Vaudeville in Scranton

Vaudeville was largely over by the 1920’s, but during its heyday, here’s how Vaudeville looked in Scranton.

The very first vaudeville performers played in the Washington Hall, a location with a less-than-savory reputation, I n1874. The Hall was bought out soon after by one Lou Chapin, who promised entertainment “of a refined nature” and “void of vulgarity”. It was a flop.

Vaudevillian Tony Pastor tried again in 1879, bringing a series of acts including violinist Frank Bennett, comedian John Morris, marksman Ira Paine, and a comedy team with “Irish characterizations.” Pastor also sang throughout. He returned in 1881, bringing an acrobat, a singing duo, and another comedy duo. Another troupe, the Rooneys, made an appearance in 1879, but much of the act involved broad stereotypes poking fun at Irishmen; many Irish immigrants in the Scranton audience were less than impressed. The Rooneys brought their youngest daughter, Kate, along when they returned in 1881 and found their reception a bit warmer.

Circus acts and prizefighters-turned-performers were a vogue for a while; General and Mrs. Tom Thumb appeared in 1882 as part of an international tour, and later that year fighter John Sullivan appeared with The Gladiators, a show that ended with Sullivan in a boxing match with another actor. Horse acts, acrobatics, magicians, and other visual-spectacle acts were popular, as were the Sages, a hypnotist team that would solicit volunteers from the audience to be put under hypnotic trances. Often the Sages would end their act by putting a member of their company into a deep sleep, and then leave them in a shop window for a day to drum up extra publicity.

Despite these performers, Scranton had no full-time vaudeville house until 1902, when former actor Henry Dixie bought the old Thirteenth Street Armory. He had spotty success, and his “Dixie” theater changed hands three times over the next year before folding. Meanwhile, the Lyceum, a straight theater, experimented with offering vaudeville in the summers; even though one early performer at the Lyceum included W.C. Fields (then known only as a juggler in a troupe presenting a show called The Ham Tree), the Lyceum dropped its vaudeville. Finally, a Mr. S.Z. Poli opened a full-time vaudeville house in 1907. Poli was an independent theater operator from New Haven, Connecticut, who ran a small chain of vaudeville houses throughout the Northeast. Eventually his chain joined the producing team of B. F. Keith and Edward Albee, a powerful team who had a near-monopoly on vaudeville talent.

Vaudevillians in the Keith/Albee circuit went wherever they were booked, and Keith and Albee handled all the booking; performers could end up playing in Maine one week and then Ohio the next, or sometimes both in the same week. But Scranton was close enough to New York that performers felt at least close to home. Scranton also was used as a “testing ground” for newer acts – if they went over well, they were put out onto the main circuit. Some performers also availed themselves of the red-light district, and often had dinner at Zenke’s, a restaurant/bar one block from the Poli theater and close by two other theaters. One theater even rigged up a special buzzer backstage connected to the bar at Zenke’s, and at the start of the last act before intermission, a stage hand would press the buzzer, after which the bartenders at Zenke’s would start pouring out beers – that way, when intermission started, there were pints of beer all poured and ready to be snatched up by theatergoers with only fifteen minutes to spare before Act 2.

During its heyday, Scranton saw such names as Buster Keaton, Ed Wynn, Will Rogers (who later spoke fondly of Zenke’s), Eddie Leonard, Harry Houdini, Fred Allen, Eddie Foy, and Jack Benny, who made his Scranton debut in December of 1920. Fanny Brice played for a sold-out week in 1914, but a few weeks later, Fred Astaire -- then a child star with a brother-sister dancing act with his sister Adele -- fared less well (although, one reviewer did say that with practice, they could improve). Other lesser-known, unusual acts included acrobatic team “Hassan-Ben-Ali’s Arabs”; Harry Breen, the “singing talkologist”; “Odiva,” a swimmer who dove for pearls in an onstage tank; a horse named Chesterfield; and “Gennaro and his Gondolier Band”.

Through the 1920’s, vaudevillians were slowly starting to retire or make the switch to Broadway or radio, but one Scrantonian local ensured at least one vaudeville show each year, for a special audience. Jim Reap, a popular butcher, was unmarried and childless, and may have also been an orphan himself. Once a year he would buy out the Poli, hire a few acts, and present a free show to every child in Scranton; children simply had to stop by his butcher shop to claim a ticket. Comedian Pat White rounded up all children the day of the show by leading a parade through town, and Reap would stock the theater with free hot dogs and ice cream for all the children. After the show, Reap would also thoughtfully round up all the forgotten coats and shoes and hats and place a notice in the papers announcing that a corner of his store was a “lost and found” in case any child was missing something.

Milton Berle appeared in Scranton in the 1920’s, early in his career, and received favorable reviews; W. C. Fields also made a well-publicized return to vaudeville in 1922 with a Ziegfield-produced show, In The Subway, which opened its limited tour of vaudeville theaters in Scranton that November. George Burns and Gracie Allen also appeared in 1925, and Jack Benny and Will Rogers made return appearances. In 1926, the widow of Rudolph Valentino went on a speaking tour of vaudeville theaters. Pat Rooney, part of the Rooney team who’d fared so poorly in Scranton in 1879, went on to become a regular on the vaudeville circuit, and was appearing in Scranton as late as 1927; in fact, he interrupted a performance on May 20th to announce that Charles Lindbergh was at that moment beginning his US-to-Paris flight, and to lead the audience in a prayer for his safety.

Unfortunately, vaudeville was on its way out by then; for every appearance from W. C. Fields or Burns and Allen, Scranton also got things like a lecture on swimming by Gertrude Ederle, fresh from her swim of the English Channel. The Poli actually switched to an all-movie format in late 1927. Another venue, the Capital, continued to offer vaudeville acts mixed in between movies, keeping this format for another 25 years; with younger stars such as Tony Martin and Jackie Cooper appearing alongside Hollywood stars such as Lon Chaney, Jr., Bela Lugosi, or Jackie Coogan, who’d made his show business debut alongside Charlie Chaplin in The Kid. But when a fire closed the Capital in 1951, it reopened as a movie house, ending vaudeville in Scranton.


Anonymous said...

Kim: Don't you think it would be a good idea to credit your source: "If You Can Play Scranton" by Nancy McDonald, published in 1981? Tom C.

Kim W. said...

Hi Tom,

Just wanted to explain why these notes did not credit "If You Can Play Scranton," which I did indeed use.

These notes were NOT originally intended for public broadcast. These notes were intended to be used only for the cast of a show presented by the Electric Theater Company of Scranton, PA. I was the dramaturg for that production, and part of my job involved giving the cast information about the time period covered in the play.

One of the cast members created this web site so the cast and crew could more easily get TO that information as I found it, and so what you see here was intended only for private use.

I say this not as an excuse, but to clarify why no credit appears in these notes. My apologies to Ms. McDonald, and with your permission, I'd like your comment to stand as my credit listing of her work.