It appears the end is near for one of America’s most beloved forms of entertainment and venue for showcasing new talent. “From media specialists in Los Angeles to show biz trend analysts in Manhattan, everyone agrees that the writing is on the wall,” says Art Drabcock of Creative Media Entertainment. “The next few years are going to be bleak for vaudeville.”
Many attribute it to a poor economy, others to the rising popularity of other entertainment outlets, while some go as far as blaming the Obama administration. Whatever the cause, it has been evident for a long while that vaudeville has been on a noticeable decline.
Ticket sales, which were at an all-time high as recently as 1915, have steadily dropped to the point where many of the vaudeville houses have been forced to close their doors. “There was a time,” said Charles H. Calhoun, owner of New Jersey’s Victoria Theater, “when we had to turn people away. I remember, on one bill we had Jolson, Will Rogers and the ball-juggling Matzo Brothers. Naturally, everyone wanted to see them, but we didn’t have enough seats to accommodate. That’s when Al ‘Scalp’ Scalpanetti came up with the idea of buying tickets, then selling ‘em out front for a profit. He was selling ten cent tickets for upwards as two bits! That’s when vaudeville was king, boy. Now, we can’t even give the tickets away.”
For many entertainers, this news is a wake-up call they never wanted to get. Max Sheehan, of Max Sheehan’s Poodle Cotillion, says he will continue to perform until there is no one left in the seats. “I’m part of the belief that, whether there’s a full house or one guy in the balcony who may or not be dead, you put on the dangedest show you can. Besides, I don’t put a lot of stock into them fat cat college boys and their hooey-ballooey theories. I been in this business a long time and I’ve seen the trends come and go. First it was the talky pictures, then it was radio, then it was that picture box and every time there was always someone sayin’ it’d be the end of vaudeville. Well, brother, we’re still here. Nah, me and my girls ain’t going nowhere.”
Others who have made their living on the vaudeville circuit are taking the news to heart and seeing it as their time to retire from show business. “The audiences changed,” says Julius Durkowitz, half of the famed ethnic comedy duo O’Malley and Durkowitz. “We used to do this bit where O’Malley, playing the drunken cop, would come by my pushcart and want to buy something to eat. ‘Here, boy-o. Lemme have a mutton chop,’ he’d say. ‘Mutton? There’s mutton here but knish,’ I’d say. ‘You’re gonna knish that you had mutton,’ he’d yell and then he’d beat me with a blackjack because, ya know, he was Irish and they love beatin’ people up. The audiences at the Palace used to go crazy for that sorta thing. Now, ehhh!, the audiences today wouldn’t know funny if it came up behind them, kicked them in the tookus and said, ‘Hey! I’m funny and I just kicked you in the tookus.’”
When asked what the future had for him, Mr. Durkowitz said, “Its hard to say. I don’t know how to do much else than show biz. When I was a kid, though, I used to make a few extra pennies a week making candles for old man Wickes of Candle Wickes on W. 14th St. Maybe I’ll look him up, again.”
Some give it a few more years, others just a few months. Whatever time vaudeville has left, an effort should be made for everyone to pay their respects to the venues that showcased a variety of talent from roller skaters and yodelers to plate jugglers and contortionists before they disappear forever. That way, when your grandchildren are sitting on your lap and asking you about that thing called vaudeville they heard about in history class, you can tell them about when you were there to see it for yourself, when people scrambled to find a seat,…you can tell them about when vaudeville was king.