While researching the story that became THE GIRL ON THE MIDWAY STAGE, I learned that many of the Egyptian dancers who performed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair stayed after the fair closed and began to dance in the vaudeville circuits.
That sparked my imagination. I wondered what it must have been like for them, and how did the audiences react? I had to find out, and along the way I discovered so much more.
For example, I thought vaudeville theaters, concert saloons, burlesque theaters and dime museums were all part of the same entertainment stew. How wrong I was!
Just as society was deeply stratified during the late 1800s and early 1900s, so was public entertainment. Vaudeville, at the time, occupied a middle ground between the lowbrow concert saloons and burlesque theaters and the posher opera houses and “legitimate” theaters. It was considered “polite entertainment.”
Despite the rigid divisions between the 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 Tangua,y 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,, Jr., 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 THE GIRL ON THE VAUDEVILLE STAGE. 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.
I’ll share more inspiration this weekend 🙂
In the meantime, check out my Inspiration board on Pinterest.
THE GIRL ON THE VAUDEVILLE STAGE is a richly drawn historical tale that takes readers behind the scenes of the exuberant, exciting, and often eccentric world of early New York vaudeville and one woman’s romantic journey to find the life she craves and the love she deserves — with a little help from the legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.
[An earlier version of this article appeared on the Historical Tapestry blog.]
Sandow Trocadero Vaudevilles promotional poster image courtesy of Wikicommons.