Welcome to The American Vaudeville Museum
A Note from Dr. David Soren
Dear Visitor to Our School of Anthropology Vaudeville Website,
This site was something I had long envisioned ever since significant portions of the wonderful collection of the American Vaudeville Museum (created by Frank Cullen and Donald McNeilly) were donated to Special Collections at the University of Arizona Main Library in 2008. Frank and Donald have been driving forces behind the University of Arizona’s collections and we are extremely grateful for their expertise and stewardship of the museum and for their renowned publication Vaudeville Times. I am also grateful for their friendship of these past ten years and the opportunity to contribute to their publication which has done so much to keep the spirit of vaudeville alive.
I would also like to thank Michael-Anne Young, Director of the Joseph and Mary Cacioppo Foundation for her support for this website, for without her faith in my ability to get the work done it would never have happened. She has been a beacon in difficult times and is always ready to support projects of a creative nature for more than 20 years now here in Tucson, Arizona.
For the actual physical creation of the website I must thank our fearless department head Diane Austin for believing and supporting it, our intrepid and brilliant web designer Lisa Zhang, our web material facilitator Rayshma Pereira and our negotiator and advocate in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Virginia (Ginny) Healy.
Although I am what is called a Regents Professor of Anthropology here, I grew up in the entertainment business. From the age of 8 I had the honor to work regularly in vaudeville, at night clubs like Palumbo’s in Philadelphia and on tv as a regular on the Horn and Hardart’s Children’s Hour where you never knew who was going to take off and become a big star. There was Frankie Avalon who played the trumpet as I recall back then and soon became a teen idol. Constance Franconero was to become the legendary singing star of the sixties Connie Francis who had so many rock and pop hits. I would go out on tour with Pete Boyle, the father of actor Peter Boyle (he played the monster in Young Frankenstein!) who was around too, and I’d be an opening act for the Philadelphia Eagles football team (Chuck Bednarik and Jesse Richardson in particular). I would sing, dance and act a bit, do ballet, tap, anything you want. I even got to record some songs at ABC-Paramount records where they had people like Paul Anka. But his songs did a lot better than mine!! I miss those days a great deal and it was a time when I learned the traditions of vaudeville and all about the great stars who had been a part of it.
So, dear visitor, I hope you enjoy having a look through this website. We (my cocker spaniel Lana and I) will be continually upgrading it and offering links to other sites too but generally we hope you will enjoy what you see, be entertained and be glad that you spent a little time with some of the greatest entertainers (and worst too) that America has ever known and mostly forgotten.
David Soren, Regents Professor of Anthropology and Classical Studies,
University of Arizona
From a Hoodsie Cup to a Museum: The Origins of the American Vaudeville Museum
By: Frank Cullen, co-founder with Donald McNeilly of the American Vaudeville Museum
Seventy or so years ago I went movie crazy. That’s what my mother called it. Neither Mom or Dad were much for the movies, but once I grew old enough to toddle off to the Saturday matinees with my friends, I became severely but selectively addicted. No love stories, pul-lease! Give me Laurel & Hardy, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, sword movies (we called them), Bela Lugosi, Wild Bill Elliot and Fuzzy St John or the Bowery Boys fighting Nazi Fifth columnists and I was there in body, spirit and imagination—along with many other fourth grade boys.
During the Second World War, most of us kids shined shoes, sold newspapers and ran errands to make the nickels that got us into movies or bought us a treat. For a time my favorite was a Hoodsie, ice cream cup, not because they were gourmet—they weren’t, but because inside the circular lids, under a layer of waxed paper, was a picture of a movie star. What I didn’t know was that Herbert Yates’ Republic Pictures seem to monopolize the roster. Sure, there were a few cowboys, like Roy Rogers (who didn’t really count like Buck Jones or Battlin’ Bob Steele), but after my eleventh Hoodsie in a row with a head shot of Yates’ wife Vera Hruba Ralston (zero trading value), I turned to other forms of collecting.
