PBS goes on a guided tour through the days of W.C. Fields, Burns & Allen and Fink's Mules in "Vaudeville: An American Masters Special" airing on PBS stations Wednesday, Nov. 26. Check local listings for times.
The special was produced and written by Greg Palmer, and narrated by Ben Vereen. Presenting rare photos and footage gleaned from the Vitaphone vaults at Time Warner and from personal collections.
Vaudeville boomed from the 1880s through the late 1920s, and survived thereafter for a time as variety shows on radio and TV, such as "The Ed Sullivan Show." In Vaudeville, audiences would be treated to a dozen or so unrelated specialty acts, some comedic, some serious. The PBS special highlights the singers and comedians, but keeps a special place for the surreal specialty acts like contortionists, jugglers, dancing animals, spoon players -- even a singing duck.
Many of the top talents graduated to the big Broadway musicals and revues like The Ziegfeld Follies or the Earl Carroll Vanities, and continued to influence Broadway, Hollywood and TV for generations afterward.
The 1980s gave rise to today's New Vaudeville movement, which includes acts like Bill Irwin, The Flying Karamazov Brothers, Mump & Smoot, and Penn & Teller. Even the "Stupid Human Tricks" segments on "The Late Show With David Letterman" owe something to the form. The new Broadway musical Side Show deals with real-life Siamese twins who emerged from Vaudeville to become Ziegfeld stars. Neil Simon's play The Sunshine Boys, which begins Broadway previews Nov. 29, deals with two old vaudevillians who attempt to reunite for a TV special very much like this one. Vaudeville alumni include The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, Gypsy Rose Lee, James Cagney, Bert Lahr, George Burns, Jimmy Durante and Buster Keaton, though the overwhelming majority are now forgotten, or, if lucky, live only in the archival footage Palmer draws upon for this special.
-- By Robert Viagas