The Burke Collection held at Queens’ comprises four thousand printed books and pamphlets on the subject of theatre in Britain, covering four hundred years of theatrical history since 1600. Bequeathed to the library in 2005 by Henry Burke, founder of the Norwich Playhouse, the collection contains an archive of documents and playscripts for Playhouse productions, as well as a collection of programmes for performances in the East of England and even further afield in the 20th century.
The new display in the Queens’ War Memorial Library highlights the theatrical performances outside the mainstream of plays, musicals, and operas: showing the essential variety of variety shows, vaudeville, burlesque, cabaret, and circus. Later variety shows are descendants of the entertainment style sometimes known as ‘music hall’ in Britain, or ‘vaudeville’ in the United States. As predecessors of variety entertainment seen, for example, at the annual Royal Variety Performance in London, travelling vaudeville productions similarly showcased several unrelated light entertainment acts, from singers to dancers, magicians to acrobats, comedians to drag performers. Popular as early as the 1880s up until the 1930s, many future celebrated performers had their origins in the vaudeville scene before achieving individual success.
One famous example is Josephine Baker, born in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri. There is speculation that Baker may be the daughter of the vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson, and as a child, Baker would often arrange variety performances with her siblings for her family. Alongside working long hours as a domestic worker from the age of eight, Baker developed her interest in dance. As an adolescent, she joined a travelling vaudeville troupe, eventually making her way to New York City where she performed in a chorus line. Her act involved pretending to perform badly for comedic effect before outshining her fellow performers with more complicated, well-executed routine. She was claimed to be the highest-paid act in vaudeville at the time. From New York, she relocated to Paris in 1925 where she found fame in ‘La Revue Nègre’, a stage show which introduced African American performers to Parisian audiences. The Burke Collection contains a selection of photographs and postcards of Baker during her time at La Revue Nègre, including the iconic image of Baker in her famous costume consisting of only a beaded necklace and short skirt of artificial bananas, showing her signature simultaneously risqué and comedic performing style. In the Second World War, Baker participated in the French resistance, earning the Légion d’Honneur, and later she returned to the United States to join civil rights demonstrations in the 50s and 60s.
Programme for ‘Et vive la folie!’ at Folies Bergères, Paris, 1968.
Folies Bergères was the cabaret music hall venue in Paris at which Baker performed in La Revue Nègre. Built in 1868, Folies Bergère still offers variety entertainment theatre, attracting many international visitors to this day. Home to pantomime, musical comedy and vaudeville sketches, the Folies gained a reputation for nudity in its performances, with women appearing in revealing and campy costumes in grandiose spectacles. All titles of the Folies’ shows since the 1880s have had exactly 13 letters, and ‘Et vive la folie’ on this programme is no exception. ‘Et vive la folie’ celebrated the centenary of Folies Bergères first opening its doors to Parisian audiences. The programme is packed with singing and dancing acts, burlesque plays and musicians, showing the enduring popularity of the variety genre.
Subversive acts, such as drag performances, were also found on variety show playbills, with Danny La Rue’s drag show in Great Yarmouth showing the broad range in variety acts that toured the East of England in the 20th century. La Rue (1927-2009) was an entertainer and drag queen originally from Ireland. A lack of girls at his local school in Devon, where he moved to as a child, led to him receiving female roles in school plays, even playing Shakespeare’s Juliet. Having joined the Royal Navy at 17, his female impersonation routine at an on-board concert revealed his talent for entertaining an audience in drag. Known for a glamourous appearance in sequin gowns and ostrich feathers, his drag performances in pantomimes and variety shows brought him huge success in the 1950s and 60s. His 1972 feature film ‘Our Miss Fred’ was shot in locations around Norfolk, with parts of Norwich used to portray old French towns. The Danny La Rue Show sold out venues in 1976. Its set list of individual musical and comedic sketches, as opposed to a continuous performance, shows the genre’s vaudevillian heritage. It was on the vaudeville circuit in America that one of the first well-known drag queens emerged, Julian Eltinge, who at one point was one of the highest paid American actors. Eltinge performed in drag before Edward VII at the Royal Variety Performance in 1906.
Closely related to the variety genre is circus, where miscellanies of popular entertainment offer dazzling shows in ‘Big Tops’. Where many circuses often shared the itinerant nature of travelling vaudeville shows, the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome has provided a permanent home for circus spectaculars in Britain since 1903. Designed specifically as a circus building, it is the only surviving venue of its kind in Britain today still fulfilling its original role. In the earlier years of the last century, the Hippodrome hosted renowned travelling variety acts such as escapist Harry Houdini and comic actor Charlie Chaplin. Burke’s collection contains a number of programmes for Billy Russell’s Circus Spectacular, an annual extravaganza in Norfolk. This 1977 line-up features acrobatic performers from across Europe and North Africa, magicians, clowns and a menagerie of animals.
Although vaudeville and variety theatre saw its peak popularity in the 20th century, many aspects of this entertainment genre have survived the television revolution. Major variety shows are now broadcast from theatres, and newer productions have been originally produced in TV studios. Once lesser-spotted acts, such as drag, have exploded into mainstream media, whereas live theatre performances remain the mainstay of chorus lines and burlesque.
By Harry Bartholomew – Library Graduate Trainee
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