Mary Miley's The Impersonator (reviewed last week) has sparked my interest in all things vaudeville, and her essay on collecting rare memorabilia from the era does so even more.  I'm also looking forward to seeing some of the performers mentioned here in future books in the series.  Welcome, Mary!


Vanishing Vaudeville
Mary Miley

Consider for a moment how much Stuff you could find if you were collecting memorabilia relating to the theater, television, or movies. You’d discover an endless supply of books and magazines, posters and framed advertisements, and costumes and stage props, not to mention the actual movies and recordings to play at home. You could view Dorothy’s ruby slippers and Archie Bunker’s chair at the Smithsonian, and buy across old fan magazines and posters at every antiques mall in the country. But Stuff from vaudeville? Vaudeville has vanished.

Oh, all right, not completely. But hunting for vaudeville memorabilia is devilishly difficult because so little exists. And that is a mystery in itself.

For the past eight years, I’ve been on a mission to learn all I could about this uniquely American form of entertainment, and collecting relevant Stuff is an important part of that effort. Whenever I give a talk or teach a class, I bring Stuff with me to illustrate the era. (Show and Tell was my best subject in elementary school.) Things like antiques, recordings, images, ephemera—even edibles!—liven up the topic far more effectively than words or pictures.

Vaudeville is the setting for The Impersonator, the first in my Roaring Twenties mystery series that introduces Jessie, a struggling young performer who is persuaded to impersonate a missing heiress for a cut of the inheritance. “When people ask where I’m from,” she says, “I tell them vaudeville. It even sounds like a town.” Growing up in vaudeville meant Jessie moved every week to a new city, stayed in whatever cheap hotel would accept theater people, slept on trains, and ate stringy meat and boiled potatoes at boarding houses. Although vaudeville was family-style, variety-show entertainment, performers were still considered the social equivalent of prostitutes and crooks. Which, to be fair, some were. “Performers are toasted and admired as long as they are on stage,” Jessie says. “Off stage, we’re not respectable, like gypsies or immigrants.”

Creating an authentic setting for the series has been an adventure in itself. Primary materials are few and far between. I treasure my best source, a memoir titled Vaudeville by Joe Laurie, Jr., published in 1953. Joe reminisces about old vaudeville acts that he knew during his long career, some of which I’ve incorporated in my own books when their dates are right for 1924. The Kanazawa Japs, Baby Silvia, the Seven Little Foys, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and the Venetian Masqueraders all moved from Joe’s book to mine. One of my favorite acts is Cats and Rats, where trained rats performed acrobatic routines with cats. How on earth did they do that? “They stuff the cats and starve the rats,” says Jessie.

Sadly, most performers’ names and acts are lost to history. The only ones we know about today are those who later became famous in movies, radio, or television. A biography or autobiography about one of those performers usually gives me details about how that person started in vaudeville. Bob Hope, originally Leslie Hope when he played the Gus Sun circuit in the 1920s, becomes a minor character in one of my books, as do Jack Benny (then Benny Kubelsky), Mae West (Mary Jane West), Milton Berle (Milton Berlinger), Fred and Adele Astaire, and the Marx Brothers. If I can learn exactly where and when they were working and find some description of their acts, I can recruit them on Jessie’s behalf to help her solve the murder. I’ve tried hard to do this without sounding awkward—not always easy.

Almost no one alive today has seen a vaudeville show. What were they like? A selection of YouTube clips showing old acts gives us some idea. For a taste, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZo4imTt4Og and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PsVQ9e8nWx0 . And here’s a charmer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SA6wYvVnq4g that inspired an act for a character who is a Little Person.

During the seventy years that vaudeville reigned supreme in American entertainment, millions of programs and posters were printed. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that so few survive—programs were trash to toss after the performance. But why are there not more examples of the posters and photographs that were tacked to the front of thousands of theaters across the country every week? I’ve combed eBay and local antiques shows for years and found one (one!) authentic poster (it was priced way out of my range) and a few programs (priced at $7 to $20) like the one below. I bring them with me to book signings and lectures for Show and Tell.

Click to enlarge and read!

Most of vaudeville’s glorious theaters are gone, casualties of urban renewal. Ephemera went in the wastebasket. I treasure what little I have and haven’t given up on finding more.


MARY MILEY is the winner of the 2012 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition. She worked at Colonial Williamsburg, taught American history at Virginia Commonwealth University for thirteen years, and has published extensively in history and travel. This is her first novel. Miley lives in Richmond, Virginia.


  1. Be interesting to know if there were any subversive women working in vaudeville....

  2. Oh wow, that sounds like such a cool idea for a novel. I love classic movies and I like it when they portray vaudevillians.

  3. I've since bought another novel set in the vaudeville scene, Marina Endicott's The Little Shadows. Curious if anyone else has read it.

  4. This is sounds so interesting! I've been a fan of the 20s era ever since I read The Great Gatsby and the impersonation of a missing heiress reminds me of Anastasia. Definitely adding this to my to-read list!

    1. Interesting - I hadn't thought of the storyline in terms of Anastasia, but I can see the parallels now that you mention it!