Here’s to the Eternal Vaudevillians: Protectors of Lunatic Virtuosity

There are times when I see ghosts on the stage and then I remember the theater that was handed down to me in childhood by my mother and father, whose own parents laughed and wept and sang along in the same irresistible, ghostly company.

I was raised in England on the great warrior class of nonconformists, nut cases and geniuses of the music hall whose cousins in America are known as vaudevillians. When I was five or six and was too small to see the stage clearly, I would stand between my mum and dad, who were seated on each side of me, and grip the seat in front of me until my knuckles turned white. For years, and well into adulthood, I thought that a white-knuckle ride meant going to the theater.

So whenever I sense echoes of the lost, lovely tradition of my childhood, I am glad. As the old comic puts it, “You remember vaudeville? It used to be in the newspapers.” It was the last refuge of individuals and renegades in near lunatic virtuosity-an artful bargain with danger, stage charm, sauciness, spontaneity and uniqueness . It was the last time a theater audience was a real community, for everyone knew the songs and the hallowed routines of the performers who became folk heroes.

“Every poet would like to convey the pleasures of poetry to a larger audience,” wrote T.S. Eliot, and he should know. “All the better, then, if he could have at least the satisfaction of having a part to play in society as worthy as that of the music-hall comedian.”

Nobly said. Who today, for example, could compete with the comedian Douglas Byng, who used to descend onto the stage via a trapeze while singing “I’m Doris, the Goddess of Wind”? Who today sings songs entitled “Never Have a Bath with Your Wristwatch On” or the ever-popular, slightly suggestive “Nobody Loves a Fairy When She’s Forty”?

Let’s raise the ante and the tone. Who can compete with the Hamlet-like monologues of the idol of the Victorian music hall, Dan Leno? “Ah, what is Man?”, he would ask his adoring audience in all solemnity. “Wherefore does he why? Whence did he whence? Wither is he withering?” To which there was never an answer.

Better the fun of an honest vaudevillian than the programmed, smirking ironies of a Jerry Seinfeld, that’s what I say. Don’t even get me started with Adam Sandler. No Ken Dodd, he. “Doddy,” as he’s lovingly known in England, is the direct link to the glory days of vaudeville. He’s been known to keep his unbelievable act going until past midnight and then turn to his helpless audience to ask, “Do you give in?”

T.S. Eliot would have appreciated Doddy. Because, if he chooses to, Doddy reveals a literary mind. Hence his perfect definition of Malvolio as “the sort of man who used to stand up in a strip club and shout, ‘What time do the jugglers come on?’”

As I see it, the current vogue of new American vaudevillians is all to the good, even when it’s bad. Many of the performers can be seen like renegades in Disneyland at all times of the day and night at the Palace of Variety on 42nd Street. But my spirits were raised the most by a young man named Joel Jeske who possesses the right kind of mad glint in his eyes. The director of his own vaudevillian show, The Golden Age , Mr. Jeske is currently performing a routine known as the Flammophone, taught to him by a Prof. Inferno, which involves holding his hand over candle flames and screaming out a song whose pitch varies according to the pain he’s in. Now, he knows his vaudeville, I thought. Joel Jeske has made the connection.

If you want to know what the swagger and energy of American vaudeville was like when it reflected optimistic America itself, all you have to do is watch the great James Cagney on film performing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” in the vintage 1942 movie of the same name. Cagney, the quintessential American movie gangster, began his career as a vaudevillian song-and-dance man when he joined an act called Parker, Rand and Leach. Leach was Archie Leach who, in a magical transformation, became Cary Grant.

All roads lead back to vaudeville-from Samuel Beckett’s Godot to John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks to cross-dressing Barry Humphries’ mythic bird of paradise, Dame Edna Everage . The current West End hit, The Play What I Wrote, due on Broadway soon, is based on two vaudevillians named Morecambe and Wise, who with their TV show in the 60′s and 70′s became the most popular stars in England. If you can believe it, one of their most beloved routines was about the ambition of the short, fat one with the hairy legs to write plays. To which the tall one with the glasses would respond with the time-honored “Rubbish!”

Vaudeville was the “Theatre of the Absurd” before its time. When Sir John Betjeman was poet laureate of England, he was invited by a London newspaper to have lunch with the person he would most like to meet. He wisely chose “Monsewer” Eddie Gray, who was known as “the black swan of music hall.” “Monsewer” Eddie spoke Cockney and mangled French and wore a ridiculous, glued-on curled mustache. “Madame and masseurs,” he would confidently announce. “How are you, all right? Enjoyin’ yourself? I’ll soon put a stop to that.”

The vivaciousness of the English language itself was a source of pride. “During the course of my performance tonight,” the great Sid Field would announce in his tail coat and bicycle clips. “I may inadvertently-” He would then freeze with the pleasure of a connoisseur of words rolling them round his tongue. “I say, do you mind if I say that again? Inadvertently …. “

There were even fastidious experts in punctuation. An excellent vaudevillian named Stainless Stephen always introduced himself thus: “This is Stainless Stephen comma comedian question mark.”

There were the philosophical monologues of Rob Wilton with his ritual opening remark: “The day war broke out, my misses looked at me and said, ‘What good are you?’”

The diminutive North Country comedienne Hilda Baker was the living embodiment of Mrs. Malaprop. “Oooh, you don’t know what I’m talking about, do you? You have no contraception!”

Bawdy was the name of the game. Max Miller, who was compared to a man unzipping his fly in a nunnery, would bound onstage in his multicolored satin jacket decorated with daisies to announce, “I’m ready for bed …. Anybody?”

“Wait for it!” went the command of the vaudevillian who knew his stuff. “Listen. No, listen . You’ll like this.”

And then there was Max Wall, for me the greatest of them all. Life was never easy for Max. He was a kind of spectacle of human disaster who learned his trade at the feet of a genius named Grock. Max could stop an audience in its tracks. “Don’t laugh,” he would ask us, grimacing in his baggy black tights and Richard III wig.

“It’s unkind.”

But he had us in stitches just the same, and sometimes he looked pleased. “By the lord Harry!” he’d exclaim with a huge smile from time to time. “I wish I were sitting where you are, enjoying a wonderful show.”

Here’s to the new vaudevillians, then. Here’s to those amazing, eternal, good ghosts of the theater.