Those dressing rooms were stage left; I remember them well, though by the time I saw them, they were strewn with rubble. The St. George Theatre, a 2,672-seat movie palace I (and some other unlikely entrepreneurs) took a hand in running in 1976, was built for Vaudeville every bit as much as for movies.
Not every surviving movie palace had this dual purpose, and the difference usually shows in the acoustics. The St. George is a “stacked” house, with acoustics so “sweet” you can stand center stage without a mic and be heard in the last row of the upper balcony, sans echo.
Sweet though the space is and was for live presentations of various kinds, by 1929, when our theater opened, the actors, mimes, comics, trained animals, jugglers, and magicians who might once have been the main show had already become a shabby and depleted lot. The great Vaudeville circuits had been broken up by then, and it was movies, the talkies, everyone wanted to see. Ironically, the robbers chronicled by the local paper probably didn’t get much of a haul from down-at-heels actors that chilly night.
Vaudeville had had a good long run. Orpheus, a musical demi-god in Greek mythology, had kindly lent his name to the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit. Essentially founded in 1886, it was a West Coast/Midwest enterprise initially, tremendously successful until “picture shows” finally kidnapped and hauled away America’s heart. There were 45 theaters in the Orpheum Circuit by1920 (after the smaller Vaudeville circuits and East Coast and West Coast circuits had combined), down from several hundred the decade before. Live shows of fourteen or fifteen acts a night had been reduced to seven or eight, just enough to window-dress whatever moving picture the house had to offer up.
One more circuit merger formed KAO, Keith-Albee Orpheum, offsetting the fact that the movie business kept grabbing more and more slices of the audience pie. Then, in 1927, a snake-in-the-grass named Joseph Kennedy (yes, that Joe Kennedy, a Prohibition rum-runner and the daddy of future prez, JFK) pulled a slick one. Joe is known in some circles as “the man who killed Vaudeville,” and here’s how he did it; Kennedy managed to get a majority of KAO, which he promptly sold to his buddy David Sarnoff who formed RKO, (Radio/Keith/Orpheum), a company devoted entirely to the movies. Kennedy then got the sadistic pleasure of firing the head of KAO, Edward Albee (the “A” in KAO, aka “Mr Vaudeville”) telling him, “You’re washed up, Ed. You’re through.”
There’s no business like show business.
It’s tempting to feel sorry for Albee, but let’s not forget he got his start palming tickets at a circus to which he’d run away as a young man, going on to join B.F. Keith at his less-than elegant Gaiety, a “dime museum” in Boston, which displayed such delights as Baby Alice, a dead premature infant, and a chicken “with a human face.” Using, at the outset, pirated versions of Gilbert and Sullivan. Keith and Albee left the dime museum business and went on to form the beginnings of what would eventually become KAO, with Albee the engine of the enterprise.
Two years after Kennedy told him he was “...finished,” Albee died, but he was hardly a broken man. He expired at The Breakers in Palm Beach, leaving an estate valued at two million dollars (nearly thirty million by today’s standards).
By the time we came along in 1976, the St. George’s stage may have been vacant, its dressing rooms filled with rubble, its copious fly loft devoid of all but a dress curtain and an asbestos fire curtain; the organ had been sold off for parts to a pizza parlor in Texas, and the orchestra pit stank of urine; but the acoustics were, and are to this very day, impeccable.
From the vantage point of 2019, the Twenties are just about a century behind us, though in 1976, that gap felt like the half century it was. Ghosts of the actors whose purses were stolen have no doubt finally vanished, though in my time the dressing rooms seemed completely haunted. Sly Stone, the only live act of any stature we managed to present at the St. George, inhabited a hastily-cleaned dressing room briefly. He was, of course, in an altered state, but that’s another story, part of the book this blog was built to support; you’ll read about it in due time.
- Isn’t it strange and wonderful that the new model of business for movie palaces and 19th century theaters that have survived is a return to live theater? Not exactly Vaudeville, the St. George and other palaces support themselves these days on a variety of entertainments, from Doo-wop to Asian circuses. The dressing rooms are full again!
- The relationship between Vaudeville and the movies may be the subject of another post, but suffice it meanwhile to say that an amazing string of stars got their start playing the circuits: Fred Astaire (as part of an act that included his sister), Burns and Allen, W.C. Fields, Mickey Rooney, Mae West, Jelly Roll Morton, to name a few.
- Edward F. Albee's grandson by adoption was the playwright, Edward Albee.