Teaching “Classic” Vaudeville To Children

Jazmin Giacomo

“I want to do something I never heard of before, that’s weird, and funny and interesting” said one of my 11 year old students, Sabela, last fall. This was her opinion on a “What plays/skits are you interested in for the next class” feedback sheet. 

Vaudeville are those variety shows that had animal acts, comedy teams, singers, acrobats. The Ziegfield Follies. A ‘cleaner’ and more family friendly version of burlesque (Fanny Brice’s “burl-le-cue” pronunciation intended).

And began our descent into Classic Vaudeville bits. Had she (or any of the other preteens in the class) heard of Laurel and Hardy? No. The Three Stooges or The Marx Brothers? Definitely not. Abbott and Costello or Burns and Allen? Double no. Lucille Ball or Gracie Allen? Heck no.

I grew up with these actors and comedy teams and I can’t imagine not living in a world that their famous skits are not shown-or worse-not performed again.

With nearby towns frequented in the past by the likes of Jackie Gleeson, and Bert Lahr-and with a generous helping hand of the Columbia Amusement Company, which encompassed Pennsylvania-how can I not talk about vaudeville in my theater classes?

Their first forays was a variant on the “Who’s On First” bit, called “Who’s on Stage?” and Danny Kaye’s “Maladjusted Jester”-both were a hit with older audiences (and older actors) who remembered such acts. (I still feel bad that the “straight man” of the mom-daughter team that did the “Who’s on Stage” bit got heckled---and by a 7 year old no less!)

In the months following, they’ve gotten into more elaborate sketches (like “Susquehanna Hat Company” aka “Bagel Street”-which was great as we’re a Pennsylvania theater group, as Susquehanna is not too far away. And they were thrilled that they were allowed break props), I am always disheartened that I have to explain who the great Vaudeville teams were to the kids-and sometimes to their parents as well.

There is something lost with these great comedy vaudeville acts and teams that kids are no longer shown or exposed to child, pre-teen and teen actors. And we lose something if these great actors of the past are lost and forgotten.

I make it a point in my theater classes now to show clips of the different acts, and now I have them asking to do different bits for future shows.

Currently I’m working on adapting “Martha” aka “Niagara Falls” for this group. But I am quickly running out of sketches for them to do.

Please send help

Photo: Missoula Children's Theatre