February 6, 2015 by Pamela Nowak
The first theatre acts at Elitch’s Gardens were vaudeville. These collections of variety acts consisted of family entertainment but vaudeville had its roots in the adult variety and burlesque shows targeted to men only. In 1881, Tony Pastor, a ballad and minstrel singer, created a show suitable for families. Other managers recognized the wider audience appeal and followed suit.
There were usually at least a dozen acts in a vaudeville performance with the show lasting a few hours. Acts ranged from the silly to performers with true talent and might include acrobats, contortionists, jugglers, magicians, actors and singers. But by far, the most renowned acts were comedy routines. Most performers had signature acts which they toured across the country.
Vaudeville combined elements of Yiddish Theatre, circus acts, minstrel shows, wild-west shows, and medicine shows. Variety was important with most shows combining the ridiculous and well-developed talent, physical acts and musical performances, the comedic and the serious. Thus, they appealed to wide audiences of adults and children across multiple economic classes and education levels.
During Elitch’s Gardens 1890 opening season, vaudeville acts headlined the attractions. On opening day, ten acts were featured, including musicians, a contortionist, comedians, gymnasts, dancers, and high-wire acts. Throughout that summer, John and Mary procured the “best, high-class acts.” Mary continued to include vaudeville acts for two more years, then switched the program to light opera for a few seasons.
By the late 1890s, vaudeville toured on large circuits, stopping at theatres in almost every sizeable town and city. Martin Beck’s Orpheum Circuit was one of the largest. By 1919, his company covered 45 theaters in 36 cities throughout the U.S. and Canada. Alexander Pantages’ circuit was comprised of the 30-plus theaters he owned and some 60 others he was associated with via contract.
With the exception of those who became highly successful, most vaudeville performers were looked down upon by those involved in “legitimate theatre.” Broadway actors and actresses as well as the newly emerging “summer stock theatre” considered their talent as less-developed. The public also tended to label those involved in the touring shows as lacking in moral integrity. Female performers, especially, were put into that category and were sometimes preyed upon by men in the towns they toured.
Though vaudeville declined after the advent of cinema and television, its legacy remained in radio comedy shows and television variety shows. Some vaudeville stars, such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, took their physical comedy acts to the big screen. Later acts such as Will Rogers, Bob Hope, and Burns & Allen were radio and television stars. In fact, television embraced the vaudeville concept in shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show, Carol Burnett, Hee-Haw, Laugh-In, Sonny and Cher, Late Night with David Letterman, and Saturday Night Live.
Please join me next week as I take a look at P.T. Barnum—the man who gifted Mary Elitch with her first animals. Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (https://www.facebook.com/pamela.nowak.142).
Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.