MHS Celebrates: Manitoba 150 in the Winnipeg Free Press: The Vaudeville Connection

by Grant Simpson
Winnipeg, Manitoba

A years ago, vaudeville was the way people saw, heard and experienced the outside world. Not only did vaudeville strive to include the most entertaining acts of the day, it also included demonstrations of breakthrough technology, news and stories from afar, scientific breakthroughs, lectures on every topic imaginable, tips on personal health care and adventurous personal accounts of travels around the world.

All this, packaged up alongside bitesized versions of the newest dramatic plays, dances, songs and anything else families would pay to experience.

The fierce competition between theatres kept the cost of a ticket between $10 to $20 in today’s money. Not a bad price for being able to see Fred and Adele Astaire, Jack Benny, Houdini and a bevy of singers, dancers, actors, animals, acrobats, jugglers and musical virtuosos all in one night. Best of all, it was live—complete with orchestras, elaborate scenery and special effects, and all of this taking place in the most beautiful, ornate theatres one can imagine. Luckily in Winnipeg, we don’t have to imagine—we can just walk into the Pantages (now the Playhouse) or Walker (now the Burton Cummings) theatres to experience the splendour first-hand.

In its simplest form, vaudeville is a two-hour theatrical production, divided into multiple sections, in which a producer can insert a variety of unrelated acts. The best presenters kept the audiences in tears of joy and laughter, and sometimes in heart-wrenching sorrow or unabashed amazement as one act transitioned seamlessly to another. A good roster in vaudeville would take the audience through the entire spectrum of human emotions and—as they advertised constantly—truly had “Something for Everyone.”

Canada played an integral role in the world of vaudeville—not only by providing an entertainment-starved population with the best the world had to offer, but in many other ways as well. The seeds of the vast Pantages Theatre empire were sowed in Dawson City, Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. Eva Tanguay from Marbleton, Quebec, was one of the brightest stars in vaudeville history. She toured the world over with a brash message of defiance and empowerment, singing songs like I Don’t Care, I Don’t Care, what they may think of me ... May Irwin, Marie Dressler, Willie Eckstein, Fifi d’Orsay, Vernon Castle and a host of other international vaudeville stars were all Canadian. Vaudeville was a huge part of Canada and Canada was a huge part of vaudeville.

Winnipeg supplied a bevy of local talent including a troupe of kid performers called The Winnipeg Kiddies. Out of that troupe came a number of international stars including Marjorie Guthrie, who later left vaudeville to tour with American singer Thelma Wolpe as the White Sisters. Guthrie, who like Wolpe retained the name White when the duo split, went on to become a quick-rising Hollywood star. Her career was cut short by a fatal car crash. Gisele MacKenzie, another Winnipegger, achieved great fame as a singer and violinist, appearing in vaudeville comedy skits alongside Jack Benny.

A lot of vaudeville history actually happened right here in Winnipeg. It’s where Bob Hope first tried out golfing. It’s where Ed Wynn, decades before he loved to laugh in Mary Poppins, met and married his wife while appearing at the Orpheum. It’s where Groucho Marx took a walk between shows. When he passed by one of the forty-odd theatres in Winnipeg (at the time), he heard uproarious laughter the likes of which he had never heard before. When he went inside to see what was so funny, he saw an unknown little man by the name of Charlie Chaplin. This was before Chaplin ever stepped in front of a movie camera.

George Burns said “With the collapse of vaudeville new talent has no place to stink.” I was fortunate enough to have this play out in my life. When hired as a pianist in a vaudeville show in 1980, I had some musical talent, but little stage experience or presence. After some rough calculations, it turns out I had done that show about 4,500 times over the years I was with the company. By the end for me, being onstage was the most comfortable place to be. During the height of vaudeville popularity, that scenario played out with over 35,000 entertainers at any one time, who travelled the continent in more than 4,000 vaudeville theatres in every nook and cranny of the continent.

Vaudeville was a “place” in which an entertainer could make a good living and truly hone their craft show by show, two or three times a day, six days a week, forty-three weeks a year, for decades. Fanny Brice said “There is no director in vaudeville — the audience gives you everything you need.” Which is absolutely true — audiences tell you how you are doing in real time and can be brutally honest.

The end of the vaudeville era meant the loss of income for thousands of great entertainers. “After all,” as one unemployed Vaudevillian said, “How much work is there for a buxom cornet-playing contortionist?” (and if anyone needs to hire a musical sawist or two—let me know). Even if you just take one facet of Vaudeville into consideration, where it used to take thousands of jugglers traveling from town to town to thrill the masses—it now takes one juggler in front of a camera to thrill millions at a time. Madam Rose Havoc, the mother of June Havoc and Gypsy Rose Lee said “... nothing will ever replace flesh.” But it seems she was wrong. Live shows have been replaced by screens.

The good news is there are a few of us who refuse to give up. Last year, we produced a vaudeville show at the Winnipeg Crankie Festival and it was wonderfully successful. If it wasn’t for COVID-19 we would be doing it again this November. People such as Brian Glow, Al Simmons, Peter Paul Van Camp, Gillian Campbell, Shauna Jones, myself and others all carry the torch of vaudeville into every performance. Here in Winnipeg, the Crescent Arts Centre is running a multi-generational Vaudeville camp with an emphasis on seniors who want to jump in and experience the wonderful world of Vaudeville first-hand. CJNU FM is home to The Prairie Vaudeville Radio Show and there is The Vaudeville Podcast which focuses on the history, culture and the legacy of the vaudeville world.

The echo of vaudeville is out there and you can find it with a little effort — and by every indication audiences enjoy it just as much now as they did a century ago.

Page revised: 27 October 2020