Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Vaudeville is the Default Condition of the Mind

Old newspapers, magazines and ephemeral books have always held an interest for me. That is why the site The Hope Chest is on my RSS feed list. The compiler of The Hope Chest finds oddities from old news and posts them with comments. Today its author proposed the following observation: "Vaudeville is the default condition of the mind." Not only did I enjoy that line enough to want to share it, it reminded me of an essay I wrote about a year ago when I came across some video clips of Al “Rubber Legs” Norman, which I have yet to post or publish, so here it goes:

Rubber Legs

On the web page of Henrik Eriksson, a square-jawed Swede who blogs about his career as a swing music D.J. I discovered Al “Rubber Legs” Norman.

In a series of embedded clips from You Tube, Al performed his greatest hits from 1930s movies. The double jointed dancer whipped his legs around so they created waves which he expertly surfed. Not quite Broadway or tap style, his dance was part comic, part acrobatic and would bring a smile to the lips of even the most downtrodden Depression-era audience. He reminded me of Ray Bolger, but without the Wizard of Oz Scarecrow costume.

Seventy years after he performed his quirky dance, he is a star of the Internet. The “Happy Feet” clip has popped up on dozens of blogs. It’s been seen by 44,639 people. I wanted to know more about him.

I looked him up in all the normal places, The Internet Movie Database, The Internet Broadway Database, Newspaperarchive.com. I even went so far as to get up from my computer and look in some real books. All I was able to come up with was that Norman had been an “eccentric” dancer on the vaudeville circuit before his Internet stardom.

“Novelty dancers,” wrote Ian Driver, author of A Century of Dance, “were perhaps the performers who were totally rooted in the culture of their day. Novelty dancers or ‘eccentric’ dancers were, in effect, dancing comedians.”

Such performers were often the glue that held the mosaic of a vaudeville performance together. A vaudeville show had no cohesive theme. On one bill you might find a juggler, a comedian, a singer, a toe dancer, a ventriloquist and an acrobat. Odd acts that defied categorization found an outlet in vaudeville.

Al Norman’s viral video status makes perfect sense. You Tube is the new vaudeville. We often think of YouTube, with its 10 minute slices of entertainment, as being a product of a short-attention-span culture and the downfall of literacy, but it may simply be a return to the diversity that we enjoyed in days gone by.

In the early days of television Ed Sullivan would present a group of performers so diverse that no modern programmer would dare copy. The Beatles would leave the stage to make way for a juggler and a scene from a Broadway show.

Over the years, eclectic family programming gave way to market driven programming geared towards specific demographic niches. Programs with a highly identifiable audience could serve as a vehicle to advertise certain products. Randomness no longer reigned on the airwaves. Yet our interest and our curiosity has remained as wide as it ever was.

Our personal blogs reveal individuals who do not fit as nicely into demographic niches as marketers would have us believe. A television programmer would never pitch black and white movies for an audience of 20-somethings, but there is many a blog that displays videos by Pink next to clips of Fred Astaire and bluegrass picking along side Stephen Colbert.

In just a few days, embedded YouTube clips have introduced me to beatbox flute, cut paper animations and Al Norman. Welcome back vaudeville. We missed you.