NEB&W Guide to the Development of Entertainment & Communications

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Scenery, Structures & Details Table of Contents

Vaudeville

In France in the 1400's, popular satirical songs were known as "chansons du Vau de Vire" meaning "songs of the valley of the Vire", a section of Normandy where they originated. This was shortened to "vaudevire" and later corrupted to "vaudeville". The expansion of the term from songs to a program of popular satirical entertainment did not occur until the early 19th century.

At first in America this type of entertainment was held in saloons and music halls, catering mainly to men, in a sense, a "girlie" show. However, in the early 1880's, it was cleaned up of its off-color jokes and R-rated material to appeal to middle class families.

Performers toured the country, staying a week here, two weeks there. In some ways, this was like a traveling circus in the days before the Mississippi showboat or the railroad, where they moved from village to village, putting on performances until they had saturated the local market, and then moving on. Here again, the change can be attributed to the vast improvement in mass transportation.

The circus moved as a caravan, as a unit, but the vaudeville performers moved via the train, as separate acts. However, the village only had entertainment when the circus came to town, which probably was once a year. Vaudeville had nightly performances and could afford to be staged in permanent theaters, not the temporary "big top." The greater mobility of the populace due to horse cars and then trolleys allowed these shows to draw from a much wider radius, the whole rise of the classic downtown following the Civil War..

F.F. Proctor was one of many promoters who expanded the idea to the "continuous" performance, which I guess was the forerunner of the way that movie theaters start the movie up again with little delay. Proctor advertised "After breakfast go to Proctor's. After Proctor's go to bed." Both Troy and Schenectady had magnificent theaters in the Proctor chain.

Similarly, the annual county fair became the year-round amusement park. Interurban lines typically built such parks far out on their line to increase travel on the line. For example, halfway between Goshen and Middletown, NY was Midway Park.

Movies

Edison is credited with inventing the movie camera along with the phonograph, one to record visual motion and one to record sound. It took over three decades to make the two work together. The idea was there from the start, but early pioneering attempts were so awful that many skeptics were caught off guard by the success of The Jazz Singer.

One problem was that early sound recordings did not amplify easily nor well. Another problem was that if the sound was just the slightest out of sync. with the actor's lips, it looked really strange (as a foreign film dubbed into English demonstrates). Film was easy to splice, and often reedited even after its release. The film broke often and was re-spliced, but lost a few frames each time. The sound was on a more permanent medium, and if the film was reedited, the entire sound track had to be recorded all over again. And then as the film was fixed again and again, the two mediums drifted apart.

The solution was to record the sound on the side of the film and play it back via a light beam rather than the friction of a needle in a groove.

It would appear that while movies were silent, they didn't threaten to replace vaudeville, but after the "talkies" came on the scene, vaudeville was passé. The same palace theaters that once housed live performances of such greats as Burns & Allen and Bert Lahr now showed their movies.

Radio

Thomas Edison's light bulb burned out quickly, leaving a black deposit on the inside of the bulb. He was too practical to investigate this further but others did, and the vacuum tube was born, allowing a small current to control a large one. In other words, a small signal could be amplified. The vacuum tube turned the "wireless" or crystal set into the radio set that graced the average home in the 1930's.

In 1920, regular broadcasting began, despite the few listeners, and the first commercial was not until 1922 (August 28, a real-estate ad over WEAF in NYC). In 1924, there were five million radios. There was one radio for every 20 Americans in 1928. By 1929, one-third of all homes had a radio, and by 1934, it was almost two-thirds.

Sound amplification had two other effects. Prior to this, the only way for large audiences to hear the singers on stage was if they belted out the numbers. Composers wrote operas, but this type of singing is too intense for the average untrained ear, as was the story line, which goes from one intense moment to another. Even records were made by performers yelling into the tin horn.

Prior to WWII, a new type of music evolved, made possible by microphones picking up the soft tones of singers with voices not as strong. These, such as Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee, were known as "crooners". The resulting sound was as if the singer was personally addressing each member of the audience in a low sensual manner. No wonder teenage girls ("bobby-soxers") mobbed the performances of a young Frank Sinatra.

