With its tongue-in-cheek subtitle and clever cover art, “No Applause – Just Throw Money: The Book that Made Vaudeville Famous” by Trav S.D. promises a farcical romp through the heyday of vaudeville. Even the author’s pseudonym – say it quickly – suggests a taste of his sense of humor.
But Trav tries a little too hard to please the critics when he should be warming up the audience. His writing style, particularly in the introductory chapters, is often pretentious and precious, with overwritten phrases that draw attention to themselves rather than to their topic. He also seems to have included every erudite note and esoteric sidelight he discovered while researching the book, often overloading rather than enlightening the reader.
Like a vaudeville juggler, he tries to keep all his topics in the air at one time. Will his theme be the role transportation played in the rise and demise of vaudeville? The role vaudeville played in addressing and breaking down racial prejudice? Vaudeville’s roots in pagan worship? The Christian church’s role in demonizing the theater? Alcohol and prostitution in the theater, from ancient Greece to the present? Seemingly reluctant to cut any of the act, he introduces his topic again and again from all these
Don’t wait for consumers to tell you what they want; create something useful and convince them that they want it.
angles in the “Overture” of his book, while the audience becomes more and more restless for the real show to start.
But start it finally does. The middle chapters present a fascinating history of American vaudeville, often from a business perspective. “Vaudeville circuits,” he writes, “were among the world’s first corporate chains.” Entertainers were not just artists, they were entrepreneurs, and in vaudeville, where each act stood on its own, “the principle of every man (or every act) for himself works just fine.” As show business became big business, the “new competitive spirit” saw “each of the major managers shaking off his own complacency and racing to discover and debut the next superlative act.” In other words, competition led to better quality, higher salaries, lower prices, and larger profits. Under a free and competitive market, everybody gains.
Trav argues that entertainers responded to market demand, giving the customers what they wanted, from the prudish “good clean fun” of the Victorian age to the more sexually explicit entertainment of the 20th century. But I would argue that the entertainment market, like all other markets, is supply-driven, not demand-driven: people don’t know what they want until it is offered to them. Did consumers band together five years ago and demand a portable device that could hold 10,000 songs? No. But when an entrepreneur developed and supplied one, suddenly half of America demanded to have it. Did Americans demand a museum full of freaks and oddities because they thought of it themselves? No. But they rushed to buy tickets after P. T. Barnum supplied it in his”dime museums.”
As Trav rightly explains in a different section of the book, demand for the new family-friendly entertainment was created by Barnum’s masterly use of advertising. This may seem like a small difference, but it’s a significant lesson for anyone who desires to be an entrepreneur: don’t wait for consumers to tell you what they want; create something useful and convince them that they want it.
Competition eventually led to vaudeville’s demise, as entrepreneurs developed new technologies. Faster rail service made it easier to bring live entertainment to more markets, but the invention of the phonograph, the radio, the silver screen, and the boob tube made it possible for ordinary people to enjoy the stars without actually going to the theater. Vaudeville impresarios had introduced the world to silent films in their theaters as one of several acts, but the talkies would eventually change the demand of the fickle public. Fortunately for those who love comedy, the entrepreneurs of vaudeville followed the money to Hollywood, starring in classic films that we still watch nearly a hundred years later.
Can you judge a book by its cover? The cover and jacket blurbs of “No Applause – Just Throw Money” promise a book full of light, entertaining anecdotes. But inside, for much of the book, he lectures. Yes, it’s interesting to know that the word vaudeville came from the French val de vire (or perhaps voixe de ville); that the tradition of the theater traces back to the Bacchanals of ancient Greece; that traveling minstrels took advantage of the Erie Canal. I’m sure many readers will chuckle at Trav’s jabs at religion and other satiric asides. But slapstick it ain’t. It took me three attempts to get past the opening chapters; in vaudeville, I think he would have gotten “the hook” after chapter one.
But an audience that walks out before Act Two of this book will miss out on a fascinating, witty, impressive his- tory of a remarkable legacy one that continues to influence entertainment today. Like many good books, this one is hard to get into, but it’s worth the effort. Drop the juggling act at the beginning, and I’d say Trav S.D. is ready for the big time.