BLUE VAUDEVILLE: Sex, Morals and the Mass Marketing of Amusement, 1895 – 1915

by Andrew L. Erdman (2004, McFarland & Company, North Carolina, ISBN 0=7864-1827-3)

This well-written, thoughtful book is more ambitious in scope than its title. In the first half of his book, Mr. Erdman provides a concise overview of vaudeville in its maturing phase and examines show business of the early Twentieth Century within the framework of other industries of the time and the marketing strategies they employed to convince the public of the superiority of mass-produced goods over handmade and customized products.

Products such as food, soaps and patented medicines were sold on the basis of the standardized purity and measures of ingredients, safety and reliability of the total product. The sales formula was not much tweaked when applied to automobiles and household appliances, which the buying public was assured were safe, reliable and whose parts were replaceable because their manufacture was standardized.

Erdman extends this sales formula into the marketing of entertainment. However, the sales campaigns for mass-produced and -marketed goods were in synchronicity with the growing public health movement, and the strategy was widely and quickly successful because, by the turn of the Twentieth Century, there was consensus about public health. Pure and unadulterated ingredients, manufactured in sanitized surroundings and offered in standardized dosages in medicines were essential to keeping infection contained. Similarly, as mechanization took over in agriculture and manufacture, there was growing concern about the process and the products. One wished to avoid engines that exploded, caught on fire or felt apart or otherwise put users at risk.

There was, however, no such consensus at that time (or at any time since) as to what constituted fit subject matter and proper treatment in any of the popular arts. It was difficult to muster universal support to ban dramatizations or performances about lust, rape, incest, prostitution, torture and murder when those matters were so prominently treated by the authors of the Christian Bible, painters like Rubens and Bosch and dramatists like Shakespeare.

Then as now, community standards and debate vied with the box office to determine acceptability. Performances that drew large audiences in Manhattan may or may not have pleased the entire population but perceptions about morality had no demonstrable negative effect on box office receipts. Chicago’s audiences were more sophisticated than Chattanooga’s, so what no one blinked an eye at in the Windy City gave pause to the good citizens of the Bible Belt. Yet Butte, Montana was far more receptive than Boston, Massachusetts, of sexual material and rawness of treatment on the stage.

Generally, what was offered on the stage, especially within variety and vaudeville, straddled a shifting middle ground. Younger generations usually have been more tolerant than older. Theatre fare in general, not just vaudeville, was racier than bluenoses believed was acceptable and too tame for those of the working class without middleclass pretensions. The subjective opinions about moral or immoral content and treatment do not easily fit the measurable and definable criteria for the health-bestowing quality of ingredients, the purity of their manufacture or product safety of face creams, toothpaste, cough syrup, canned food or automobiles. This opinion doesn’t deny the fascination of the proposed parallel.

Mr. Erdman’s book is divided into four major sections or chapters, each quite complete in itself and not handily related to others. The third section is familiar and not unalike other treatments of the same subject: the commoditization of the female form and female sexuality. Yet nudity and suggestiveness did not always trump talent. Many leading female stars of vaudeville were large, homely women, whose long-time appeal was rooted in stage personality, talent and showmanship, and they were as apt to be stars as the young shapely women whose careers were largely dependent on a display of physical charms. Those beauties whose careers endured more than a few years also possessed talent and stage personality as well.

Male sexuality was on display as well. Acrobats aroused much ire (from men) because the costumes they wore were as form fitting as women’s (and signaled to women in the audience that the ideal male figure was not pot-bellied). Strong men like Sandow and Sampson wore even less, and were invariably handsome and well proportioned. They attracted large numbers of women to vaudeville theatres. Their careers lasted only as long as they kept in shape and had an effective act.

The fourth section is devoted to Eva Tanguay, arguably vaudeville’s most famous, popular and brazen star—one related to the author. In about 40 pages, Mr. Erdman provides an analysis of her appeal and impact as well as a sketch of her life and career. Everyone admits that Eva Tanguay was the biggest star—at the least one of a half dozen important stars—of vaudeville. That a full-length biography has not been published has been a disappointment to vaudeville aficionados. Mr. Erdman seems likely to produce one.

The final section, the fifth chapter, brings the reader full circle to the decline of vaudeville. Among the author’s more intriguing observations is his admission that movies generated louder and more consistent condemnation for moral lassitude

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