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From 1880 to 1930, the vaudeville show reigned as the most popular form of entertainment in America. Vaudeville was a meeting place--an inclusive form of theatre that fostered cultural interaction between New Yorkers. With its daredevils, comics, tear-jerkers, slapstick clowns, and crooners, vaudeville succeeded in presenting as many voices as New York City itself, allowing them to swell together in a chorus rarely in unison, sometimes in harmony, and always as loud, brassy, and quintessentially New York as the sound of the subway train roaring into Times Square.
Robert Snyder's entertaining and enlightening book depicts the rise of popular culture in America by brilliantly recapturing the essence and commercial trappings of one of its most vital forms of entertainment--the vaudeville show. Snyder reconstructs famous acts such as Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, and Weber and Fields; describes the different theaters from Broadway's famous Palace to local Bronx and Brooklyn venues; and demonstrates how entrepreneurs such as B.F. Keith and E.F. Albee created a near monopoly over bookings, theaters, and performers.
First exploring the early transformation of the variety theater into a more tasteful form of entertainment for middle-class women, men, and their families, he then introduces us to such influential showmen as Tony Pastor, who took vaudeville out of the Bowery without taking the Bowery completely out of vaudeville. He brings us to the opening of Keith and Albee's theater on Union Square and describes their efforts to make vaudeville a nationwide industry, along the way offering lively descriptions of the performances of Maggie Cline, the lusty-voiced Irish Queen of Tony Pastor's theater, Eubie Blake, the ragtime pianist, composer, and son of former slaves, and countless others. He also shows us vaudeville's decline, with the appropriation of vaudeville audiences by musical comedy, radio, and, most importantly, motion pictures, and the Depression and the closing of the Palace--which became a movie house and featured as its first film The Kid From Spain, starring one of the kings of vaudeville, Eddie Cantor.
Within the vaudeville theater, New Yorkers found celebration and sentiment, freedom and confinement, abundance and exploitation, intimacy and bureaucracy, glitter and meanness; in other words, they found the voice of the city.
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