Smash Pages Q&A | David Hajdu talks ‘A Revolution in Three Acts’

The music critic and writer discusses his new graphic novel that explores the lives and work of three of vaudeville’s biggest stars.

David Hajdu is an an acclaimed critic who’s best known as a music writer in magazines like Rolling Stone and The New Republic, Entertainment Weekly and The New York Review of Books, and in books like Lush Life and Positively 4th Street. Hajdu is also one of the great writers about comics.

His 2008 book The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America is simply one of the best books written about comics. In his book Heroes and Villains, in between articles and essays about Billy Eckstein and Dinah Washington, Mos Def and Joni Mitchell, were essays about Joe Sacco and Dan Clowes, Jules Feiffer and Marjane Satrapi.

Hajdu is currently the music editor at The Nation magazine and in the past two years he’s written two books very different from his previous work. 2020’s Adrienne Geffel was a novel written in the form of an oral history about an avant garde musician in 1980’s New York City. His new book is a graphic novel that Hajdu made in collaboration with his friend the artist John Carey. A Revolution in Three Acts: The Radical Vaudeville of Bert Williams, Eva Tanguay, Julian Eltinge looks at three of vaudeville’s biggest stars and the ways that their work was not what we typically think of vaudeville. Instead they were pushing boundaries and defying genres and expectations in ways that make them very modern. We recently spoke about the book and his work and trying to focus on creative work.

Everyone knows you for your journalism and criticism, but in the past two years you’ve had a novel and now a graphic novel published.

Thats true and it was not a strategic or tactical decision on my part, to “claim new territory” or any such careerist objective. I was allowing my creative side to come out and see what would happen. It’s that partly out of selfishness that I felt like I wanted a set of new challenges, and partly because in each of those cases I’ve always done something along those line but I just haven’t been public about it. Before I was ever published as a writer, I was published as a cartoonist. The first work I ever published were illustrations and cartoons for my hometown newspaper when I was still in high school. I haven’t had a lot of contact with a lot of people that I grew up with, but if we went back to my hometown, the people who knew me in high school would assume that I became an artist. That was my identity when I was young. I published two novels before this, but under pseudonyms. On the music side, I have songs on different albums, which has been important to me in my creative life in the past ten years.

There’s a line early on in your novel Adrienne Geffel: “At this point in our cultural history, Adrianna Geffel is surely name-checked and referenced more freely than understood deeply.” I feel like that could be said of vaudeville and the people you write about it.

It’s certainly true of Bert Williams. In part because the whole subject of blackface is so discomforting and so problematic and so ugly and horrible that we mostly resist it. For good reason. Why go back there? But if you press ahead and try to understand what he did and why, you start to see him partly as a victim of the terrible racism and oppression of the time, but also as a hero and someone who pushed against that racism and oppression and advanced things and moved the culture forward and shifted the way that black artists were seen by white America and the dominant culture. Bert Williams is certainly name checked more than he’s fully understood. I think for Eva Tanguay, too, although she’s not as well known. Julian Eltinge I would say is virtually forgotten today. I’m at an age where when I first moved New York to go to NYU I went to CBGB. You’re too young, but there was an enormous backdrop behind the stage of a kind of wild woman that’s in virtually every photograph of every band playing there. This black and white photograph of this woman that I saw dozens of times. To me she was this emblem of abandon and madness and freedom. I didn’t know until maybe ten years ago that that was Eva Tanguay. There was enormous image of a vaudeville star as the stage backdrop at CBGB. Because one hundred years earlier in vaudeville she represented this punk aesthetic. She was radical and changed everyone’s idea of what it meant to be a performer. Particularly a female performer and celebrity. Absolutely radical. We use the terms “Radical” and “Revolutionary” in the title to draw attention to the fact that vaudeville was a lot freer and crazier – and important – than most people tend to think it was. Julian Eltinge is the most forgotten but is probably the most timely of the three figures. He embodied gender fluidity at a time when that was unheard of. His whole life was dedicated to proving the malleability of gender and that gender could be constructed. That even a big burly man’s man like him – although he was never really that either – could become a feminine ideal if you just follow the rules and apply all these techniques. Very much a 21st century kind of figure.

