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- Writing for Vaudeville - 1/95 -


WRITING FOR VAUDEVILLE

WITH NINE COMPLETE EXAMPLES OF VARIOUS VAUDEVILLE FORMS BY RICHARD HARDING DAVIS, AARON HOFFMAN, EDGAR ALLAN WOOLF, TAYLOR GRANVILLE, LOUIS WESLYN, ARTHUR DENVIR, AND JAMES MADISON

BY BRETT PAGE

AUTHOR OF "CLOSE HARMONY," "CAMPING DAYS," "MEMORIES," ETC.

DRAMATIC EDITOR, NEWSPAPER FEATURE SERVICE, NEW YORK

THE WRITER'S LIBRARY EDITED BY J. BERG ESENWEIN

FOREWORD

Can you be taught how to write for vaudeville? If you have the native gift, what experienced writers say about its problems, what they themselves have accomplished, and the means by which it has been wrought, will be of help to you. So much this book offers, and more I would not claim for it.

Although this volume is the first treatise on the subject of which I know, it is less an original offering than a compilation. Growing out of a series of articles written in collaboration with Mr. William C. Lengel for The Green Book Magazine, the subject assumed such bigness in my eyes that when I began the writing of this book, I spent months harvesting the knowledge of others to add to my own experience. With the warm-heartedness for which vaudevillians are famous, nearly everyone whose aid I asked lent assistance gladly. "It is vaudeville's first book," said more than one, deprecating the value of his own suggestions, "and we want it right in each slightest particular."

To the following kindly gentlemen I wish to express my especial thanks: Aaron Hoffman, Edwin Hopkins, James Madison, Edgar Allan Woolf, Richard Harding Davis--the foremost example of a writer who made a famous name first in literature and afterward in vaudeville--Arthur Hopkins, Taylor Granville, Junie McCree, Arthur Denvir, Frank Fogarty, Irving Berlin, Charles K. Harris, L. Wolfe Gilbert, Ballard MacDonald, Louis Bernstein, Joe McCarthy, Joseph Hart, Joseph Maxwell, George A. Gottlieb, Daniel F. Hennessy, Sime Silverman, Thomas J. Gray, William C. Lengel, Miss Nellie Revell, the "big sister of vaudeville," and a host of others whose names space does not permit my naming again here, but whose work is evidenced in the following pages. To Alexander Black, the man who made the first picture play twenty-one years ago, I owe thanks for points in the discussion of dramatic values. And for many helpful suggestions, and his kindly editing, I wish to express my gratitude to Dr. J. Berg Esenwein. To these "friends indeed" belongs whatever merit this book possesses.

BRETT PAGE BROOKLYN, NEW YORK August 25, 1915

INTRODUCTION

It falls to the lot of few men in these days to blaze a new trail in Bookland. This Mr. Brett Page has done, with firmness and precision, and with a joy in every stroke that will beget in countless readers that answering joy which is the reward of both him who guides and him who follows. There is but one word for a work so penetrating, so eductive, so clear--and that word is _masterly_. Let no one believe the modest assertion that "Writing for Vaudeville" is "less an original offering than a compilation." I have seen it grow and re-grow, section by section, and never have I known an author give more care to the development of his theme in an original way. Mr. Page has worked with fidelity to the convictions gained while himself writing professionally, yet with deference for the opinions of past masters in this field. The result is a book quite unexcelled among manuals of instruction, for authority, full statement, analysis of the sort that leads the reader to see what essentials he must build into his own structures, and sympathetic helpfulness throughout. I count it an honor to have been the editorial sponsor for a pioneer book which will be soon known everywhere.

J. BERG ESENWEIN

WRITING FOR VAUDEVILLE

CHAPTER I

THE WHY OF THE VAUDEVILLE ACT

1. The Rise of Vaudeville

A French workman who lived in the Valley of the Vire in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, is said to be vaudeville's grandparent. Of course, the child of his brain bears not even a remote resemblance to its descendant of to-day, yet the line is unbroken and the relationship clearer than many of the family trees of the royal houses. The French workman's name was Oliver Bassel, or Olivier Basselin, and in his way he was a poet. He composed and sang certain sprightly songs which struck the popular fancy and achieved a reputation not only in his own town but throughout the country.

