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Monday, September 05, 2016

Vaudeville Revisited

From the Vault Dept.: The New Vaudeville still struggles to find a mainstream toehold, and I suspect it never will. Which, while it may help preserve its weird, antic nature, renders it hard to find outside of the biggest cities. Here’s a 30-year-old look I took at one such event, brought from Washington County into Schenectady’s Proctor’s Theatre.


SOMETHING WONDERFUL HAPPENED at Proctor’s Theatre Saturday night, although it left much of the audience wondering exactly what it was that had happened. It was funny, it was tricky, it sang, it danced, it disappeared.

It was the New Vaudeville Show from Hubbard Hall, originating just upstate in Cambridge, Washington County.

Now, it wasn’t vaudeville with potted palms and signboards, and there wasn’t a dog act anywhere near it. In fact, it was a collection of five acts with a cooperative attitude. Let’s look at them one by one.

George Wilson is a fiddler who looks the part: bearded, grey, red suspenders. He gave us a medley of contagiously fun rhythmic material that made you want to get up and dance, which is exactly what clogger Ira Bernstein did throughout the show. Joining Wilson for tapping or clogging, Bernstein started off in jeans and ended up in a modified tux, and in the course of things gave us the exuberance of Ray Bolger and the elegance of Astaire – with some down-home heel-kickin’ thrown in.

The Wright Bros. aren’t consanguineous brothers, as they explain in a comic song, and yet it seems as if they must be related. They must be. You get the feeling that this must be what the five Marx Brothers were like, but with a dash of Three Stooges thrown in. They juggle, they dance, they sing (with dreadfully funny results), they tear up the stage.

Magician Jim Snack has found a splendid setting for his work, which he has perpetrated locally as a solo performer. He gave us all manner of classic trickery with the ease and funny patter of a pro; a highlight was an escape modeled after a Houdini stunt that found Snack changing places with a cuffed and bound and locked-in-a-box Bernstein in a matter of seconds.

And then came two of my favorite performers, Jane Voss and Hoyle Osborne, last seen in Schenectady when the short-lived Wittenberg Shop brought in entertainment. Voss sings songs that – well, she sings a bit of everything. Remember Baby Rose Marie? Voss has a similar stature, but what a voice! She started with a vintage Malvina Reynolds song and ended her set of three with a sing-along describing the depths of the debt she’s in, and Osborne’s piano gets so fleet and limber that you’d think he made some Mephistophelean swap for Fats Waller’s chops.
Osborne was musical director for the show, and he (and Wilson) provided the accompaniment throughout.

Each half of the program gave us at least one shot at the artists. Voss returned in the second with a pair of songs that included her own very pretty “Song to a Shrinking Violet.” And the Wright Bros. wrapped it all up with one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen: a slow-motion footrace, to the annoyingly funny music from ‘Chariots of Fire," that deteriorates into a (still slow-motion) slugfest.

Here’s the highest praise I can give: this program should never go on television. It’s too good to sully on the tube, and deserves a strong run wherever there’s an audience to laugh and applaud and sing along.

A curious detraction from the show was the use of Proctor’s Wurlitzer, which Allen Mills played for an overture and entr’acte. It seemed as gratuitous as the “wraps” the Public Broadcasting System puts around anything it brings over from England, as if the show can’t stand on its own.
But another problem is that the organ overpowers anything else: It demands to be the star of the show, and Osborne’s piano sounded small and tinkly in comparison. Don’t get me wrong: I adore our “Goldie,” but she’s a bit of an eager elephant whose well-meaning antics ought to be kept in check.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 29 September 1986

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