I have never seen a vaudeville show. While I have seen a fair share of obscure performers in my time, attending a show devoted entirely to live music, dance, comedy, tricks, and stunts has never been an experience I have gained. This is partly because vaudeville shows haven’t been very common since their decline in popularity during the mid-1900s, but saying claiming that is the only reason I have never experienced vaudeville would be dishonest. Frankly, the few opportunities I have had to see vaudeville in my life haven’t stood out as that appealing to me in the past. Although I understood it to be a different form of live entertainment with its own set of unique appeals, I figured my time and money was better spent on the time-tested, familiar forms of distraction that speckle our modern lives. As a result, I passed on previous opportunities to seen my first vaudeville show, figuring I wasn’t missing much by doing so.
|The night of the show...|
Despite this perspective, attending a vaudeville show was something that kept coming up in conversation as my “I have never...” year progressed. To my surprise, several people I encountered throughout the first half of my journey insisted attending a vaudeville show was an experience worth having during the course of my new experiences. As a result, I eventually tacked the idea to my growing list of “I have never...” ideas, figuring it might find its way into my year at some point. Although I didn’t necessarily think it would be a standout event among my new experiences, it was an experience to gain nonetheless. As a result, I decided I would put the idea in my back pocket in case the opportunity came my way.
As I worked through planning out the winter months of my “I have never...” year some months later that decision proved to be a beneficial one. Struck by the absence of events, classes, and opportunities to gain new experience following the Christmas holiday, I found myself struggling to find an “I have never...” event for Friday, December 27th. Every source of information and calendar of events I encountered seem void of any valuable experiences on that day, which resulted in me turning to my “backup” ideas for “I have never...” events, including attending a vaudeville show. As a result, I started plugging away at my computer one line at a time until I did a quick search for “Madison vaudeville.” To my surprise, a vaudeville show out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Dead Man’s Carnival, was scheduled to appear at Madison’s Majestic Theatre the evening of December 27th. Intrigued by the luck of the occurrence, I figured I shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. In turn, I picked up two tickets to the show and marked my calendar for my first ever experience with vaudeville.
|Kicking things off|
As a result of the flurry of activity surrounding the holidays, this evening and my first experience with vaudeville came quickly. After wrapping up my workday, Rachael and I headed to the show unaware of what to fully expect. After arriving at the theatre, we grabbed a drink and took up a position with some friends near the stage, where we chatted until the lights fell. As the show began, a troop of musicians took the stage donned in old fashioned clothing and hair styles reminiscent of a bygone era where vaudeville reigned in the entertainment world. Following a brief introduction from the band’s lead singer, the band worked into some well-performed, albeit rugged, songs carrying somewhat crude overtones. With a touch of humor and an abundance of talent, the group strung together upbeat songs with their guitars, pianos, horns, and reed instruments that made it difficult to be unengaged. Based on my first impressions of the performance, it was appearing vaudeville was right up my alley.
The band worked through a few songs before introducing the first act of the evening, a juggler by the name of Gypsy Geoff. Against a backdrop of music pouring from the live band, Geoff juggled varieties of fruits in quantities almost too high to count as he moved. Then, he tracked into a hat juggling routine that created a dizzying whirl of hats flying through the air and finding their place on Geoff’s hands, feet, and head. The sight was definitely something to behold in and of itself, but Geoff’s enthusiasm as he worked provided an added sense of excitement to the affair.
Once finished, Geoff left the stage as the next act, a young magician, took the stage and worked through a series of classic magic tricks. Although the performance left some apparent markers as to how each trick was being performed, seeing the classic silver ring trick and a variety of card tricks was a good way to transition into the coming acts. As the show progressed toward intermission, a stuntman took the stage to perform a hidden spike trick, a balloon artist acted out a scene with constantly changing balloon shapes, and an acrobat displayed his talents with aerial tricks involving whips and fire sticks. Each performer offered unique talents and performed tricks that many people would avoid outright; however, as the show progressed it became clear the performers were struggling through aspects of their performances. A mistake during the hidden spike stunt almost resulted in an audience participant getting stabbed, a lack of accuracy with the whips resulted in some tricks that didn’t work, and a lack of preparation led to some challenges getting the fire sticks ready for use. By the time the performance hit intermission, the gaps in the performance had a clear effect on audience interest, which left me questioning how much entertainment value would come in the second half of the show.
At the conclusion of the intermission, the band welcomed the crowd back with a few more songs before introducing each of the performers for a second round of tricks and stunts. The resulting performance was a hodgepodge of acts that mirrored many of the performances earlier in the show, with a few added touches to add a little more flare to the performance. This effort included the magician performed a few more magic tricks, the stuntman performing a trick that results in a live tarantula in his mouth, and the balloon artist offering a sort of “second chapter” to her earlier performance. As the show drew to a conclusion, the acrobat took to the stage for some tricks involving suspended handstands and jumps, which concluded in an awkward moment where he left the stage and the band played quietly as if expecting him to return. It was an odd moment for everyone in attendance, and, to me, it only served to put more distance between the audience and the performers.
|The human flag|
|A tarantula coming out of a man's mouth.|
|Ok, this was impressive|
After several minutes of music with no direction, the lead singer of the band decided to strip down to a silver speedo as he sang, which seemed more like a desperate time filler than a planned aspect of the performance. Feeling somewhat disconnected from the continuing performance, I watched on as Gypsy Geoff took the stage one last time to perform some balancing acts with various objects before the show drew to a conclusion. As the performers took their final bow, Rachael and I talked about the performance with our friends.
|Taking a bow|
Although we were impressed by some of the feats we witnessed during the course of the evening, an obvious air of indifference hung over our remarks. That occurrence led me to conclude my first vaudeville show was probably something worth experiencing, but the performance we saw left me somewhat disappointed. Between the implied lack of organization between segments of the show and the obvious difficulties some of the performers had during their acts, the overall event simply wasn’t what I had hoped to experience. Sure, it was entertaining to a degree, but I just felt the show could have been a much greater experience. While I give a lot of credit to the performers for their commitment to each of their unique crafts, it just seemed like there was something missing at tonight’s show. Maybe it was an off night, or maybe I set my expectations too high on this one. Whatever the case, I walked away with another new experience tonight, even if it was an experience that left something to be desired.