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Category:  Did You Know?
Published:  March, 2009

Did You Know?

Did you know that many of the earliest stars of television first came to prominence in something called “vaudeville?” And, did you also know that if it hadn’t been for vaudeville, people in Fayette County would have had very little entertainment during the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th century?

It’s true. First, here’s a brief explanation: “Vaudeville,” the word, seems to have been derived from the French phrase, “voix de ville” – or voice of the city. The earliest North American roots of vaudeville have been traced back to Kentucky in the 1870’s. The earliest Fayette County references I could find of vaudeville were in 1897. On October 8th of that year, the Connellsville Courier ran a notice for “5 Big Shows Combined” at Newmyer’s Opera House that was scheduled to take place two days later.

A little over a month later, Newmyer’s Opera House made history. A certain ex-heavyweight boxing champion of the world named John L. Sullivan was part of a show scheduled for late November. Sullivan put on a boxing exhibition as part of the show. Actually, he’d lost his boxing title to the fighter know as “Gentleman Jim” in 1892. Coincidentally, in 1901, “Gentleman Jim” James J. Corbett was another boxer-turned- entertainer who happened to appear in a vaudeville show in Uniontown. According to the Uniontown Daily News Standard on November 20th of that year, Corbett was part of eight “all star acts” that were performing at Harry Beeson’s Grand Opera House in Uniontown.

Unlike Sullivan, Corbett didn’t display his boxing prowess during the show. Instead he opted for telling “humorous stories of his travels.”It’s not as if vaudeville was the only place for retired heavyweight champions to settle after they hung up their boxing gloves. James J. Jeffries was STILL a heavyweight boxing champion when he took the stage at the Connellsville Theatre on February 19th, 1902. The notice for that show claimed it was comprised of 30 beautiful women, funny comedians, strong vaudeville acts and novelties.

Jeffries would later be the man the media dubbed “The Great White Hope,” when he fought for the championship against the African-American champ - Jack Johnson.

Jeffries was quoted as saying, "I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro." Johnson knocked him out in the 15th round. Heavyweight champion Jess Willard had only been crowned two months and two weeks when he arrived in Connellsville as one of the performers in a Wild West show in 1915. Willard, by the way, had beaten Jack Johnson years before. That and the fact that he’d actually been a real cowboy seemed to be huge drawing cards, according to the Daily Courier – dated June 18th, 1915.

“An unusually large crowd stayed and saw Willard box three rounds with his trainer, Monahan.” At one point, he simply held his arms up to allow his trainer swing freely at him. After Willard withstood a number of direct punches the writer claimed, “He demonstrated the famous ‘one-two’ blow that put a quietus to Jack Johnson.”

Did you know that if you would have paid to see all of those heavyweight boxers who came to Fayette County between 1897 and 1915 – the combined cost wouldn’t have been much more than a dollar? Tickets to three of those shows only cost a quarter.

By looking back, you can clearly see that vaudeville was certainly the forerunner for those highly popular variety television shows of the 1960’s and ‘70’s.

Vaudeville and television’s Ed Sullivan may not have always pleased everybody during each show, but there was always enough to keep you watching.
If you tuned into Ed Sullivan to watch the Beatles or the Temptations, you’d have to sit through high wire acts, practitioners of spinning plates or singers from the Metropolitan Opera. Fans during the old days of vaudeville must’ve felt the same way.

I found a humorous colloquy reprinted from the Cincinnati Tribune on November 29th, 1904 in the Connellsville Daily Courier: BANKS: “I wish they would cut out these ballad singers at the vaudeville.”
JANKS: “Well, they might get somebody to remove their noses. Then they wouldn’t have anything to sing through.” But I did find one act that must’ve been worth seeing over and over again. This comes from the Uniontown Morning Herald, dated January 4th, 1926: “Act No. 4, Burns and Allen.” George Burns and Gracie Allen appeared on stage in Uniontown at the Dixie Playhouse.

But that wasn’t all.
They would later become one of the most celebrated comedy teams (in vaudeville, on radio, in film and on television) in entertainment history.

But did you know that only 23 days after they played Uniontown they became more than just a team?

They got married.