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October 17, 2003

Lost Performance Forms

Friedrich --

At lunch with a couple of arts buddies, we found ourselves trying to come up with fairly-recent performance forms that you don't see (or see much) anymore. We came up with three that were very popular during our kid-hoods but that are all but invisible today:

  • Ventriloquists -- they were once a standard feature on variety shows.
  • Impersonators -- hard to remember, but people who did impressions of celebrities were once very popular: "Here's ... Jack Paar! [applause] And here's ... Dwight Eisenhower! [applause]" Remember buying LP's by impersonators? Who was that guy who did the whole Kennedy family, for instance?
  • Comedy teams -- Martin and Lewis, Hope and Crosby, the Ritz Brothers, etc.

Any others that occur to you?



posted by Michael at October 17, 2003


Jugglers,acrobats,and softshoe-tap dancers.

Posted by: Bill on October 17, 2003 04:05 PM

Pet acts. Almost anything you used to see on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Posted by: annette on October 17, 2003 04:21 PM

Where do you people live? Seriously.

When was the last time you went to a club or rodeo? Or just watched FOX tv?

Most people think this guy,

for instance, takes in a very healthy six figures.

Posted by: j.c. on October 17, 2003 04:46 PM

Those groups have simply transmogrified into more lucrative forms:

Ventrilogists = Now known as "handlers."
Impersonators = America's top impersonators are currently running for President on the Democratic ticket. After November, 2004, they'll all be back on television as guests of Bill Maher.
Comedy Teams = Crossfire, any number of Fox News Shows, and Chris Matthews, all by himself.

Posted by: Vanderleun on October 17, 2003 05:50 PM

"Who was that guy who did the whole Kennedy family, for instance?"

Vaughn Meader. He was great. He pretty much died in 1963, too. Rumor has it that he's still living in Maine.

The thing about impersonators is that there were Voices in those days. A single "You dirty rat!" and you had Jimmy Cagney. There aren't any more Voices today, except maybe Arnold.

Rich Little is a master impersonator. He's living in Vegas now.

Comedy teams: Abbott & Costello, the Marx brothers, Fibber McGee & Molly, Burns & Allen, Amos & Andy, for starters.

Posted by: Mike on October 17, 2003 07:25 PM

Is it just nostalgia that makes me long for something like the Ed Sullivan Show to rise again? Where did I see Ed Sullivan mentioned recently? Was it in Terry Teachout's paean to middlebrow culture?

Soft shoe, arias, impersonations, plate spinning, jazz, magic, rock music, contortionism, dog acts, all on the same show. How weird. How great. Damn, I have cable with 57 freaking channels and I can't get half the variety you could get each Sunday on the Sullivan show. It's things like that that make me want to slap optimists like Virginia Postrel.

Posted by: Mike Kelly on October 18, 2003 12:42 AM

How 'bout old fashioned burlesque? Miss Sally Rand, with and without her fan?

Speaking of slightly more antique forms, is the "problem" with entertainment ultimately the demise of vaudeville? I mean, where today can people work up routines like the old Ed Sullivan comedian (I can't remember his name) who used to work with the utterly unresponsive dog, Louie? The comedian would give Louie all sorts of great tricks, like jumping through a flaming hoop, and the dog would absolutely lie there without moving a muscle. Finally the comedian would pick up his Louie's head, look deep in his eyes, and the dog would thump his tail or something. Triumphantly, the comedian would announce: "He sees me NOW!!" Possibly one of the funniest things I ever saw.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 18, 2003 01:36 PM

Harry Shearer is a sharp impersonator. Check out his utterly pitiless sketch on Rush Limbaugh in rehab:

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 18, 2003 03:37 PM

Here in Detroit the Ed Sullivan show is run on pbs every Saturday. All kinds of cool stuff: Count Basie,Tiny Tim; lots of jugglers and bike acrobats, knive tossers...........this eve for example a very early b/w episode with a very very young Izthak(sp) Pearlman and a later episode (late 60's) with Jackie Mason doing a rather wicked impersonation of Ed Sullivan.

I might extend this to jobs that have gone by the wayside;elevator operator, key punch operator(whatever that was)gas station attendant...

Posted by: drew on October 19, 2003 12:54 AM

Through much of the '90s, I was going through Hamburg, Germany once a year or so. I gradually became aware of a theater practically just around the corner of my hotel that specialized in live "Variete." I dropped in once and was immediately entranced. The bill changed monthly, and it was all the sort of acts you'd see on the Ed Sullivan Show, alive and still apparently thriving in Europe. Acrobats, jugglers, tightrope walkers, contortionists, animal acts, people who did strange things with trick bicycles -- the works. I thought it was great to actually see this stuff (like an indoor circus) in person, so I made it a point to visit the Variete theater every time I was in Hamburg thereafter.

