Dating back to the 1860s, burlesque ushered in a new era of entertainment. The flood of sexy, ribald acts took North America by storm, rousing the ardor of audiences from Florida to Victoria. It’s not surprising to see a full revival of burlesque over the past decade, thanks to homegrown performers like Miss Rosie Bitts, or international names like Dita von Teese.
—Now the world of heady entertainment has come full circle, with vaudeville reaching its own revival. Originating from the burlesque, circus, and dime museum acts of the mid-19th century, vaudeville first saw the stage in the 1880s, as the Jewish-American promoters of New York set out to develop a new form of entertainment for the middle class. What resulted was vaudeville, often called “variety,” as it incorporated the popular burlesque acts of the past two decades and added comics, skits, jugglers, circus animals, minstrels, and magicians—basically anything to draw the interest and curiosity of the crowd. Due to the sheer variety of acts, as well as the focus on “polite” entertainment that became prevalent by the end of the 19th century, vaudeville became the entertainment of choice for many men and women of the time.
Productions began popping up in major cities across the continent, and eventually became common in smaller towns. Now, some of our own promoters are hoping that vaudeville will catch Vancouver Island the same way.
The Island’s affair with vaudeville can be attributed to Night at the Palace, an annual vaudeville revue started by Nayana Mongeau and Rachel Drew in 2004 as a fundraiser for Errington Hall. Though the show is now a quick sell-out, and a third night was added fairly quickly, Mongeau admits that the younger generation was slow to catch on.
“The first audience that came were seniors from the area, because that was their era,” explains Mongeau. “It was nostalgic for them, so they were attracted to it. As more of the younger generation caught on to the excitement and fun, it pushed away a lot of the elderly—they’re not necessarily able to wait in line for two hours for tickets. It was kind of sad because it was neat for the elderly to experience that sort of revival of their time.”
The idea of staging a revival remains at the heart of the annual production. The costumes, décor, and music all hearken back to the golden age of vaudeville, and thanks to online archives of vaudeville on film, many of the acts are directly taken from the early 1900s as well. Among them is one of Mongeau’s own acts, “Cleopatra’s Nightmare,” which was originally written and performed at the height of the Egypt mania of the 1920s. The piece takes place in a hookah den, in which a young woman witnesses a premonition of Cleopatra, played by Mongeau herself.
Mongeau believes that vaudeville’s popularity is partly due to the satisfaction of performing it. She recalls certain technical people who have reluctantly volunteered to fill a spot on stage, only to be “bitten by the vaudeville bug” and return to performing the next year. She says that watching people grow on stage is one of the most rewarding parts of the night for her.
“It’s from all spectrums, from professionals to people who have never been on stage before, which is the most amazing thing to be a part of and watch,” she says. “To see people grow in confidence and quality. I’ve had a bit of theatre training in school and I had been in plays, but I didn’t have the kind of confidence I have today until Rachel kept pushing me and pushing me—I got used to it. Being able to help people reach the same point has been really gratifying.”
Mongeau admits that even she had little knowledge of what vaudeville was before being presented with the idea of putting on her own vaudeville show. This lack of awareness has also affected the branding of vaudeville shows elsewhere on the Island. Billed simply as “burlesque,” Nanaimo was host to its own amateur vaudeville night last December. Organized by Crace Mountain founders Katie Gilray and Jupiter Moons, the show featured burlesque, poetry, juggling, skits, and monologues, with some performers even signing up during the show. The format fits what Gilray calls Crace Mountain’s “inclusion policy,” designed to give local talent an audience, regardless of experience—a philosophy the promoters have carried over from the basement concerts they often host.
“The show was inspired by my love for old-timey entertainment,” explains Gilray. “There are a lot of bands nowadays who just go on stage and don’t say a word, basically just play their guitar and walk off. It was a reply to the lack of interactive entertainment. It’s the idea that the crowd is as big a part of it as the performers. We want people who just want to perform, in any way—someone who’s not too cool for school. Entertainment used to actually be entertaining, and that’s what we’re looking for.”
While A Night at the Palace focuses on period accuracy and well-honed performances, and could be compared to the “polite vaudeville” that brought the form to fame, Crace Mountain’s take on vaudeville is much more grassroots, and would be more familiar to very early proponents of the craft. Gilray says that leaving the stage open to impulsive performers, pushing students to take part, and keeping the night casual, cheap, and full of energy will hopefully make vaudeville more relevant to a city like Nanaimo.
“It’s 2014. We’re not in the 1860s,” says Gilray. “I think naturally and organically, [our shows] are using vaudeville in a modern way. We’re taking an old-timey thing and transforming it with what is around and who is around.”
While vaudeville enjoyed decades of immense popularity, it began to decline in the late 1920s. As radio offered a free form of entertainment, and movie theatres became more cheap and prominent, vaudeville fell from public favour. Only the most popular performers remained on the stage, though many others, such as the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Judy Garland, and the Three Stooges managed to find even greater success after transitioning to film. Eventually, the Great Depression of the 1930s would prove to be the last nail in the coffin for the form. Though vaudeville may have died, it lived on spiritually influencing movements in film like slapstick comedy.
Will the vaudeville revival bring variety back to its prime, much like the burlesque rebirth of the past decade? Or is the form destined to be forgotten?