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The Thaddeus Gazette

Backstage Past

Every man and every woman is a star.
Aleister Crowley, The Book Of The Law

Enter a world of enchantment
Of grease paint glitter and sleaze
Come on down to the best show in town
It ain't the one the audience sees

You should've been there on opening night
Backstage at the Vaudeville show
They all ate dinner by the green room light
Backstage at the Vaudeville show
Natty and tatty, louche and precise
Some of them naughty some of them nice
Sittin n knitting or shootin dice
Backstage at the Vaudeville show

I report to you from the interior of a vast, dark, windowless room. Spotlights stab at the well-worn expanse of stage beside me. Looking down, I see a tarnished, dented funnel of brass resting on my knee, attached to more sophisticated but similarly distressed tubing leading circuitously to a slide and a precision-cast clear plastic mouthpiece: Bertha, my oldest friend. Specifically, a 1948 Olds double-valve bass trombone. This is not your father's Olds.

I am crammed into a corner of Hale's Palladeum, seated amidst a gaggle of disreputable-looking ladies and gentlemen bearing equally experienced fell instruments of sonic mayhem. We answer insolently to the name Doc Sprinsock and the SANCApators. We are a gang, a mob, a crew, a Krewe even. We are the show band for the first week of the 16th annual Moisture Festival, the largest and longest-running variety entertainment festival in the world. That's the world, baby!

And we are home.

The gypsy fiddler was practicing scales
Backstage at the Vaudeville show
The alligator wrestler was doing his nails
Backstage at the Vaudeville show
The big cat played with a ball of string
The trapeze artist got ready to swing
The human pretzel twisted everything.
Backstage at the Vaudeville show

There's a certain breed of kid — canny, impatient, creative — who imagines themself a changling, somehow misplaced from their true station in life and forced into a family and habitat they're certain is not intended for them. Such younglings may seek distraction in video games or science fiction or the minutiae of the lives of the glitterati, lose themselves in fantasies of supermodel or rockstar fame, or they may secretly dream of running away to join the circus.

I always joke that the cohort I came up with didn't bother with that — they ran away and started a circus. More specifically, they embraced a worldview and mythos of a sort of universal New Age Show Biz, the love child of Ed Sullivan and the Electric Koolaid Acid Test. That story has been told, well and badly, over and over, by better lights than me. What seldom gets mentioned, however, is a key difference between Vaudeville Nouveau and its geriatric progenitor, a difference that makes all the difference for its practitioners.

The hindu mystic was charming his cobra
Down from high on a shelf
The two headed man was over in the corner
Arguing with himself

The burley-cue cutie was telling a joke
Backstage at the Vaudeville show
The ukulele ace was grabbing a smoke
Backstage at the Vaudeville show
The orchestra leader stayed on task
The trombone player was passing a flask
And what made the flutist faint? Don't ask!
Backstage at the Vaudeville show

After the Great Reawakening of the 60's and 70's, when interest in the history of variety theater suddenly came off the back burner, venerable old veterans of the stage minding their own businesses and pleasures in the assisted living facility were sought out and eagerly interviewed by earnest young writers. One question often asked was what kept them in The Life — fame? friendship? the greasepaint? And one and all, the most experienced of the geezers and grand dames replied that it was the money. And rightly so. Those were hardscrabble fiddy-cents-a-day go-starve-somewhere-else times, but you could earn $10,000 a week at the top in Vaudeville.

One thing you can be sure of: with very few exceptions, whatever keeps crazy kids in the hula hoop ukelele unicycle biz these days, it ain't the money. Moisture Festival, just for example, operates on a knotted-shoestring budget with a relentlessly egalitarian payment schedule in which profits are totaled, divided by the number of performers and crew, and everybody gets a share. Sort of the Milo Minderbinder theory of remuneration. And yet, internationally acclaimed talent commanding imposing fees in other venues — moderately imposing anyways, we're not talking DJ In Las Vegas compensation here — are overjoyed to tread the boards on the tattered stage in this converted craft beer warehouse. Moreover, dozens if not hundreds of people, perfectly normal people (or so you'd think...), are also overjoyed to take time out of their various and sundry overworked, underpaid lives to come to the festival, to volunteer for all manner of peculiar or mundane tasks of greater or lesser glory, for free.

If there's a secret to all this selfless togetherness, you'd think socialist nations from every quarter would have their spies lined up around the block to peek in and cozen it out. Well, I can get it for you wholesale, out of open stock if you will. Here 'tis: Moisture Festival, as much as they can, treats everyone with equal respect. Be you the least of the least hammerheads or the baddest diabolo wielder this side of Hades, you're valued, not just as a provider of service but as an individual participating, wrangling, joking, and sweating right along with everyone else to bring an uncommon experience to the common herd.

And that, ladies and germs, is the best feeling there is.

The fat lady's costly costume
Gave a majestic view
There were 10 trained monkeys from Denmark
Doing what monkeys do

The theater owner was counting the money
Backstage at the Vaudeville show
The baggy pants comedian was acting funny
Backstage at the Vaudeville show
The flapper and her partner were cutting a rug
The littlest gymnast needed a hug
The world famous jugglers juggled a jug
Backstage at the Vaudeville show

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