Whenever I begin a new research project, books are always the first place I turn—and it was no different when I set out to learn as much as I could about vaudeville, especially as it existed in turn-of-the-last-century New York. I searched out new books, old books, library books, any books, really, that referenced vaudeville in some way. The result was an extensive bibliography about vaudeville and vaudevillians, but there was one book that I found myself turning to again and again for its insight: NO APPLAUSE—JUST THROW MONEY: THE BOOK THAT MADE VAUDEVILLE FAMOUS, by Trav S.D.
Though the book is chockfull of history, it was apparent from the first page that this was written by no ordinary historian. His name alone might give that away. No, this book was written by an author who not only seems to know everything there is to know about vaudeville, but by an author who loves vaudeville.
It has been my pleasure to get to know Trav S.D. through this excellent book, as well as his popular blog, Travalanche. And it is my absolute pleasure to introduce him to you.
Q: Throughout your career, you’ve worn a lot of hats. Your excellent blog, Travalanche, lists them as actor, author, cartoonist, comedian, critic, director, humorist, journalist, master of ceremonies, performance artist, playwright, producer, publicist, public speaker, songwriter and variety booker. What are you focusing on now?
A: At the moment, "author." I am writing my second book CHAIN OF FOOLS: SILENT COMEDY AND ITS LEGACIES FROM NICKELODEONS TO YOUTUBE, which will be out in September 2012. In the meantime, I've managed to keep up with my blog Travalanche, my newspaper column, and producing vaudeville acts on my Vaudephone web series. There are a couple of plays in development, but they won't be on the boards for many months. So I guess the real answer is "Focus? WHAT focus?" Mostly at the moment, it's the book.
Q: What led you to write NO APPLAUSE, JUST THROW MONEY: THE BOOK THAT MADE VAUDEVILLE FAMOUS (Faber and Faber, 2005)?
A: A very fortunate confluence of events. A book editor had seen some of my vaudeville shows, read an article I'd written in "Reason" magazine and also read a "New Yorker" article in which I was featured. She asked me if I had any ideas for a book, and as it happened I had several! This was the most developed, so we were off to the races.
Q: What was your first experience with vaudeville?
A: I began producing vaudeville shows in 1996.
Q: What makes you so passionate about vaudeville?
A: I suppose ultimately I'm less interested in vaudeville per se than a certain set of old fashioned aesthetics. I like traditional performing arts, I like old fashioned costumes, and I especially like antiquated language, and the nonsensical, crazy kind of comedy that was popular at the beginning of the last century. Comedy is really my first love, and as Joe, Laurie Jr. the Pint Sized Comedian used to say, vaudeville is all about comedy.
Q: Do you consider yourself a vaudevillian?
A: H'm....among other things.
Q: Who are your personal vaudeville inspirations and influences?
A: Oh that's easy....but a long list! Fred Allen, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Frank Fay, Burns and Allen, Ed Sullivan, Smith & Dale, Weber & Fields, Olsen and Johnson, Clark and McCullough, Joe Cook, etc etc(and some post vaudevillians: Steve Allen, Red Skelton Ernie Kovacs, Steve Martin, Andy Kauffman, David Letterman...) I know I'm leaving a bunch out!
Q: Vaudeville-style shows seem to be enjoying a renaissance. Do you have any theories as to why?
A: I've given it a lot of thought, actually. I think the generation (or two of three even) that came before us turned away from it because it was considered old hat and corny. Because of that, it almost vanished off the face of the earth. Younger people are re-discovering it, almost like buried treasure. Also technology is making an avalanche of video and audio material available that hasn't been seen in decades and decades. It's a very thrilling time.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: On March 27, I'll be taking part in a panel discussion on horror called "Fear Mongers" at Dixon Place in New York. I'm a big fan of Gothic horror, especially the early pre-code films of the major Hollywood studios (early 1930s). So that's the next thing. And of course, my book coming out in September!
For more about Trav S.D., please check out his blog, Travalanche and YouTube channel, Vaudephone.
Photo of Trav S.D. courtesy of Evan Fairbanks.