Saturday, September 01, 2012

Vaudeville Oddballs

Gypsy Rose Lee is my latest obsession. She got her start in vaudeville, you know.

So, I've been reading Gypsy's memoir, called, uh, Gypsy: A Memoir, the one that Gypsy the Broadway musical was based on, so I've learned that it was only after years of driving around the country, singing "I'm a Hard-Boiled Rose" on Orpheum Circuit stages and sleeping in a tent with her pushy show-biz Mama Rose and baby sister June that Gypsy became a fabulous burlesque star.
Vaudeville was dying, but before it was stone cold finished, Mama Rose kept dreaming up these cockamamie acts for the girls to appear in. For example, Mama had a cow made with a papier-mâché head and a body made of fuzzy brown-and-white material along with leather-spat hooves. One of the unpaid boys in their act occupied the front of the cow while another boy took up the rear.

And then l'il June sang this song:

I've got a cow and her name is Sue
And she'll do most anything I ask her to.
I took her to the fair one day
And she won each prize that came her way

Cornball, right?

As it turns out, this was typical fare back in the 1910s and 1920s before radio and talking pictures killed vaudeville. Gypsy mentions a number of the vaudeville performers she shared a stage with, and they're...odd. Hard to believe American culture created them, but you know that L.P. Hartley quote, "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

Or maybe you don't. The point is, entertainers did things back then that you wouldn't see now. Here's a sampling of a few of the vaudeville stars Gypsy met back in the day:

Eva Tanguay:  Slate calls Eva Tanguay "the biggest rock star in the United States" from 1904 until the 1920s, although Eva referred to herself as "the girl who made vaudeville famous." Her big number was "I Don't Care," and she wore costumes like this:
"Billed as an 'eccentric comedienne,' her act—essentially—was that she was nuts," says the Travalanche blog. "A bad singer, and a graceless dancer, with hair like a rat’s nest, the homely, overweight Tanguay would put on outrageous outfits, sing provocative self-involved songs, commissioned especially for her, and fling herself around the stage in a suggestive manner."

Francis Renault: This drag queen billed himself as "The Slave of Fashion" and performed as a Lillian Russell [Note to self: Who? Must google.] impersonator before opening his own speakeasy in Atlantic City.
 "Is it proper also is it legal for a real ladylike man to further simulate femininity and appear on the streets dressed in woman's garb provided this man be a professional female impersonator?" asked the Atlanta Constitution in 1913.

Read more about Francis Renault at Queer Music Heritage.

Sophie Tucker: Actually, I think I've actually heard of Sophie Tucker before. Anyway, Gypsy mentions her as playing on the Orpheum Circuit. She was like a combination of Mae West, Janis Joplin, Bessie Smith and Francis Renault (see above). Apparently, she was born in 1886 and got her start by singing for tips in her family's restaurant.

She sounds tough and cool in her big number "Some of These Days":

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