Bassel's success raised the usual crop of imitators and soon a whole family of songs like his were being whistled in France. In the course of time these came to be classed as a new and distinct form of musical entertainment. They were given the name of "Val-de-Vire" from the valley in which Bassel was born. This name became corrupted, into "vaux-de-vire" in the time of Louis XVI, and was applied to all the popular or topical songs sung on the streets of Paris. Then the aristocrats took up these songs and gave entertainments at their country seats. To these entertainments they gave the name of "vaux-de-ville," the last syllable being changed to honor Bassel's native town [1] And gradually the x was dropped and the word has remained through the years as it is to-day.

[1] Another version relates that these songs were sung on the Pont Neuf in Paris, where stands the Hotel de Ville, or City Hall, and thus the generic name acquired the different termination.

As the form of entertainment advanced, the word vaudeville expanded in meaning. It came to comprise not only a collection of songs, but also acrobatic feats and other exhibitions. Having no dramatic sequence whatever, these unrelated acts when shown together achieved recognition as a distinct form of theatrical entertainment. As "vaudeville"--or "variety"--this form of entertainment became known and loved in every country of the world.

Vaudeville was introduced into this country before 1820, but it did not become a common form of entertainment until shortly before the Civil War when the word 'variety' was at once adopted and became familiar as something peculiarly applicable to the troubled times. The new and always cheerful entertainment found the reward of its optimism in a wide popularity. But as those days of war were the days of men, vaudeville made its appeal to men only. And then the war-clouds passed away and the show business had to reestablish itself, precisely as every other commercial pursuit had to readjust itself to changed conditions.

Tony Pastor saw his opportunity. On July 31, 1865, he opened "Tony Pastor's Opera House" at 199-201 Bowery, New York. He had a theory that a vaudeville entertainment from which every objectionable word and action were taken away, and from which the drinking bar was excluded, would appeal to women and children as well as men. He knew that no entertainment that excluded women could long hold a profitable place in a man's affections. So to draw the whole family to his new Opera House, Tony Pastor inaugurated clean vaudeville [1]. Pastor's success was almost instantaneous. It became the fashion to go to Pastor's Opera House and later when he moved to Broadway, and then up to Fourteenth Street, next to Tammany Hall, he carried his clientele with him. And vaudeville, as a form of entertainment that appealed to every member of the home circle, was firmly established--for a while.

[1] In the New York Clipper for December 19, 1914, there is an interesting article: "The Days of Tony Pastor," by Al. Fostelle, an old-time vaudeville performer, recounting the names of the famous performers who played for Tony Pastor in the early days. It reads like a "who's who" of vaudeville history. Mr. Fostelle, has in his collection a bill of an entertainment given in England in 1723, consisting of singing, dancing, character impersonations, with musical accompaniment, tight-rope walking, acrobatic feats, etc.

For Pastor's success in New York did not at first seem to the average vaudeville manager something that could be duplicated everywhere. A large part of the profits of the usual place came from the sale of drinks and to forego this source of revenue seemed suicidal. Therefore, vaudeville as a whole continued for years on the old plane. "Variety" was the name--in England vaudeville is still called "variety"--that it held even more widely then. And in the later seventies and the early eighties "variety" was on the ebb-tide. It was classed even lower than the circus, from which many of its recruits were drawn.

Among the men who came to vaudeville's rescue, because they saw that to appear to the masses profitably, vaudeville must be clean, were F. F. Proctor in Philadelphia, and B. F. Keith in Boston. On Washington Street in Boston, B. F. Keith had opened a "store show." The room was very small and he had but a tiny stage; still he showed a collection of curiosities, among which were a two-headed calf and a fat woman. Later on he added a singer and a serio-comic comedian and insisted that they eliminate from their acts everything that might offend the most fastidious. The result was that he moved to larger quarters and ten months later to still more commodious premised.

Continuous vaudeville--"eleven o'clock in the morning until eleven


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