BREAK A LEG
Vaudeville always seemed ancient history to me, although it died only a few years before I was born. When I started working in show business in my mid twenties it was kind of a surprise when I realized many of the old time stagehands I was working with actually got their start in vaudeville.
I learned a lot from those old timers. Learned tricks of the trade, like how to duck out of work so the young guys would have to do it. And I loved listening to their stories.
One of my favorite old timer was Eddie Ryan. He was one of the nicest guys I ever worked with, and he was also one of the most inept stagehands I ever worked with.
Eddie Ryan never worked as a stagehand in vaudeville, he was a performer. Eddie came from a multi-generational family of New York cops and because of that background he got a good beat, the theater section of the city. Bad choice for Eddie. He spent more time backstage in the theaters than he did working his beat.
His precinct captain, who was also his father, gave him a choice, stay out of the theaters or hand in his badge. It was an easy choice for Eddie.
He knew of a performer who needed a partner in his act. A few weeks of rehearsal and the two went on the tour. They did a little singing, a little hoofing, and a lot of fooling around, on stage and off. The first few years were good, then vaudeville began it’s decline. The act broke up in Minneapolis. Eddie stayed in town, his partner headed west.
Some of the local hands had an after-hours club and Eddie, big man, ex-cop, got hired as a bouncer. He was well liked by the hands and he began to pick up some work as a stagehand when things were busy in town.
When the after-hours club got raided and shut down, Eddie was given a card in the Local and worked as a full time stagehand.
His old partner, Jack Albertson, landed in Hollywood and got work in the movies where he got an Oscar, and in TV, where he got an Emmy. He became a household name when he landed the role of THE MAN in the hit TV series, CHICO AND THE MAN.
Eddie never bragged about being a partner of Albertson. In fact it was just by chance that the Local hands ever found out who was the other half of Eddie’s act. Albertson was a guest on Johnny Carson’s show. He talked about his vaudeville days and mentioned that his partner was Eddie Ryan, who, the last he heard, was a stagehand in Minneapolis.
I don’t think Eddie ever begrudged his old partner’s success; because Eddie just wasn’t built that way, and he liked his life in Minneapolis. He had a wife and two sons here and many, many friends.
Another old vaudevillian was Shorty, who became a stagehand through the back door. He started out in his early teens as a bill poster. Bills were an form of advertising. A coming event like a circus or carnival, upcoming Vaudeville acts, and of course VOTE FOR … bills. Shorty had a newspaper sack of bills, a brush, and a bucket of paste. Lampposts, walls, fences, but never ever a US postal box. He got paid by the bill. He had to be fast so he could post on the best locations and also had to watch out that some rival did not paste a bill over his.
Since his boss worked out of a room in the basement of a theater, Shorty became friends with the stagehands. They gave him occasional work as a gofer. Go for ten pounds of double headed nails at the theatrical hardware story. Go for a bucket of beer at Duffy’s. Not steady work but it helped if bill posting was slack.
As he got older, and a little bit bigger, they saw to it he got work helping to load-in and load-out big acts. That led to work as an actual stagehand, and eventually working shows.
‘Two bits a show,’ Shorty told me. ‘Thought I died and went to heaven.’
Shorty was one of the stagehands involved in the after- hours club, and he was working there the night it was raided. Shorty says the club was raided because more and more cops wanted protection money until the cost got just too high to pay.
When he was being brought out to the paddy wagon,a big cop holding each arm, a newspaper photographer took a picture. Made the front page.
Shorty was so proud of that picture he carried the clipping it in his billfold until if finally fell apart. The caption of the picture proclaimed: LITTLE CAESAR GETS BUSTED IN RAID.
‘You’d swear it was Edward G. Robinson,’ he bragged. ‘Put a cigar in my mouth and I could have passed for his twin.’
After vaudeville died off, Shorty took out a tour of OKLAHOMA. He went out as Head Carpenter, his wife, Marie, as Wardrobe Mistress, and very young Shorty Jr. as a mascot.
‘You know,’ he would say as he told the story, ‘Those two guys that wrote that show were the nicest guys! They’d come out and visit. A new big city or a new actor in a role. Nicest guys! Always brought me a jug of whiskey. Snuck it so Marie wouldn’t see. Of course, they always brought her a box of candy and a toy for Shorty Jr.
‘Big guy, first name was Oswald?.. Last name was? Jewish. Something stein. And the little guy, about my size, his name was Roger something or the other. Nice guys! Can’t remember their names now.’
Shorty had a hard time remembering the names of Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers, but he never forgot the name of Edward G. Robinson.
And that’s a wrap for now.