You Know, A Lot Can Happen In A Century

In his time, Al Jolson was a superstar. We've managed to get past the need for blackface, and although it keeps changing, showbiz marches on.

In his time, Al Jolson was a superstar. Thankfully, we’ve managed to get past the need for blackface. Show business keeps changing, adapting to times and tastes. And until recently, there was one place to read about these changes, day after day, year after year. Now, that’s changing, too. How? Read on. (You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!)

Today, we’re digital. We live in modern times. These times, we believe, are so new, so unique, that they have no historical precedent. The mythology is tempting, but that’s because the history is just beyond the edge of our ken. We focus on the new. We forget what happened before. Until, of course, we’re reminded of our history as the result of a really good documentary, or a really good book.

vaudeville theatre

A hundred years ago, minstrel shows were just beginning to lose their luster, but it was unclear whether theater audiences would eventually prefer skating rinks, a vaudeville industry based upon national tours (new, in 1906), or bawdy burlesque as a the most popular ways to spend leisure time. Movies were just starting out with an industry of tiny, dubious start-ups and few places where they could be seen by anyone. Live theater was the popular entertainment; actors traveled from one city to another to perform in popular plays, just as they had since the time of John Wilkes Booth. It was a confusing time… The Great War was just beginning and the large theater lobbies were as useful as recruiting stations as they were for pre-performance gatherings. After the war, everything seemed to coalesce. Charlie Chaplin, who had debuted in a US theater in 1910, was sufficiently powerful by 1918 to join forces with movie stars Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and director D.W. Griffith to form United Artists. Then as now, everything happened quickly.

Prior to the 1920s, just about all entertainment was live. The movies were beginning to change that, and as the decade began, a new idea called radio was began as a kind of experiment, it’s post-military use future not yet clear. The year 1920 was one of vaudeville’s best ever. By 1925, radio was becoming popular, but its business model was entirely unclear. From a July 1925 article:

the broadcasters and radio manufacturers continue to tell Department of Commerce officials that no broadcasting station in the country is making money.

Paramount theaterParamount studioBy 1930, 40 percent of US households owned a radio, and by 1940, radio’s penetration was more than 80 percent. By 1930, there was a bona fide motion picture industry with large studios (Fox, Paramount, Loew’s/MGM, RKO and Warner), each with an elaborate distribution network of theaters throughout the country and a distribution infrastructure to service the nation and parts of the world. At the same time, the new NBC and its lesser rival CBS had built a similar structure for radio broadcasting. This structure supported the next level of development: a star system. Lon Chaney, Al Jolson, Fatty Arbuckle, Theda Bara, Duke Ellington, James Cagney, Fred and Adele Astaire, so many others became household names.

The industry grew. There were cartoons from Warner Bros, and Disney, comedy shorts from Hal Roach (Our Gang, Laurel and Hardy), child stars including Shirley Temple, and within a decade, major long-term successes including Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. There was Mussolini, Hitler, FDR, the Roaring Twenties followed by the Great Depression.

Variety bookVariety covered it all. This small, speciality newspaper, a trade rag, was always at the center of it all. When anything happened in or near show biz, Variety told the world. Everybody in “the business” read it, and to be mentioned in it was a clear indication of career success (I was in it, at lease once, and I still have the clipping).

This week, Variety announced that it would cease publishing its daily edition (the weekly remains in print, at least for the foreseeable future). This is not simply a cost cutting measure. Variety, once the trendiest of publications, has been badly beaten in the online entertainment journalism game, and some industry insiders question its survival as a 21st century brand.

Given its illustrious past, I suspect Variety has more fight in it than pundits allow. If you have any doubt, you must spend some time with a book about Variety’s history published by Rizzoli in a tidy coffee table format. The book is entitled Variety: An Illustrated History of the World from the Modt Important Magazine in Hollywood. The last headline in this volume: “Comcast buys 51% of NBC Universal.” I think it’s interesting to note that neither Comcast nor NBC nor Universal existed when Variety’s story began, and even more interesting to consider just how much has happened over the span of a single century. (Parallels with today’s innovative world are particularly fascinating).

Okay, why not? Here’s one of my favorite Variety headlines. This one was on the front page on July 12, 1950:

VIDEO NOW VAUDE’S VILLAIN
Acts and Agents Fear TV Inroads

Can’t help but wonder about a headline that could be written for July, 2050:

WEB, VID DEAD
TV and internet replaced by…

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