Did the book begin by wanting to explore vaudeville, or where did it start?

It began by wanting to do something with my old friend John Carey. John and I went to college together and we’ve remained friends. He’s primarily a fine artist and painter, but he did a weekly syndicated cartoon for many years. We had said we should do something someday and we were looking for ideas and I had the notion of doing something about vaudeville. I had written a history of popular music called Love for Sale and there’s a section of vaudeville and the sheet music era that talks about Eva Tanguay and blackface. The different portrayals of racial and ethnic stereotypes on stage like blackface and yellowface, but also Italian parodies and what used to be called a “Dutch act”, which parodies Germans. I had touched on some of this in previous books and I thought, someday I should come back to this. When John and I were looking for something to do, I came back to this world which I thought was worth a closer look. We thought that it would lend itself to visual treatment because the image that most people have of vaudeville is framed by nostalgia and sentiment. Mostly framed by portrayals of vaudeville in popular movies and TV years afterwards. Hollywood Palace in the 1960s with Ray Bolger and Bing Crosby spinning canes and doing a little soft shoe. We have this conception of vaudeville being very square and very corny and safe and white and not the least bit transgressive. Not the least bit connected to anything I cared about as a postwar person and a punk. But it was really a very weird place. And home to all sorts of radical ideas. Visually it’s so rich and little known and misunderstood, we thought it would lend itself to drawings. We had a lot of fun working together. We worked a little differently than most writers and artists. I scripted everything but I also did breakdowns and designed the pages. I don’t want to give myself too much credit because I did what were half decent doodles and then John made it great. John brought a great deal to every panel just through the beauty and originality of his work. It’s idiosyncratic. It’s not superhero art but it’s also not the contemporary naive graphic novel style art either. It’s something all its own. 

I knew what most people know about vaudeville and sheet music, and it was fascinating to learn about that.

Sheet music back then was a bigger deal than popular music is today. Those song sheets sold millions of copies when the US population was a fourth of what it is now. Everybody everywhere all knew the same songs. And they were having a different kind of impact because those songs weren’t just heard, but performed. So they would go physically into each person’s body and sing the songs or play with on the piano and so they were internalizing them in a different way. People are internalizing songs today – singing along, listening to them on their earbuds, whatever, but something more happens when you perform songs. That wasn’t central to our story in that vaudeville was a performance. People were going and watching performers. But the big hits in the early days of vaudeville were sung around the piano at home. Some of the biggest hits associated with Tanguay and early in Bert Williams’ life were sheet music hits. Bert Williams became quite a successful recording artist which we don’t really deal with in the book. Eltinge never made any recordings. He didn’t really do anything except stand on stage and pose in a dress. Which is mind blowing to me! And yet he was phenomenally successful and popular. What people got out of that is really a bafflement. 

It is baffling, but he was thinking about gender as a construction and performance, long before most people did. I always kept thinking of Julian Eltinge in terms of todays culture of people who are famous for being famous, essentially. As you said, Eltinge was a very 21st century figure.

He demonstrated that overtly on a mass scale before anyone else was doing anything quite like that so successfully. I hope that the book helps put Julian Eltinge back into the cultural conversation. One of the fascinating things to think about is to consider where the real Julian Eltinge lived. Because the supposed offstage persona that he projected was just as performative a construction as the idealized woman that he portrayed on stage. He was portrayed this cigar-chomping, man’s man who boxed with John L. Sullivan and would punch anyone who questioned his masculinity. But it was all a charade. You know this from the book, but he had publicity photographs of him fixing his car, painting his house. 

And it’s especially striking because I think most of us think about vaudeville in terms of older comedians telling corny jokes that were amusing at best.

But that’s true of every form of entertainment! There’s a handful of good acts and most of it’s just middling and some of it is garbage. That’s true of Broadway and every genre of film and comics.

Do you follow comics much?

That whole bookcase behind me is comics, mostly graphic novels, but no, not as much. My older son Jake is a big comic guy and he keeps me up to speed. Every now and then he’ll say, dad, I know you’re not following Daredevil but the new continuity is really good. I’m like most people. My attention is so splintered that I just have to be very discriminating about what I chose to focus my attention on. There are so many distractions. The principal thing I write about is music and I try to keep up with music but that’s impossible. I have to listen to Drake and that’s punishment! [laughs] I’m not even going to apologize for saying that. One has to be discriminating because there’s just so much out there.