First were those postcard-sized, machine-autographed pictures of movie and radio stars that one found in beachfront amusement park arcades. I still had cards of Abbott & Costello and Burns & Allen when Donald McNeilly and I sent our first batch of sixty-plus years of show business collections to the University of Arizona in 2008.
It was the comedians I liked best and collected most. After Stan & Ollie, my first ‘comedy crush,’ I found the Marx Brothers and Abbott & Costello. When I began reading everything I could lay my hands on at the library about my favorites (and buying copies of their biographies) for my incipient collection, I discovered that all had begun their careers in vaudeville.
The early 1950s were signal years for me and my mania. Television was my enabler. Until visual recording tape burst the bubble in 1954, early television was live so it needed performers who could memorize an entire script, perform live and ad lib if the set fell down. Few 1950s movie actors were trained to do that, sdo it provided a career revival for vaudevillians: Ed Wynn, Buster Keaton, Milton Berle, Martha Raye, The Marx Brothers (but not all together), Blossom Seeley, Sophie Tucker, Jimmy Savo, Joe E. Brown, Olsen & Johnson, Sid Caesar & Imogene Coca, Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor among others.
That revival did not pass unnoticed in Hollywood. Soon 1930s films were re-released starring vaudevillians Mae West, Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields. Shorts with Laurel & Hardy, Leon Errol, Edgar Kennedy and The Three Stooges (all vaudevillians) were leased to television. Even old phonograph recordings were reissued on LP albums. One of the first LPs was the RCA’s 1951 Old Curiosity Shop, a 12-inch platter that included performances by Sophie Tucker, Helen Kane, Will Rogers, John Barrymore, Marlene Dietrich, Fanny Brice, DeWolf Hopper, Nora Bayes and others.
For years I collected every show-business book, magazine and photograph I could get my paws on and could afford. Performers generously responded to my mash notes with autographed photos and material about their careers. My enthusiasms spread far and wide in the performing arts. I grew devoted to modern dance (Ruth St Denis and Martha Graham first performed in vaudeville) and blues and jazz that flowered in black vaudeville, speakeasies and revue.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s a generation of New Vaudevillians had come of age: Bette Midler, Bill Irwin, Arturo Brachetti, Avner the Eccentic and Keith Nelson, Stephanie Monseu & Adam Kuchler of Bindlestiff. And I fell in love with them.
By 1982, when moving entailed crating as many books, recordings, artifacts, scrapbooks and programmes as did furniture, clothing and furnishings, Donald McNeilly and I established the nonprofit American Vaudeville Museum to give purpose and shape to our collections. In the space of a decade our website (www.vaudeville.org) and our print quarterly, Vaudeville Times attracted performers and fans on three continents, and Routledge Press contracted with us to write the large-format, two-volume Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America (2006).
The result was many donations of everything from Burns & Allen’s vaudeville trunk to a White Rats union card, so it became necessary to find a larger and more permanent repository for the American Vaudeville Museum collections. Fortunately one of our members was a child vaudevillian, Howie Davis, who suggested and facilitated the relocation of the AVM to University of Arizona’s Special Collections in Tucson. That little singing tap dancer grew into the gentleman and scholar man we know as David Soren, Regent’s Professor of Classics.
Thank You to Our Donors
The American Vaudeville Museum & The Joseph and Mary Cacioppo Foundation
The American Vaudeville Museum digital archive at the University of Arizona Libraries, Special Collections and in the School of Anthropology would not be possible without the efforts and support of Dr. David Soren, Regents Professor, University of Arizona and Michael-Anne Young of the Joseph and Mary Cacioppo foundation.
It is through David's vision and Michael-Anne's generosity that this digital archive comes to life. Of course none of this would be possible at all, without the original donation of one of most comprehensive archival collection of Vaudeville materials in the world, which came from Frank Cullen and Donald McNeilly.