Connie the Contortionist – Vaudeville in 1918
Would you pay to watch Connie the Contortionist? If you were an average American in 1918, chances are the answer to that question would be ‘yes!’ Because Vaudeville was at the peak of its popularity, filling seats in theaters where audiences paid good money to watch trained animals, tap dancers, comedians, and yes, contortionists, do their thing.
A couple of characters in my next time travel novel work at a Vaudeville theater in Atlanta. And while you may shake your head at such entertainment, Vaudeville was huge back then, having grown into an extremely profitable industry from its beginnings in the 1880s.
The men who created Vaudeville wanted to draw women and children to the theater. So they banned the sale of alcohol, along with bawdy or raunchy references by performers. It worked. Until silent movies – and then talkies – put them out of business in the early 1930s, moguls who owned chains of Vaudeville theaters got rich offering oddities like Painless Parker, a dentist who pulled teeth on stage for fifty cents, numbing his patients with a cocaine solution. And there was Le Petomane, a Frenchman who entertained audiences with his farting. Yes, farting. There was the singing duck and oodles of animals led in circles around the stage. Of course, there were the always popular contortionists, like Connie. (In my nightmares. LOL)
An interesting tidbit: Many Vaudeville troupes traveled from city to city by train, performing at one theater for a week. The shows often started at 10:00 in the morning and ran continuously through 11:00 at night so audience members could pay for a ticket, walk right in, watch what they wanted, then leave. Great for audiences. Not so great for the performers, who, as you can imagine, would’ve been exhausted doing their routines a dozen times a day.
Some Vaudeville performers whose names you might recognize: Mickey Rooney, Sammy Davis Jr., Will Rogers, Annie Oakley, Gypsy Rose Lee, the Marx Brothers and Jelly Roll Morton. And would you believe Helen Keller performed in Vaudeville shows? She apparently needed the money and agreed to do a question and answer bit with her teacher Annie Sullivan.
I'm excited to report that the first draft of my forthcoming novel is about two thirds written.