Like most things nostalgic, vaudeville in the earliest part of the 20th century has an undeserved glamor. Being a performer at that time was almost exactly like being a traveling salesman, endlessly trudging from town to town — but instead of selling nostrums and notions, you peddled songs, dances, recitations, or acrobatic dogs. It was a life of mostly tedium, enduring hours (or days) passing from place to place on a train (or wagon). But for anyone who could tell a good joke, whistle, or otherwise had a pinch of talent, it offered a chance to get away from the farm and see a little bit of the world.
Vaudeville was very much an industry. While the “industrial product” was entertainment, there was a broad — and often, dysfunctional — network of support services to aid in distributing the goods. Performers relied upon special travel guides to help them survive on the road. Here’s a 1907 guide (don’t miss the commentaries often found with town listings, such as Elsinore Utah: “Do not play, except when compelled”), but later versions of these books provided far more practical detail about the towns, and included ads for friendly hotels, places to send their dirty laundry, and where to find cheap eats. Ads in these early equivalent to the “Lonely Planet” guides also promised to make beautiful costumes, wigs, electrical gizmos, or obtain a better agent than the son-of-a-bitch who booked your current tour of forlorn theatres, such as the Novelty in Santa Rosa where half the keys on the piano didn’t work.
Particularly in the first years of the Twentieth Century, the guidebooks also offered essential information about the feifdoms of vaudeville itself. It was a world in crazy transition; as discussed here earlier, the little circuits in Northern California that served a half-dozen local communities steadily were being gobbled up by outfits based out of San Francisco, and eventually those regional companies would likewise become sucked into the maw of the nationwide entertainment empires. The insecurity of this universe can be seen in a pair of 1905 Press Democrat articles, published just three days apart, about competing vaudeville companies. Like two prehistoric warring tribes, there was no lack of chest-thumping: “We of the Empire Amusement Co. have many nearby fields of battle” vs. “We of the Novelty Theatre Co. draw upon powerful warriors from the East.” Can’t we all just get along and go fight Beowulf?
(RIGHT: All you ever need to know about the low-end vaudeville acts that usually played Santa Rosa is summed up in the novelty act of Mr. and Mrs. Duke Melburn. He pounded the piano with his feet, as shown in this publicity photo that appeared in the Press Democrat, November 11, 1905, as she yodeled and sang “coon songs.” The Melburns might well have been popular entertainers at hometown parties, but their showbiz career apparently only lasted a few months. Click on image to enlarge)
Much otherwise is revealed about life in the trenches of vaudeville in this two-week sample of Press Democrat articles. With much hoopla, it was announced that nightly shows would be offered at the old, cavernous Athenaeum theatre. But only a few days later, the promoter abruptly backed out, citing low attendance. The PD was caught by surprise and printed a news story with the headline, “ATHENAEUM DARK: NO MORE VAUDEVILLE,” apparently forgetting that on Wednesdays, a different vaudeville troupe (and one which ran regular ads in their newspaper) still appeared. It should go without saying that the following day, editor Ernest L. Finley offered a rare correction for the premature death announcement of an advertiser.
Finley may have inadvertently played a role in manager Wolff’s abrupt cancellation after a single week. The same day that it was announced that Empire Amusement would be presenting shows here, a Press Democrat item reported that painters were busy touching up the “dingy woodwork” at the Athenaeum, “to keep everything as clean as possible.” And the day before the cancellation, Finley wrote an unusual op/ed where he mused about how poorly Santa Rosa’s main theatre had been managed. While he didn’t exactly say that it was smelly and wharf rats were running down the aisles, it was hardly an incitement to drop by the rickety old place. And to follow up that sideways compliment, he offered the same day another op/ed, basically declaring, “vaudeville sucks.” (Hmmm…maybe that “Athenaeum Dark: No More Vaudeville” item wasn’t a headline writer’s mistake, but Finley’s editorial imperative.)
