By Karen K.
In Seattle Repertory Theatre’s production of The Vaudevillians, Seattle natives Jerick Hoffer (Jinkx Monsoon, RuPaul’s Drag Race) and Richard Andriessen (Major Scales) star as “The Vaudevillians,” a fictional 1920s duo who were literally frozen in time while touring in Antarctica. Thawing out nearly a century later, they discover their original music has been co-opted throughout the years—and they’re not going to stand for it. (The production previews next Friday, October 3.) We put together a list of books, music and DVDs — The Vaudevillians: Beyond the Theatre — to complement the show at The Rep. Working on this list lead me to the Seattle Room collection (at the Central Library) and down a fascinating journey looking at the tradition of vaudeville and its history in Seattle.
Vaudeville, cabaret and variety shows in Seattle took place in now mostly demolished theaters, as the photograph-laden Seattle Music Venues shows. In 1944, a history of Seattle vaudeville, A History of Variety: Vaudeville in Seattle from the Beginning to 1914 by Eugene C. Elliott, captured the bygone days of performances by acts that toured the United States and stopped at Seattle theaters like the Pantages. Greek-born Alexander Pantages, who was drawn to the Pacific Northwest by the Alaskan Gold Rush, built a mansion in Seattle and gave his name to West Coast theaters from Seattle to Los Angeles (including Tacoma’s Pantages Theatre). With the decline of vaudeville from silent motion pictures, the “new” screen stars would promote their films in person in vaudeville houses. Silent Film Stars on the Stages of Seattle: A History of Performances by Hollywood Notables by Eric L. Flom draws upon a theatrical collection of reviews, programs, and publicity photographs of Seattle newspaper critic and promoter J. Willis Sayre. The J. Willis Sayre Collection was originally obtained by the Seattle Historical Society and now is part of the University of Washington. Radio stars such as Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and Jack Benny also began as vaudeville acts, and then moved to “talkies.”
In addition to the “legit” theaters, there were dance halls, roadhouses, clubs, and cabarets such as the Garden of Allah, a gay cabaret (located on First Avenue between University and Seneca). Formerly a speakeasy and tavern, the Garden of Allah still booked vaudeville acts and was a venue for female impersonators, welcoming gay and lesbian audiences for a ten-year period before closing in 1956. The Lusty Lady by Erika Langley documents the adult sex entertainment of the theater, its performers, and its famous marquee that occupied First Avenue for 25 years, until it closed in 2010.
For additional information about Seattle’s theatrical history, visit the Seattle Room Collection (open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday/Sunday 1 to 5 p.m.) on Floor 10 of the Central Library or History Link’s site.