On the dark side, microphones and radio allowed power-hungry personalities to address large crowds with inflammatory words designed to whip them into unthinking mobs. Words in newspapers did not convey the emotional pitch that the spoken word did. The only other form of mass communication, the newsreel, could only be produced in large studio facilities, easily censored once the dictator came to power. (It could be censored at both the production end and the viewing end.)

I can't think of any other reason to explain the entire world in the 1920's and '30's falling into the hands of such madmen. Even in this country, we had in a sense a benign dictator, FDR, who used his "fireside chats" via the radio to essentially make himself president-for-life. The media fell over themselves not to present any negative aspect of his personal life, included a supposed affair. Americans were almost totally unaware of how crippled he was from polio, how totally dependent he was on a wheel chair, and how sick he was at the end.

Television

Primitive television systems dated back to the 1920's, and there were many who are claimed to be "the father of television". However, just around 1950, the technology was at the point that reception was good enough to watch without getting a headache. The demand created more broadcasting, and more broadcasting sold more sets, etc. The first TV's went in bars, something you might consider if you were to add some antennas to your buildings. I'm not even sure when outside antennas went up. After all, radios had not needed outside antennas. Ads in 1950 seemed to suggest the first sets had internal antennas. Dave Messer said the early '50's sets aimed the antenna at the signal tower and the first antennas were fairly channel specific (VHF). Later ones could receive multiple channels, including UHF. This raises another question, which is that even if there was an antenna outside, it might not look like the typical ones we think of now.

I Love Lucy, started in 1952, became a national phenomenon overnight. Television changed culture beyond entertainment. Unlike movies, television was live, but more importantly, the face was shown along with the words, and not just on a larger than life projection screen, but almost life-sized, right in your own living room, like an extra guest. Dictators fare poorly on TV, as their big lie doesn't work as well. Human evolution involved communication via facial expressions long before our vocal cords took over. We still use facial expression to give credence to the words, even though we aren't as aware of it. And it is hard to take seriously the rantings and ravings of a madman when you see the spittle running down his chin.

Television gave us an even better view of the world than the limited time of the newsreel. I don't think it was mere coincidence that the civil rights movement started in the mid-'50's and blossomed in the '60's, along with the anti-war protests fueled by first hand viewing. (Yes, there were anti-draft riots during the Civil War, but even so most soldiers went off to war thinking it was some grand adventure. During WWII, the newsreels and newspapers didn't discuss the numbers of causalities. It took TV to really bring home the notion that war is hell.)

TV was also seen at home, so it became impossible to police the way the Gestapo could burst into a movie theater. If you hear a commotion at your front door, you might have time to change the channel. TV signals also cross borders without respect for any iron curtains, especially with the more recent development of satellite broadcasts. I think that while the timing might have varied, the fall of Communism was inevitable, ironic since it was their sputnik which paved the way. (It wasn't just ideology, but the way of life of the West that was broadcast.)

While there are still a number of totalitarian governments left, these are in the economic backwaters. A country can't equip its people with all the equipment necessary for today's business (computers and networks, faxes, copy machines) and still hope to keep Pandora's box shut.

Music

W.S. Gilbert of the operatic team of Gilbert and Sullivan once admitted his musical range was very limited. He knew two songs. One was "God Save The Queen" and the other wasn't. I don't even know that much, so what follows shows how much I am willing to go out on a limb in speculating about a subject of which I know nothing.

Musical instruments, both string and wind, generally require years of intense study and practice to not just go from note to note, but to be able to get each note itself to be on-key. (The amateur violinist's practice session is the epitome of painful noise. The rumor that the strings are made of cat guts is probably a result of this caterwauling.) Also, with wind instruments, the performer can't sing along. In general, these instruments were not stand-alone as much as part of a team performance, even if just a quartet.

The harpsichord made sound by plucking the strings. No matter how the keys were strung, the volume produced was the same. A new device invented in Beethoven's time used felt-covered strikers to hit the strings. The harder the key was struck, the louder the sound. The adjustable volume feature was so important, the instrument was called the "pianoforte", meaning in Italian, "soft-loud". Later it was shortened to just "piano".

Joshua Thurston from London began to manufacturer pianos in Troy in 1819, perhaps the first production in New York State. He advertised "The amateurs of music and friends of home manufacture are respectfully invited to call and inspect his six octave, grand cabinet piano forte, which he assures them is equal to the best that has been imported in touch, tone, appearance, and for strength and standing in tune superior to all."