And truthfully, the 21 year-old Athenaeum probably was a bit of a dump by then, as well as a vaudevillian nightmare. Built in 1884 to be Santa Rosa’s “opera house,” it looked more like a fortified brick warehouse, stretching between 4th and 5th along D Street. (The theatre was lost in the 1906 quake and fire, and today the 1911 Doyle Building, a white stone and masonry retail and office building, stands exactly in the same footprint, with the current stairs on 4th Street in the same location as the ones that once led to the box office.) With a single steam heater under stage right, the theatre that could seat up to 2,500 must have been frigid in the winter, just as it must have been stifling in summer with its small vent on the roof. For traveling plays and other shows with scenery, it was the only venue in town — but most vaudeville performers probably seemed tiny and lost on its 50-foot wide stage. As for conditions at Santa Rosa’s other vaudeville house, see above, re: piano.
This posting ends with a rare critical review of a show at the Novelty Theatre. Normally in 1905, the Press Democrat ran an advance blurb (“the Novelty has a good bill this week…”) and followed up with a few perfunctory comments on the opening night (“the Southern Quartette made a hit and were several times encored”). The review here includes details of the acts and even a glimpse of heckling from the audience. It’s also revealing that there was obviously no proofreading on this review; although typesetting errors are almost never found in this era of the Press Democrat, the original article had no less than three whoppers: a line of type missing, another in the wrong place, and another inserted backward — evidence that Ernest Finley’s didn’t care anything about vaudeville, even when it appeared in his own paper.
TWO SHOWS NIGHTLY AT THE ATHENAEUM
The second vaudeville theatre is to open in Santa Rosa Monday evening, March 6. The Empire Amusement Co., which has a circuit of theatres including San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Fresno, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Diego, Pasadena, Bakersfield, Portland, Seattle, Salem, Astoria, and Tacoma, recently leased the Athenaeum and will give two performances nightly of high class vaudeville…there will be a show every evening except when the Athenaeum is in use by a traveling company, or on Wednesday nights, when the big playhouse is leased by the Great Western Vaudeville company.
– Press Democrat, March 4, 1905
NOVELTY MANAGER PLANS BIG THINGS
WILL BILL ACTS FOR THIS CITY DIRECT FROM FISCHER’S THEATRE FROM NOW ON
Interesting Interview With Theo. Rothschild, Who Tells Growth Being Made by the Novelty Theatre Company
Theo. Rothschild, Secretary and Treasurer of the Novelty Theatre Company, is in town and will remain a few days. Mr. Rothschild says he has some great surprises in store for the Santa Rosa patrons of the Novelty. “From now on we are going to put in shows direct from Fischer’s Theatre,” said Mr. Rothschild yesterday. “You will have feature acts that command from $150 to $300 per week for one act alone. This is more than many competitors pay for their entire show.”
“Very few theatres can obtain the top notch talent we now handle,” said Mr. Rothschild. “They have to pick up an act here and there and are glad to get anything that comes along — acts that have played around the bay for years. Our acts come direct from the East and Europe and are the cream of vaudeville features. We book them for fifty-two consecutive weeks and pay them the highest salaries according to their ability.
“I have lately returned from the north and we have affiliated with the S. Morten Cohn circuit, making an addition of the following houses…Small store shows are now out of date and all our new houses are modern theatres, suitable for any combination that may come along.
“The Novelty Theatre’s circuit, The Tony Lubelski’s circuit and the S. Morten Cohn circuit, have affiliated and are now one, making the largest and strongest circuit in the U.S.,” continued Mr. Rothschild…The shows we will put on in Santa Rosa from week to week from now on will be a revelation to the Novelty patrons; each week will excel the other.”
– Press Democrat, March 7, 1905
The only reason the Athenaeum playhouse did not pay under the old management was because it was not managed. It just ran itself. When a company came along and wanted to play here, somebody could usually be found who had the authority to sign up a contract, though not always, but the other fellow had to furnish his own contract and generally his own ink. This was nobody’s fault, particularly, because the gentlemen entrusted with handling such matters had their own affairs to look out for, and with them theatricals were merely a side issue. A good man, paid for it and with nothing else to do, could have gone after money-making attractions, and owing to our location on the map practically everything that goes to Sacramento could have been secured for this city. Nobody can point to the time where a first-class attraction came here and did not have a good house. But the show business is like everything else — one has to rustle to make it a success, and that is why the present management will probably be able to make the thing “go,” where the old company could not. And happily we are to get something besides vaudeville once in a while under the present arrangement, for when a traveling aggregation wants the boards, the local stars will allow themselves to temporarily go into eclipse.
