Hoorah for Vaudeville #1939TheMiracleYear

1939 The Miracle Year Hoorah for Vaudeville

There is a large section in the first edition of Variety for January 1939 given over to the discussion of vaudeville. Unlike their reports on the state of film and radio which floated a generally upbeat prognosis, the future for vaudeville was looking rather bleak. Yes, it had been pronounced down and out before, but it was still with them – with even signs of a tiny resurgence. Emphasis on ‘tiny.’

Many performers in vaudeville had and were translating themselves into careers in film and/or radio. For example, Buster Keaton, Mae West, W. C. Fields, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and George and Gracie Burns.

But as history has proved vaudeville as they knew it did pass from the scene.

[Aside – I have had the thought lately that it has reappeared in our age under the form and content of the reality talent shows].

One of the articles in this section entitled ‘Firsts’ by Joe Laurie jr.  enumerates for us milestones and first time acts in the world of vaudeville.

Several caught my attention and I now bring them to yours.

Michael Leavitt is generally credited to have first used the term “vaudeville.” Originally a blackface minstrel show singer in the mid 18th Century, he rose to become a theatrical entrepreneur by touring the country with US and European acts with his variety shows.  In France such entertainments were called “vaudeville.”

An early reference had a Civil War connection that captured my Civil War geekiness. “Nick Norton and Bill Emmett did the first ‘double-dutch’ act in 1864.” A double dutch act was a skit acted out by two people speaking an ethnic English, in this case German (called at the time dutch, springing from the name of their language Deutch). Humor arose from their fractured application of the language arising from their mother tongue. They would close with a song – in this instance “Going to Fight Mitt Siegel,” a reference to the Union general Franz Sigel, who led other German immigrants into battle against the southern armies in the Civil War.

Al Jolson was the first to sing on his knees. (Needing no further explanation).

Then, this oddity – “Harper & Stencil were the first and about the only double one-legged song and dance men. Harper had his right leg off while Stencil had his left. They wore the same size shoes and would buy a pair for both of them, one wearing the right and the other the left.”

“Lumiere’s motion pictures were first shown at Keith’s Union Square in July 1895.” The French brothers, inventors of the motion picture in France were here used as filler between the acts in this vaudeville house. Increasingly, this would be the case until the matter flipped topsy-turvy as vaudeville acts were used as filler in cinemas. RKO studios – (Radio Keith Orpheum) was put together with the old Keith-Albee-Orpheum vaudeville circuit making up its exhibition wing.

“Lew Randall the first buck and wing dancer.” I couldn’t find much on this individual, other than acknowledgements that he was first. The buck and wing is a particular tap dance style. The first time I became cognizant of the form was my viewing of “Singin’ in the Rain,” in which Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor left me breathless with astonishment in their “Fit as a Fiddle” number early on in that film. The scene in this 1952 film is a flashback to when the pair were a couple of barnstorming vaudevillians, prior to landing in Hollywood where they landed work at the studios.

Many vaudevillians will be making appearances in this series. So, stay tuned and Watch This Space.

The Stagehand of the Fifth Avenue

The Stagehand of the Fifth Avenue

Walter Theron Coy

Union agreements required that the Fifth Avenue Theater employ a stagehand. I was not aware of this fact,  when I met Walter Theron Coy my first week on the job. I was behind the concession stand concentrating on something else completely when I looked up to see an elderly man emerge from out of the auditorium. It caught me off guard. He was rather shabbily dressed, giving him an unkept appearance. He put me at ease by explaining who he was and what he did around the theater.

His cherubic Irish face, resonant voice, infectious laugh and an enormous mass of keys jangling on his hip made for a memorable introduction. Gaelic charm oozed out of him as well as a stream of patter that he later confessed to be straight out of the days of vaudeville. (At the age of 13 or 14 [1921 or 1922] he had been a candy butcher who operated evenings among a group of three Seattle vaudeville theaters. Incoming acts came to rely on him for intelligence on what routines had been employed by the outgoing performers, so they could adjust theirs accordingly). And prior to high school he even performed on stage, singing popular songs of the day accompanied by the theater organist.

[Aside – In his autobio, Walt states that he learned a lot about show business from the consumate pipe organist Oliver Wallace at the Liberty Theater down on First and Pike. Wallace later went on to work for Walt Disney, writing music for shorts and then features, from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” up through “Lady and the Tramp”].

The more I talked with him over the weeks that followed, the more his life experiences surprised and impressed me. By the time he was in high school, he was playing drums or banjo in speakeasys around town. His love of the banjo led him to share stories about the Banjo King, Eddie Peabody, (aka the Banjo Maniac and the Rajah of Rhythm) who had headlined many of the vaudeville acts at this same Fifth Avenue Theater, from 1927 through the early 30s.

But what really raised my eyebrows was his tales about working as an extra and a cameraman in Hollywood. He had gone down to LA when he turned 20 to try to break into “pictures.” He was an extra at the Chaplin studio on one of Charlie’s films. His description of the action made me think that it was his WW1 comedy “Shoulder Arms,” but upon reading his autobio almost a decade later it proved to be something else altogether (stay tuned for my Research post this Monday).  He then lined up for extra work over at the FBO Studios (owned by Joseph P. Kennedy) for director Erich von Stroheim, who was hard at work on the infamous “Queen Kelly,” starring Gloria Swanson.

Walt found getting work as an actor a tough go. So he switched to the technical side of the business. He had always been adept mechanically, having built his own radios when a youth. He joined the Naval Reserve in Seattle to learn more about radios and sound equipment. (And to fly, for he liked planes). He made a trip down to LA and called on Gordon Sawyer, the head of the sound department at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios to learn all about sound reproduction on film. He used this knowledge to build and sell bootleg sound systems to small theaters throughout the Northwest. (The systems by Western Electric were all by lease only, and unaffordable given the small amount of business these towns generated).

Sometime in the 1930s, Walt joined Local 659, the Hollywood cameraman’s union. He served on the camera crew for Paramount’s production of “Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch” with W. C. Fields and Zasu Pitts.

He wasn’t often down in Hollywood to my calculation, for he had many businesses in the Seattle area that he ran – a printing business in the early thirties, a film exhibition company (one theater to begin with) which he acquired in 1937, and the Seattle Motion Picture Studio, a commercial film enterprise that made sound films – advertising, novelties and gimmick offerings. During the Depression, he kept fingers in a lot of pies, for he said, you never knew what would keep you afloat.

At the time I met him (1974), his studio was closed, but he still had some of his gear. He had sound equipment, of course, but he also had a 16mm self-blimped Auricon camera, that did not need a sound recorder as it had the capacity to directly record onto the film stock. A custom built camera dolly which could be cranked up to a six foot crane rounded out his holdings.  And he allowed me and my cinema-struck friends to use them. We just needed to rent some lights. (We used the lobby of the Skinner building and the backstage area of the theater as settings).

I last heard from Walt in 1980, when he sent me a signed copy of his autobio “My Uncle Sam Don’t Like Me.” In telling his life story, he details his trials and tribulations with a vindictive IRS which twice sent him to prison. When people styled him as an ex-con, he disagreed, and said he was just a convicted tax evader, whose case was under appeal. The appeal he won, and the judgement was reversed.

Walter Theron Coy was a true one of a kind.

[Aside – Walt preferred to write his name as Walt T. Coy, but I spelled it out completely so as not to confuse him with an actor that came out of Seattle around the same time. That actor was Walter Darwin Coy. He was on stage and screen, and notably, played the brother of the John Wayne character in “The Searchers.”]