Hollywood’s Lost Celebrities: Live Performance in Classical Era Movie Theaters – UROP Symposium

Hollywood’s Lost Celebrities: Live Performance in Classical Era Movie Theaters

Adam Michael Flachsmann

Research Mentor(s): Vincent Longo
Program: CCSFP
Authors: Adam Flachsmann

Abstract

Before the mainstream adoption of sound film, many celebrities gained stardom through live performances and stage shows along vaudeville circuits. These such circuits allowed entertainers to have creative freedom with their acts filled with ethnic, religious, and cultural expression. Scholars argue that the transition to sound films and the centralization of the star system in Hollywood restricted these ethnic performances and circuits forced performers to hide their cultural identity to better suit Hollywood’s approach to catering to mass audiences. Scholarship also claims that the removal of ethnic expression in the star system was exacerbated by the decline of vaudeville circuits, marked by the so-called “death” of vaudeville. However, our research not only disproves this death ‘death’ narrative of vaudeville, but also proves that throughout and after the explosion of sound film, star personas indebted to ethnic and religious expression continued to thrive on the stages of vaudeville-like luxurious urban theaters, usually called movie palaces. My specific work on this project makes these arguments in two ways including an ongoing database compiling variety bill listings of live performances between the early 20’s to the early 50’s as well as a database following the continued live performances of Jewish comedian turned film actor: Eddie Cantor. Both databases show that this form of live entertainment continued long after the ‘death’ of vaudeville in the early 30’s. It also shows that a major celebrity who was supposed to be only a “film” star was moving back and forth between the stage and screen. Furthermore, I have conducted a case study on the aforementioned Jewish Comedian, Eddie Cantor, who was one of the most prolific celebrities of the 30’s and 50’s. Through this study, we have found that his stardom was not solely based around his peak in sound film, but rather was a back and forth between a myriad of mediums that still included live performances compacted with films often in the same theater. To corroborate this alongside the databases, I follow Mr. Cantor with a wide lens covering his live performances, film appearances, as well as his other ventures into the media via newspaper articles, reviews, and books such as Weinstein’s “The Eddie Cantor Story: A Jewish Life in Performance and Politics” to study how he had incorporated his Jewish identity into his performances as well as to show how he engaged with Jewish American audiences. I also look further into Cantor as a philanthropist who had many contributions to charities and organizations specifically for Jewish people, youth betterment, and push against any form of antisemitism all while making progressive moves for a more diversity rich world of entertainment. Understanding such an early entertainment pioneer such as Eddie Cantor allows us to see that celebrities would not hide away from their heritage on the stage, even if Hollywood successfully forced the erasure of this part of their celebrity persona on screen. In this way, Cantor had never “abandoned” his Jewish identity as some would claim when only viewing films that were created by Hollywood for a more general audience, but rather was one of the most vocal Jewish entertainers both on and off the stage. Through Cantor we can observe that the entertainment industry is much more complicated holistically than if one were to observe a single heavily controlled medium.

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