Book review: No applause, just throw money

“No Applause –Just Throw Money” by Trav S.D.
Faber and Faber, Inc., 2005.
328 pp. Hard cover.

The bibliography of books about American vaudeville is a fairly short one considering its importance as entertainment and business and the role it played in forming some of the greatest American show biz talents who later segued into film and TV, from Fred Astaire to Milton Berle. Several of the key books penned on the subject were authored by writers somehow linked to Variety, such as Abel Green, Joe Laurie, Jr. and Douglas Gilbert, the father of George Gilbert.

In its first decades of existence, vaudeville was the basic subject matter for news in Variety. When Sime Silverman founded the sheet in 1905, it was primarily as a vaude paper, with Sime himself writing many of the reviews. The present book mentions several of these.

Trav S.D.’s new tome (real name D. Travis Stuart, a scribe for The Village Voice, American Theatre, Time Out New York and The New York Sun) is thus a welcome addition. It provides an excellent summary of the origins and development of vaude, and is written in a breezy but nonetheless authoritative style, which mixes slang and erudition and doesn’t shrink from going off on occasional tangents and interspersing his personal comments. As a modern young New Yorker (the amusing photo of him with vest, top hat, phoney spectacles and finger pointing at his reader, standing behind an American flag on the flap of the dust jacket suggests an age of about 35), Stuart doesn’t eschew the expected value judgments against Victorian morality and onstage ethnic slurs, though he does come out in partial defense of blackface and minstrel shows whose songs and sketches, he argues, laid the foundation for the character of Amercan show business for all time. He revels in the rough and tumble era of the honky tonks and the “peccadilloes” of the Tenderloin and takes the reader through the mutations of “variety shows” to “vaudeville”, ending with the glorious years of the Palace Theatre on Times Square. At the end, the reader comes away with a pretty good idea of what vaudeville was all about.

For past and present readers of Variety and other trade papers, “No Applause” provides a handy reference to the business of show biz in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Stuart delves into the lives and practices of Albee, Proctor, Keith, Morris, Loew, Beck and the many others who ran the vaude circuits and theatres, many of which eventually became film palaces. But there’s also plenty to read about the topliners, from Keaton to Jolson, in the close to 300 pages of the book. The author includes 16 pages of black and white illustrations, one of which is a Variety cartoon drawn by Leo Carrillo, an old pal of Sime’s who did sketches for the sheet during its first years of existence.

Hundreds of names are mentioned in the book, which may prove daunting to those not familiar with the subject or pre-TV entertainment. But both as a good real and a reference source, “No Applause” is well worth the buy.