Before movies were invented, vaudeville was one of America’s most popular forms of entertainment. Its heyday lasted from the mid-1800s until around 1925.
They were variety shows featuring songs, comedy skits, and magicians as well as circus acts like jugglers, acrobats, and fire eaters. Lil' Darlins Vaudeville out of Lansing is bringing back old vaudeville Saturday night at Bell’s Brewery. The show starts at 9:30 p.m.
Katie Corr directs the show. She says vaudeville came out of a need to serve all kinds of people of different ages, sexes, and interests. But it was also way to showcase the melting pot America had become during the Industrial Age.
“You know now we have the internet. So we kind of take for granted the fact that we have access to all these different cultures from all over the world. But back then, all of these people were just thrust together from all over the world. And vaudeville gave a platform to show everybody, ‘Hey look at this exotic belly dancer here’ that they’ve never seen before. ‘Look at what the Irish can do’ or…and you know, there was a lot of making fun of other cultures, that was a huge part of vaudeville. But at the same time, all these people were getting exposure to things that they never would have been able to see before.”
Corr says there’s been a resurgence of cirque and burlesque performers in the past few years, but when they started the show in 2008 they were the only traditional vaudeville act in Michigan.
The show was meant to be a one-time benefit for the record label Earthwork Music.
Corr says opening night was complete chaos. Before that day, they hadn’t met any of the performers or their house band Heartland Klezmorim.
“And I was just kind of like ‘Ok, hi. Nice to meet you. You’re on in five minutes. The same thing with the band: ‘Here just try to play something that’s kind of upbeat tempo here,’" she says.
"You know we’re backstage like cutting them and telling them to go. But since then we’ve all gotten to know each other and we’ve built a really close relationship, especially with our band.”
One of the highlights of the show will be juggler Will Oltman— who placed third in the International Juggling Championships in 2005.
Corr is also subbing in as the groups “human blockhead.”
“This is the person that you would see like hammer a nail into their head or put a mousetrap off on their tongue," says Corr. "A blockhead we were using in the past, he would plug in a lightbulb and the lightbulb would light up and then he would take it out and he would just eat it. And he was really eating it.”
Benny Corr is the emcee for the show. He says Lil' Darlins audience is just as diverse as the crowd at old vaudeville shows. And that audience seems to be growing. Lil' Darlins performed for the whole town of Franklin, Indiana two years ago.
“They have like a historical society that bought this old vaudeville theater and they restored it and they play movies there and stuff like that. But they wanted to recreate this night where they played their first movie," Benny Corr explains. "So they had a vaudeville show to open things up and then they played a movie at the end with a full orchestra and everything like that. So that’s what they hired us for, we were the vaudeville show. And the whole town came out, we played to like 1,500 people.”
Each year Lil' Darlins Vaudeville puts on an entirely new show. Corr says sometimes the jokes in the show can get a little racy, but from now on, you won’t see the bare skin of burlesque.
Corr says the group felt like they were trying to please the bar scene. But burlesque was never part of original vaudeville shows and it’s certainly not appropriate for all ages.
But no worries, Lil' Darlins actress Kristen Pfaendtner aka “Cheeky” says there’s still more variety than you can handle.
“There’s always going to be something different and that’s one thing that’s so great about vaudeville," she says. "You’re not pigeon-holed into one thing and you really get to spice it up.”