06 November 2006

Distant Voices

The phonograph and later, the talking film, would serve as a repository for vaudeville era performances that would be otherwise lost forever. True, archived newspapers and periodicals provide an invaluable record of these performers and the time in which they worked and lived, but no amount of prose --- however descriptive, can replace or duplicate hearing what we can't possibly experience from our present position in time.

Vaudeville and vaudeville-type performances always seemed to go hand-in-hand with technical advances that appeared during the format's lifetime. From the birth of recorded sound and soon thereafter the motion picture film, and throughout the development of the talking film, vaudeville routines were captured in great numbers, either by the original performers or interpreted by others. Most curiously, all of this happened seemingly without much thought given to the fact that a live and original performance, once caught on shellac or celluloid and then duplicated and widely distributed, made the original performance something vastly less the "event" it once was --- it's commercial value immediately diminished by a competing form of public entertainment.

Indeed, by the time talkies firmly took hold and countless theaters ceased vaudeville performances in favor of continuous talking film presentations, how many vaudevillians faced the odd dilemma of being thrown out of work, replaced by their own images, in short films that they so willingly agreed to appear in months before? Many would migrate to radio, others would gamely plug on aboard a train destined for oblivion, and the great majority would simply move on with their lives and leave behind yellowed scrapbooks and recordings ultimately destined for destruction or rediscovery decades ahead in the future.

Here then, a sampling of voices you may have never heard, from another time and place...

The unrivaled beauty of her day, Lillian Russell (1860-1922).. Voluptuous, elegant and possessing a certain indefinable something that captured the public fancy in a way we can't easily understand today. Actress and contemporary Marie Dressler would later remember, "I can still recall the rush of pure awe that marked her entrance on the stage. And then the thunderous applause that swept from orchestra to gallery, to the very roof." It's difficult to equate the tremulous, unremarkable voice heard in the following 1902 recording with a woman widely accepted as the sensation of her day, but perhaps --- in the end --- that fact says much more of us than of Miss Russell.

"Come Down, Ma' Evenin' Star" (1902)
From "Twirly Whirly"
Weber & Fields' Broadway Musical Hall
247 Performances

"Come Down, Ma' Evenin' Star" (1902)


In July of 1908, visitors to Washington D.C.'s Luna Park amusement area could end the evening by visiting an all-star vaudeville entertainment that included a dog & monkey act, acrobats and one Miss Florence Gibson, who was buried alive ("six feet underground") at every performance. The Master of Ceremonies, Press Eldridge, billed himself as "The Commander in Chief of Fun," and at least a small portion of his performance would be forever entombed within the grooves of a wax cylinder in 1909.

"A Confidential Chat" (1909)
Press Eldridge
Edison Cylinder Recording
"A Confidential Chat" (1909)


Stage performer Raymond Hitchcock (1865-1929) appeared in over thirty major Broadway productions between 1898 and 1928, various motion pictures (both silent and sound) and toured the globe with countless personal appearances, with a unique style and wit that's difficult to describe. Imagine a Yankee version of Will Rogers or a somewhat more refined George M. Cohan, if you will. But why explain, when you can listen for yourself?

"In the Days of Old" (1910)
Raymond Hitchcock

From "The Yankee Consul" (1904)
The Broadway Theater - 115 Performances

"In the Days of Old" (1910)

Nora Bayes' solo recording of "The Japanese Sandman" (1920) is, despite the audio limitations of the acoustic recording process, a vaudeville performance come to life and a moment in music history, somewhere between the fading influence of ragtime and the emergence of jazz, captured forever. The dawn of the 1920's. While listening, try and see if you can't visualize a dim theater stage and the figure of the vocalist standing before a dim backdrop of Asian design. As the opening refrain draws to a close, a lighting effect reveals the images spoken of in the song, interpreted by a papier mache tree bearing crepe paper cherry blossoms.

"The Japanese Sandman" (1920)
Nora Bayes & Orchestra
78rpm Disc - Recorded 25 August 1920

"The Japanese Sandman" (1920)

Clarence Senna, a pianist and humorist of the 1920's, seems to have spent much of his performing career offering musical support to vaudevillian Ruby Norton, perhaps his wife, who toured with an act titled "A Song For Everyone." Playing small venues in the South that offered a film and vaudeville for the price of admission (see ad below) one can imagine the frustration involved in delivering a song or monologue while audiences busily entered and exited at will! Through luck or ability (and he was, after all, decidedly clever) he landed a contract with Columbia in 1927 that produced at least one two-sided record containing two abbreviated musical routines, one of which is heard here. Beyond 1927, what became of Mr. Senna -- and Miss Ruby Norton for that matter, is unknown to me.

"How to Write A Popular Song" (1927)
Clarence Senna
Columbia 78rpm Disc #1277
Recorded 29 December 1927
"How to Write a Popular Song" (1927)


For the final entry in this post (and I suspect there will be others of this sort eventually, as the topic is irresistible and vast), allow me to introduce two vaudevillians of the highest order, Blossom Seeley and Benny Fields. Partners in life and career (a fact which formed the basis for a grossly inaccurate 1952 film entitled "Somebody Loves Me"), they were the ultimate professionals. Always delivering an incredibly polished performance as finely tuned and timed as a clockwork mechanism, but never seeming anything but fresh, immediate and vital. In the following audio excerpt, from a 1928 Vitaphone short subject appearance, Seeley & Fields' exuberance and sheer joy in performing for a new medium is very much in evidence, and positively infectious. It is moments such as these that has power enough to make the "days of old" which Raymond Hitchcock spoke of seem as though they were only yesterday.

"In A Little Spanish Town" (1928)
Excerpt from "Blossom Seeley & Benny Fields" (WB-Vitaphone-1928)

"In a Little Spanish Town" (1928)


Raymond Hitchcock photo #DN-0054391 Courtesy Chicago Historical Society

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