Unfortunately, it became evident that the theater had its problems. A sign outside announced (a little desperately, I thought) that the theater offered a show you wouldn't see on TV. The neighborhood was near the main train station and decaying, and establishments around the theater seemed to be mainly sex shops. Not to mention the young ladies lounging on the sidewalk waiting for buses that never seemed to arrive. I noticed the theater's clientele seemed to be of some age (like whole busloads of senior citizens), so for them to even reach the theater meant running a guantlet in a seedy section of town. Once I sat near a grandmother who brought her two grandsons with her, and one of the boys was rather pointedly listening to his Walkman during acts that bored him (like the Argentinean tango dancers), and the acts that bored him seemed to be most of them.

Sadly, the theater finally closed a year or two back. Just my luck, I thought -- I take an interest in something that's been there for 107 years, and that's when it closes. But competition from TV and the deteriorating neighborhood apparently did the theater in. I don't know if other European cities have live variety theaters (the performers were an international crew, so must have had venues elsewhere), but now there was one less.

One thing I noticed. Things happen in live shows. Like the juggler who was off his stride during an afternoon show and dropped things (and clearly not intentionally). Or the animal act where one of the seals got bored and hopped off its stand and ambled off stage...

I don't know what my anecdote says about trends in show business overall, but I was certainly sorry to see the Hamburg Variete go.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on October 19, 2003 01:34 AM

Vaughan Meader -- that was his name. Did a damn fine JFK. Thanks to Mike.

Interesting movie-history note: lotsa people suspect that part of what gave movies their charge up to, oh the mid'60s or so, was that they were feeding off what had been built up over decades by performers in vaudeville, burlesque, touring theater, etc -- people who'd put years and year into developing "acts" in front of audiences before ever performing them in front of cameras. So they were carrying all this audience expertise and savvy, and all this well-weathered experience and energy with them, by the time they hit the movies. Those careers started running out in the, oh, '50s or so, then over the '60s and '70s the new generations started showing up. And what with the old in-person venues gone, the new performers (however attractive and fun in their own right) didn't bring anything like the same charge with them. Plus, what with the studio system gone, few people got a chance to do 30 or 40 minor roles before moving to the front of the crowd. Very different pressures and demands than it had been before.

These days, and for a while now, many of the biggest stars come from standup. They may or may not be much as actors, but they've got a lot of energy and audience savvy, they know how people take 'em, and they know how to turn it all on at the drop of a hat. Maybe standup's the last outpost of vaudeville.

I wonder how the movie-performer thing is going to be affected by the new new generation of video-jocks and MTV personalities and kids who grew up with Daddy pointing a video camera at them ...

Great story, thanks Dwight. Almost a little novel in itself.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 19, 2003 05:50 PM

In his indispensable though idiosyncratic book about modern American comedy, Going Too Far, Tony Hendra recounts the dilemma that faced Lenny Bruce on the night of November 22, 1963--he had a gig scheduled, and despite the events of the day (or because people needed a break from the televisual wringer) the house was packed. How would Lenny deal with the ultimate downer? Apparently he came out, stepped to the mic, looked pensive for a minute, shaking his head, and said "Pheeewwww--Vaughn Meader!"

It's a big part of Bruce's legend, apparently, that he was able to get a belly laugh out of a U.S. audience so soon. It's probably just as well no one felt up to the task immediately after 9/11. (As Hendra points out, Meader was finished after the JFK assassination, and a First Family album already in the can had to be scrapped.)

Posted by: Colby Cosh on October 20, 2003 01:25 AM

"Acrobats, jugglers, tightrope walkers, contortionists, animal acts, people who did strange things with trick bicycles -- the works." (Bill & Dwight)

The bicyclists and skateboarders who might have gone into yesterday's circuses go into today's "Extreme Sports" shows.

And the Ed Sullivans and Major Bowes seem to have degenerated into today's "American Idols". As in, "whatever happened to ... you know, ..... whatisname" (last year's winners)?

Posted by: Mike on October 20, 2003 07:09 PM

Comedy teams - that _is_ an interesting thing to have lost. The last comedy team I know of was Cheech and Chong. No, wait - I believe there are some black comedy teams: the Wayans Brothers, for instance.

But there used to be so _many_: Abbot and Costello, Burns and Allen, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis, Bob and Ray, the Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers, the Bowery Boys.

Something must have changed, but what?

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on October 21, 2003 09:33 PM

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