– Press Democrat editorial, March 12, 1905
Santa Rosa seems destined to “get her fill” of vaudeville from this time on. With three shows every night of the week, to say nothing of those given on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and an occasional holiday thrown in, the public craving for that sort of thing certainly ought to be satisfied in time. The whole country seems to be going vaudeville crazy. As for me, give me a good old-fashioned “show” every time, with a “change of bill” whenever it strikes the fancy of some advance man to bring a new company to town and a repertoire running all the way from “Yon Yonson” to Robert Downing or to Ward, Kidder & James, as fate and the weather permit.
– Press Democrat editorial, March 12, 1905
ATHENAEUM DARK: NO MORE VAUDEVILLE
William Wolfe, who leased the Athenaeum for a year and last week began a series of vaudeville entertainments, has discontinued the latter owing to lack of patronage. Last night the place was dark. There are two stories out regarding Mr. Wolfe’s intentions for the future, one being to the effect that he will retain the lease and seek to bring legitimate attractions here about twice a week, and the other that he will throw up his lease and retire from the local theatrical field at once. When he leased the big local playhouse, Mr. Wolfe paid the first month’s rent in advance, and paid all salaries in full Saturday night. Mr. Wolfe is the lessee of the Hill Opera House at Petaluma, and was formerly in the business at Sacramento, where he is said to have been very successful.
– Press Democrat, March 14, 1905
BIG SHOW ON AT THE ATHENAEUM TONIGHT
The headline used in connection with an article published in these columns yesterday morning and which stated that there would be no more vaudeville at the Athenaeum, may have created a wrong impression with some. While Mr. Wolfe has discontinued his every night show, the Great Western Vaudeville company will appear as usual every Wednesday evening, and will continue to give a first-class performance with a complete change of bill weekly.
– Press Democrat, March 15, 1905
THE NOVELTY’S NEW BILL
Brief Resume of What That Popular Playhouse Offers This Week
In spite of the free Tyndall lecture at the Athenaeum, there was a large attendance at the Novelty theatre last evening.
One of the features of the new bill was a performance by Frederic La Delie, fantastic wonder worker. As Frederic stepped on the stage he was greeted with a number of jocular remarks, such as “Aaint he a rare old bird?” etc., but he didn’t mind a bit. He filled the bill and among other things produced pink rabbits, guinea pigs, pigeons and all kinds of poultry in regulation style. His make-up may have been a bit fantastic, but his stunts were good.
W. Ed Woodward’s illustrated song, “The Voice of the Hudson,” was well rendered, and received with the usual hearty round of applause.
The Adams Brothers, billed as comedy acrobats, singers and dancers, are acrobats without the singing and dancing — at least they gave none last night. One Adams appeared in a tomato red uniform — part drum major and part bell boy. The other appeared as a Mongolian, in a suit of blue [line missing] and in the rough-and-tumble the Adams Brothers got very careless with each other. The act ended with a free-for-all game of leap frog over, under, and all around each other, much to the amusement of the audience.
After Mrs. Lansing’s overture Annie Abbott, the little Georgia Magnet, or lady of mystery, gave a very clever performance. Her feats of magnetism are well done and mystify everybody. She brought down more than her share of applause, from an audience that was at first skeptical, then interested, and finally enthusiastic.
The moving pictures by Toby Yost were good. The first series, “The Joys of Matrimony,” depicted a domestic scene of tranquility; a family row; the ejection of the mother-in-law by [line of type inserted backwards] wife revived by a shower from a seltzer bottle. The second depicted a steeple chase, and a very realistic one it was, with accidents and an exciting finish.
– Press Democrat, September 26, 1905