Live Vaudeville Performances and Film: Linking Past with Future

“VAUDEVILLE AND MOVING PICTURE SHOW,” an advertisement in the November 27, 1909 edition of the La Grande Evening Observer describes a mixed-bill of upcoming entertainment to be viewed at the Scenic Theatre in all capital letters to grab readers’ attention. This cross-promotion of live and recorded entertainment is highly intentional.

In his article “Film Exhibition in Vaudeville: What We Learn From Keith-Albee Managers’ Reports”, scholar Michael Slowik argues that by “placing films within a vaudeville program, vaudeville lent film the early identity of a ‘vaudeville act’. As a vaudeville act, film was expected to be a culturally respectable entertainment that appealed to a diverse group of patrons.”

Slowik’s concept of promoting film alongside live vaudeville acts to increase audience recognition of film as a valid and celebrated form of entertainment in the early 1900s is made apparent in the La Grande Evening Observer Scenic Theatre advertisement. The advertisement reveals the double feature of vaudeville performances “O’NEAL AND MARION Burlesque on Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “THE KENMORES. Willie and the Dolls” alongside “two reels of moving pictures.” The vaudeville performances would likely draw the crowd in for the film to follow, with hopes of building a future audience for film-only events that would potentially cost less money and require less organized planning than live vaudeville performances.

In addition to the format of the Scenic Theatre’s bill of upcoming entertainment, the content itself is worth discussing. With O’Neal and Marion’s burlesque show’s titular reference to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an audience member would likely expect elements of blackface minstrelsy and other racially charged material. (Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’ became synonymously used a derogatory term describing a subservient black man.) As cited by historical records in Oregon Blue Book, “African-Americans were unequivocally not wanted.” Exclusionist and Free Soil beliefs solidified Oregon’s early attitude on race, declaring it both ‘anti-slave’ and ‘anti-black’. Material such as blackface minstrelsy would likely be unsurprising and well received in an Oregon community such as La Grande, even in the early 1900s.

Examination of the Scenic Theatre’s advertisement in the La Grande Evening Observer offers primary insight into both the movement to use live vaudeville performances to draw audiences to film, as well as to the frightening reality of Oregon’s roots in racism. In this way, it is clear that live vaudeville performances had the capacity to act as agents of change towards the future, as well as pieces of historic preservation highlighting a problematic past.

REFERENCES:

Beecher Stowe, Harriet. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. John P. Jewett and Company, 1852.

La Grande Evening Observer, 27 Nov. 1909.

Oregon Blue Book: Oregon History: Statehood to Present, bluebook.state.or.us/cultural/history/historypost.htm.

Slowik, Michael. “Film Exhibition in Vaudeville: What We Learn from Keith-Albee Managers Reports.” Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, vol. 39, no. 2, 2012, pp. 73–92. Manchester University Press, doi:10.7227/nctf.39.2.5.