Like a lot of people I also conflate vaudeville and burlesque and that transition.

Often people conflate them and vaudeville did kind of morph into burlesque. In fact the Julian Eltinge Theater – the only Broadway theater named for a vaudeville star – became a burlesque house. It was a burlesque house where Abbott and Costello appeared for the first time together. But that was a whole other thing. And the contemporary burlesque world is something else which I am somewhat familiar with.

Talk a little about vaudeville, and you explain this briefly in the book but it originated in New York and San Francisco and then spread around the country?

It began in New York. It grew out of the form of entertainment that started in the Barbary Coast on the West Coast and the Bowery in New York. It migrated to 14th St. in Manhattan and took on the name “vaudeville” there and took on its character as a form on 14th St. in New York. But it was a national phenomenon. Producers put together touring circuits that would travel around the country. In the book we have a map of the US with a sampling of vaudeville houses. They were in every major and mid-size city in America. There were hundreds of vaudeville houses. Acts would tour the country over the course of a year and play maybe fifty different theaters. The same set of acts would travel together, stay at the same hotels together. It worked because at each theater, they were presenting something new and unknown. There was no national media yet so no one could say, Eva Tanguay is doing the exact same act in Akron that she just did in Harrisburg! Nobody would know. They would go on and it would be new in each city. The artists were able to learn from the audiences and fine tune their acts. They learned what worked and didn’t and developed nuances in timing and performance that were in their bones. 

If you watch the Jack Benny program from the fifties and sixties, Jack Benny cut his teeth in vaudeville. He was what we now call a stand up comedian, but what was then called a monologist. He learned from doing his act exactly how long to pause, exactly how to phrase things for the maximum effect by doing this night after night. And not only night after night! Most theaters would open at 11 o’clock in the morning and close at 11 o’clock at night. The same set of acts would cycle five or six times over the course of the day. So every performer did their act five or six times a day. The last act on the bill was called “The Chaser” because they were designed to be so bad that it would drive people out of the theater so there would be empty seats and new people could come in. If you saw you were the last act, I hope you knew why you were there. [laughs] But in the Jack Benny program he would come on stage and stand in front of the curtain and do a routine. Like Kimmel and Fallon still do. But the Jack Benny show was recorded without an audience. The laughter was dubbed in later, but his skill was such from all his years onstage, he knew how an audience would react so he learned how to pause just so for maximum effect. This was the kind of craftsmanship that some were able to develop by doing their routine many times a day, day after day, year after year. The downside of that was that many acts got stuck in their ways and because they were able to do the same act unchanged one town to the next town, they had no incentive to change their act. It definitely hurt Eva Tanguay and Julian Eltinge. They started to seem outdated after a while. Partly because they inspired artists who were taking their innovations further. Julian Eltinge was a female impersonator, but he was a very conventional impersonation devoid of irony or kitsch or parody. The next generation of female impersonators came and did what we would recognize as drag acts infused with camp and humor. As they came to redefine gender performance, Eltinge looked more and more out of touch and outdated.

This was a period where so much was changing in the culture. A new generation of women who were being educated and pushing for universal suffrage, the Great Migration, the rise of radio and film. This was a radical period in every way.

It was explosive. In some ways it has some very striking parallels to the early 21st Century. When we think of the revolutions we think of cars and phones and electricity and that’s a piece of it, sure, but gender roles changed, and racial thinking advanced. Although not as much as it should have. But that’s still the case now.

So what’s your final pitch for the book?

It’s about three daring transformative artists working in a crazy genre of entertainment to do things that changed the world. And are now largely forgotten. They’re each interesting stories on their own but how each character is related is also interesting. They overlap and intersect in interesting ways. 

They’re fascinating people and so contemporary in so many ways.

I think so. I think other people will find it surprisingly interesting and entertaining. But if vaudeville’s not for you, there’s a scintillating parody of avant garde New York in the 1980s called Adrienne Geffel that people can read, too!

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