New Vaudeville: a whirlwind on stage - and off.
You can tell a lot about their life style by looking at New Vaudevillians' cars. One is a well-used blue Volvo (whose side door requires a swift kick to open) filled with juggling pins, a kazoo, costumes, an umbrella, plastic diapers , and a teacher's parking sticker slapped on the bumper.
It's parked in a lot in Montpelier, Vt., where its owner is performing in the two-day New England Vaudeville Festival, part of the town's annual Fool's Fest held this summer. All of the items mentioned above are tools of the trade for this new-old breed of traveling performers for, like the skill most of them have perfected, their life style is one of juggling: not only a plethora of objects, but of performances, family life, and often teaching.
These days, there are more than a few people out there willing to juggle. Vaudeville - spawned from French minstrel shows, Italian commedia dell'arte, and English variety theater - reached its zenith of popularity in the early 1900s, only to die out in the '30s with the advent of talkies. But in the last 10 years it has rebounded with a new and growing vitality. It began when performers took circus and improvisational skills to the streets. Since then, New Vaudevillians have been honing their acts to the point that they are now being hired for gigs as diverse as camps, commercials, and corporation conventions seeking their clean, quick-witted entertainment. Even bus tours hire them for rest stops.
The movement is growing. Besides New England, there are other hotbeds: San Francisco, with its congenial climate, has proved a continuing spawning ground for street performers; and Atlanta-area vaudevillians had their day at the annual Regional Organization of Theaters South held recently.
On the face of it, New Vaudeville looks much like the traditional stuff. Performers work solo, in pairs, or in groups and can juggle, balance on chairs, tell stories, sing, dance, and interact with the audience. Picture this scene at the recent festival in Montpelier: Under a turquoise proscenium with gold trim and a maroon curtain, a piano player starts some slow ragtime. One man roller-skates by on his hands, another catches a ball thrown by an audience member onto a spinning umbrella, while a third hops his unicycle up the stairs to the wooden stage. It's a whirlwind of activity - and that's just the ''ballyhoo'' (the appetizer, so to speak, of a vaudeville show).
But vaudeville is wearing a new face. Instead of mother-in-law jokes, you'll see storyteller Jackson Gillman in a wig and shades, bopping around with a big radio, rapping off the cuff, ''I'm the man with the golden voice, in other words the ladies' choice.''
And it's current. At the Maine Festival of the Arts in August, Randy Judkins juggled five white rings into the shape of the Olympics emblem, tooted the familiar anthem, then launched into a slow-motion mime of a dull-witted discus thrower, ''Ivan Shotputskyourdiskovich.''
Typical of today's vaudevillians is Benny Reehl, owner of the Volvo, and head honcho of the festival here. He has pulled together the 20 performers (several of whom he has coached), is acting as MC, and performs with his wife, Denise. Together they're the Buckfield Leather 'n Lather Traveling Variety Show. The Reehls used to travel in a restored 1928 Reo Speedwagon from which they hawked leather goods and leather cleaning products as well as stunts and gags. They sold the truck but kept the name. Reehl also coaches other performers and holds workshops in addition to his and Denise's own performing.
It's as transient a life as the early days of vaudeville, when performers played aboard showboats that cruised from town to town along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. The festivals in Maine and Vermont are typical of the kinds of gigs performers work today - four days and three states apart. It means a lot of dorm and motel rooms and sleeping bags on friends' floors.
It also means - since many of the vaudevillians are in their 30s and 40s and have families - finding child care while on the road. The Reehls, who have two small children, hired a live-in housekeeper. ''He showed up on our doorstep the day Devon was born and has been wonderful ever since,'' says Denise. ''It's not everyone who could put up with our erratic schedule, but it doesn't seem to bother him.''
Bob Stromberg (of the mime and comedy duo Stromberg and Cooper) bunches up his performing dates so that he's never gone for more than 10 weeks a year. The tall, strawberry-blond-bearded father chose New England because of its many small towns, which gave him the possibility of ''going out and performing and coming home in the evening like normal folk.''
With the rising numbers of opportunities to use their talents, savvy New Vaudevillians can pull in a decent living. Some performers have been hired by insurance companies and large corporations such as Digital and IBM for in-house shows and trade shows, says Reehl. Stromberg, whose wife does all the duo's booking, has performed 400 shows annually for the last four or five years.
''It's economically better to be a variety performer than a traditional actor: There's no unions, royalties, expensive houses to maintain,'' explains Reehl. ''With the overhead being less, the performers make more. People would be astounded to know what street performers make; some of them $100-800 a day, depending on whether they're solo or as a group.''
But a lot more than money draws people to a profession where an outdoor performance on a hot summer day can roast your feet and a heckler can melt your confidence. The freedom of an alternative life style is one appeal, Reehl says. ''Performers appreciate having more control over their destiny than traditional theater gives.'' This means they can live in rural areas, as do the Reehls, Randy Judkins, and others.
The closeness of the performers is another. The New England community of New Vaudevillians is still small enough to be considered ''family.'' Performers will suggest colleagues for gigs they can't take or learn a routine overnight to help out a friend whose partner is unavailable.
''There are no ego people involved here,'' says Sam Kilbourn, a former lawyer-turned-clown. ''You know it right away. People see the love we have for each other.''