I blame my love for vaudeville on the belly dancers. The Egyptian belly dancers who performed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, to be exact, because it was my curiosity about what happened to them after the fair closed in the fall of that year that led me to the wonderful and strange, topsy-turvy world of vaudeville.
Perhaps I should admit upfront that before I started this research, I knew little about vaudeville. To me, vaudeville theaters were lumped into the same entertainment stew as concert saloons, burlesque theaters and even the dime museums that hired song and dance acts to amuse and distract patrons who might otherwise grumble that the proffered collection of oddities and curiosities were not so odd, nor so curious.
It was all the same entertainment—or so I thought. The truth is, just as society was deeply stratified during the late 1800s and early 1900s, so was public entertainment. The concert saloons and the burlesque theaters occupied the lowest rungs; the opera theaters and “legitimate” theaters occupied the highest. The space between them was vaudeville’s domain. It was touted as “polite entertainment,” and theater owners went to great lengths to appeal to the gentle dispositions of women as a means to bolster their audience numbers.
For many in the middle class, vaudeville became the preferred form of entertainment because it was a place where a person—male or female—could pay a few coins to sit in a comfortable theater and see a variety of amusing acts. Variety truly was the hallmark of vaudeville. A vaudeville show’s bill tended to have between eight and ten independent acts, and while singing, dancing, and comedy sketches were always favorites, the audience might also be treated to any number of talents: trained animals, high-wire displays, ventriloquism, magic, lectures, gymnastics and soliloquies. Just about anything was welcome, as long as it entertained the audience.
Despite the rigid divisions between the different entertainment venues, however, the theater world was more fluid for the performers themselves. Even the biggest stars of the day—Lillian Russell, Eddie Cantor, Eve Tanguay and the like—found themselves booked for vaudeville runs between bigger bookings, or when their popularity ebbed.
Yet it wasn’t the headliners who appealed to me as much as the performers who worked at the other end of the spectrum—the show openers and the chasers, and all the acts that filled the least desirable spots on the bill. These were performers who worked long hours in poor conditions for very little pay, and even less prestige, with the hope of one day making it big. They were people who lived on hopes and dreams and promises—and that captivated me.
I also found myself captivated by the idea that at this time in vaudeville’s evolution, before the slick productions that Florenz Ziegfeld and others would go on to pioneer, the magic of a theatrical production depended almost entirely on people: the performers, of course, but also the workers backstage, from the seamstresses stitching costumes to the stagehands who built the sets and then muscled them to their mark between acts.
It was a much more human endeavor than it is now, and that was the world I wanted to explore in my new historical novel, DANCING AT THE CHANCE. It was a world where people could determine their own success—or failure—as well as the wonderful joys and challenges and heartaches that could bring. I wanted readers to experience this sometimes eccentric and often chaotic environment where the rules of the outside world didn’t always apply, and where individuals—performers and others—were free to rewrite the scripts of their own lives, to reinvent themselves, if they had the courage and the talent to do it. A world, I think, many of would like to inhabit, at least for a little while.
Ultimately, that’s what I came to love most about vaudeville—the courage and determination, the imagination and perseverance of the dreamers and believers who inhabited this world: the vaudevillians themselves.
To celebrate the back-to-back releases of DANCING AT THE CHANCE and the reissue of THE BELLY DANCER, weekly prizes & a grand prize of a Kindle or Nook (winner's choice) are up for grabs on the author's website. Visit http://www.deannacameron.com/ and follow the contest link for details.
DeAnna Cameron writes romantic historical fiction featuring feisty heroines destined for passion and fame. Before turning to fiction, she worked as a professional journalist, writing and editing for several Southern California newspapers and magazines. She lives in Orange County, Calif. with her family, and is at work on her next novel. Find out more at http://www.deannacameron.com/.