This documentary traces the late-19th-century and early-20th-century origins of vaudeville (English music halls, Yiddish theater, minstrel shows) with fast-paced film clips of vaudeville vocalists, acrobats, ethnic comedians, dancers, ukulele players, contortionists, performing animals, and other acts of the period. Interspersed throughout this compilation of clips are contemporary interviews, including Studs Terkel (on the magic of live performances), John Lahr (on his father, Bert Lahr), June Havoc (with numerous personal anecdotes), Fayard Nicholas (on racist attitudes), comedy magician Carl Ballantine, agent Coralee Jr., Morey Amsterdam (comparing performers then and now), Bill Irwin, former child radio vocalist Rose Marie, Thelma White, Morton Gould, Bobby Short, Billy Barty, Eddie Lane, and Jack Spoons.
Abbreviated archival footage mixes the mundane and forgotten with legendary talents -- Eddie Cantor, W.C. Fields, Fanny Brice, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Eleanor Powell, the Duncan Sisters, Walter Winchell, Hildegarde, Ray Bolger, Mae Murray, Eddie Cantor, Blossom Seeley & Benny Field, Weber & Fields, Molly Picon, Chick Sale, Trixie Friganza, Arthur Tracy, female impersonator Julian Eltinge, Ethel Barrymore (who did a one-act by J.M. Barrie), the Pajama Handkerchief Girls, Zeb Carver & His Country Cousins, and the table-dancing Mayo Brothers. A segment on the treatment of black performers features Pigmeat Markham, Stump & Stumpy, Moms Mabley, Ethel Waters (singing Am I Blue?), Leonard Reed & Willie Bryant, Eubie Blake, and a 1916 clip of Bert Williams, who managed to break through the period's racial barricades. Ben Vereen narrates. Vaudeville first aired November 26, 1997 as part of the American Masters series on PBS. ~ Bhob Stewart, Rovi