With the advent of reality TV and the latest push of talent and game shows, it seems entertainment is about to meet itself coming around the corner. See, back before there was an idiot box in every living room, audiences flocked to the theater for their dose of distraction. And from the 1880s through the 1920s, variety shows (aka vaudeville) — featuring singing, dancing, comic sketches, skits and animal tricks — were all the rage.
According to local director Hope Spragg of the newly formed Scapegoat Theatre Collective, that same anything-goes brand of entertainment is what makes Asheville — in the 21st century — so special. “I think a lot of the reason people enjoy downtown is because it’s an arts-supportive community,” she says. “It’s entertainment for the sake of itself.”
Spragg goes on to list human statues, drummers in Pritchard Park and a host of other street acts among the art-for-art’s sake crowd. In fact, when Scapegoat decided to produce Asheville Vaudeville for its free debut performance, the collective invited not just actors but also buskers to join in.
“Our mission is to be very collaborative with other performing artists,” says Spragg.
So, instead of unleashing yet another upstart theatrical endeavor on local audiences, the group decided to pool resources with artists who’ve already made a name for themselves — and not necessarily on stage. Bele Chere scene stealers the Rib Tips are Scapegoat’s house band; the street-smart, in-your-face old-time act’s front man, Ian Moore, will emcee the event.
Add to the lineup Middle Eastern dancer Ishani Ishiaya, improv comedy troupe the Oxymorons and members of the Asheville Circus School, among others.
Who’s on first all over again
According to reference database “Bootleg Book,” the term “vaudeville” is a corruption of the Old French Vau de Vire — the native valley of Norman poet Olivier Basselin, who created a type of festive song.
But Wixpedia.com argues that the word originates from the French expression “voix de ville” — voice of the city. Either way, the dramatic style blossomed in the U.S. with the growth of industry in the cities, and many early stars of radio, film and TV began their careers on the vaudeville circuit. The Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges are examples, along with Abbott and Costello.
“We didn’t just want to use the name vaudeville, we wanted to have some of the elements,” reasons Spragg. She’ll be directing a comedic skit called “Abby and Costella” — a feminine version of Abbott and Costello’s hit routine “Who’s on First.”
That skit came to national attention in the 1940 film One Night in the Tropics — but legendary actor Bud Abbott had fine-tuned his straight-man skills with vaudeville actors decades earlier.
Local performers like belly-dance troupe Baraka Mundi might seem exotic by turn-of-the-last-century standards, but as Spragg points out, “The spirit of vaudeville back then was a free-for-all.” Dancer Ella Lola executed her rendition of a Turkish dance during an 1898 show. “Ms. Lola’s routine, although bordering on risque, far from violates any accepted standards of decency,” explains Rick Easton, a historian at the University of Virginia. “This type of performance was not uncommon, and points to vaudeville’s roots in earlier forms of burlesque.”
“There’s something very accessible about physical theater,” Spragg suggests as a reason for the continued popularity of vaudeville — or at least vaudeville-type acts.
“There are few opportunities to get entertainment that’s free in this town,” she throws in for good measure. “We want to provide that.”
A different reality for these Hilton sisters
photo used courtesy of James Mundie
While much of vaudeville was a talent show, it also carried with it a carnival element, incorporating circus-style sideshow acts. At the height of the vaudevillian era — obviously decades before political correctness — conjoined (Siamese) sisters Violet and Daisy Hilton made and lost several fortunes on the tour circuit.
Attached at the sacrum, the twins were born in England in 1908 and adopted by a conniving couple who taught the girls to sing, dance and play a variety of instruments. At age eight, the Hiltons were relocated to San Antonio, Texas, where their talent — performed alongside such greats as Harry Houdini — earned their keepers millions.
“The Hilton Sisters were among the highest paid sideshow performers in history, earning up to $5,000 per week during the height of the Great Depression,” writes sideshow historian James Mundie (www.missioncreep.com). And though the twins were able to escape their adoptive family in the 1930s, a series of exploitive husbands and corrupt managers took most of the money the Hiltons earned.
In 1962, their careers winding down, the twins embarked on a tour of drive-in movie theaters only to be abandoned in Charlotte, N.C., by their last manager. “They rented a trailer home for a few weeks, and got a job working for a man named Charles Reid, who owned a grocery store called the Park-N-Shop, located at 3512 Wilkinson Boulevard,” recounts Scott Michaels of FindADeath.com. The former vaudevillians took jobs as produce weighers where, Michaels claims, “they kept such a low profile, that most people they waited on had no idea they were Siamese twins.”
In January 1969, the Hilton sisters died together of the flu. They are buried in Charlotte’s Forest Lawn Cemetery.
Scapegoat Theatre Collective presents Asheville Vaudeville at Pritchard Park on Friday, Aug. 26 (7 p.m.) and Saturday, Aug. 27 (2 p.m.), and also at the New French Bar Courtyard (12 Biltmore Ave.) on Saturday (7 p.m.). Admission is free. For more information, visit www.scapegoattheatre.org.