I have vaudeville memories of my own, or maybe I should call them vaudeville fantasies. By the time I was born, of course, vaudeville had already been dead for decades. Even so, I often daydream about what it would be like to attend one of those cheap, raucous variety shows once favored by the ill-educated masses. I suppose a century from now folks will feel the same way about monster truck shows.
For almost 70 years, from the end of the Civil War through the early 1930s, vaudeville was the pop entertainment in the United States of America. During that entire period, vaudeville was pretty much the cultural equivalent of television. Aimed at the lower classes, the brutes at the bottom who were too illiterate to read or attend opera, everyone watched vaudeville. And everyone claimed to hate it.
From our current perspective, it's easy to see vaudeville in a more favorable light. Not only did it produce countless brilliant entertainers—people like Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, Houdini and the Marx Brothers—it also helped break down a few racial barriers by providing a forum for the country's very first Black superstars: Bert Williams, Florence Mills and others.
Despite the French roots of its name, nothing could be more pure, red-blooded Americana than vaudeville. At the beginning of the 20th century, vaudeville theaters served as the maternity wards for an American popular culture that, once birthed, would quickly spread across the entire globe.
Over at the Albuquerque Little Theatre, you can currently catch a reconstruction of the vaudeville shows of yore. The brainchild of director Joe Paone, Vaudeville Memories creates a convincing replica of vaudeville as it developed over the decades.
Vaudeville Memories opens with Master of Ceremonies Tom Waters, played by Arthur Alpert, stepping onto the stage to tell a few jokes and introduce his cast of performers, who, he insists, are renowned across the nation "in all 42 states." The show incorporates everything from jugglers to musicians to dancers to comedians to singers. The performances are very uneven, and, for my tastes, there's way too much singing and not nearly enough novelty acts. Even so, the show is a fairly charming throwback.
The crowd couldn't get enough of the extraordinary Billy Cromwell, played by juggler Brian Patz. Magic by the Great Albini (Tony Comito) was dorky and predictable but fun. And I liked corny comedy bits by Josh Bien, Carson Gilmore, Michael Kroth and Dan Sparacino. The best singing in the show comes from Sparacino and the charismatic Samantha Blauwkamp, both part of the Empire City Trio—direct from New York and Boston!
In between acts, juggler Patz twirls out on stage to deliver some brief, hokey lectures about the history of vaudeville. Thankfully, he's sharp and funny enough to avoid sounding like an instructional video. Patz' short speeches are informative without distracting from the real entertainment.
Is Vaudeville Memories cheesy? Absolutely, but it's more mozzarella than Velveeta. I think an older and a very young crowd will particularly enjoy this show. Unlike 99 percent of the smut I peddle in these pages, you can haul your grandparents and your kids to Vaudeville Memories without fear of scarring them for life.
Although vaudeville never quite made it to the Albuquerque Little Theatre's stage—by the time the theater opened in 1936, vaudeville had already been murdered and buried by radio and talking pictures—the ALT is the oldest community theater in Albuquerque. As such, this newly renovated local institution provides the perfect venue for this kind of goofy, family-oriented, nostalgia trip.