This was the first device to be able to stand alone, and to produce a full-range of music for the single performer. Also, it didn't require the ability to keep the note on key. (Even a machine could do it, as with a player piano, invented by the Aeolian Company in 1898.) The Industrial Revolution made production and shipment of these device within the realm of the middle-class, and every parlor was supposed to have one. Learning to play the piano was considered to be one of the womanly arts that young ladies learned in finishing schools. Within 25 years, player pianos accounted for half the sales.

Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, a unique device in that no one had even attempted such a machine before. (Actually, Horton Durfee points out Edison invented the gramophone and someone else, the phonograph, but Edison stole the name.) At first it was sold just for making home recordings. In 1903, recordings of opera singers to piano accompaniment were produced by an American company. The Victor Talking Machine Company introduced a machine they called the "Victrola" in 1915, which became a name of all phonographs. About the same time, full orchestra recordings were tried. By 1919, according to What Happened When, Americans spent more on this device and records than they did on musical instruments, books, magazines, or sports equipment.

The early wax cylinders were recorded individually. About 10 machines were gathered around the performer and pianist, and thus 10 records were made. Flat discs allowed mass-production, as they could be stamped from a mold made from a master. Later, microphones allowed the sound to be brought in from several sources, as in an orchestra, rather than just a lone performer singing into a horn.

Gathering around the piano after dinner was the Victorian equivalent of the TV. I'm not sure what the effect this had on music in that so many more people heard music on a regular basis. Did this allow for a more complex music to evolve?

Also, did the tinny squeaky rendition of the early phonograph and radio pave the way for all the discordant music starting with the Jazz Age? (The first phonographs were powered by springs, and thus the inconsistent speed shifted the frequencies heard, similar to the way a jazz trombonist "slides" to the note.) Or did the mass-education of the musical ear allow these more complex patterns to be appreciated?

Was the Big Band era a result of advances in recording using microphones, so that all instruments could be heard, instead of those nearest the horn? Did it die out because of rising labor costs after WWII or the result of electronic instruments, such as the electric guitar (Rock 'n Roll) and later the electric violin and synthesizer (used in Disco). I read somewhere that after WWII, records became cheap enough and/or the income of teenagers rose high enough to make them a new force in the marketplace. Thus Rock 'n Roll was aimed directly at this market.

The important thing is that it takes even less skill to play a record or the radio than it does to play the piano. The 20th century living room is filled with music at the touch of a button.

I think one effect is that dancing became even more popular. Passively listening to music is okay for a live performance or the solo listener, but not for a group. While group singing was the Victorian entertainment, having a group sing to music on the radio or from a phonograph doesn't work. Instead, to fully interact with the music, you dance.

The Charleston was performed in its namesake city as early as 1903, according to What Happened When, but not popular until after it was performed in a 1923 Broadway musical Runnin' Wild. In this period it is thought that as many as 30 million Americans danced frequently. A dance hall or speakeasy was also a place for young people to congregate before shopping malls. Dance steps became more intricate even as the dancing became livelier, since the dance steps could be practiced at home any night of the week. Later in the '50's, the jukebox brought music to the soda fountain, so teens hung out there.

Today the average American probably hears more music in a week than the average colonist did in an entire lifetime. This proliferation has also created an explosion of types of music. At one time it might have been upper class (what we look back on as "classical") and folk music. Then ragtime, jazz, blues, big band, rock-n-roll, country-n-western, disco, soul, new age, heavy metal, easy listening, rap, etc. It seems in each generation each genre gets subdivided to become a separate type, a geometric increase in diversity.

Many of the settlers to the Blue Mountain region were from the Scotland or Ireland. They couldn't duplicate bagpipes under frontier conditions when they first settled the area, but duplicated the twang in their music, the basis of so-called "country" music.

By the way, despite the accuracy in "Saving Private Ryan", in one scene just before a climatic battle, the Americans are sitting around the rubble of a village and a woman's voice is heard singing an aria. It goes on and on, but those of you who remember 78's might remember such a recording only lasted about three minutes, and by the time you walked away from the machine, it was time to start a new record.