"Vaudeville is dead," entertainers have been saying for a generation or more. But it isn't. Part cabaret, part circus side-show, vaudeville is alive and brought to rowdy audience at The Palace of Variety in the heart of New York City.
The performers in the Palace of Variety's intimate space might seem peculiar to people accustomed to Broadway musicals, action films and MTV. A sword-swallower, an older gentleman playing the glass harmonica, a woman using a bull-whip to snatch a rose from the teeth of an audience member.
But Stephanie Monseu, performer and co-founder of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, which is presenting the new show, says that peculiarity is the lifeblood of the Palace. "On Mondays, we have an accordion rock opera, on Tuesdays we have sketch comedy, on Wednesdays we have Skip's Hour of Charm, on Thursdays we have Porno Jim, so each night of the week we've invited various friends of ours to present their own work," she says. "There's always something happening here, and when there's not shows, there's rehearsals. We just try to keep this an active space for the variety arts."
Vaudeville variety shows were the most popular form of entertainment in the United States from the late-1850s through the 1920s. Performers were skilled in comedy, juggling, magic, clowning, acrobatics, singing, mime, music, and dancing, and molded their skills into original acts. Audiences were notoriously rowdy.
Co-founder and performer Kieth Nelson says the new show is born of the same idea it's just that some of the acts have a modern twist, and some of the audiences are a little more raucous. "We did a clown piece that incorporated piercing and blood play. It was kind of an off-the-wall clown mime number," he says. "This one guy stood up in the audience while I had all of these needles sticking out of me and just flipped out, started throwing things and was storming up to the stage ready to basically kill us...he didn't hit either of us, but by the end of the night he had punched out ten people in the venue."
By the early 1930s, radio and the nascent movie industry drew audiences away from the original vaudeville entertainment. The last of the big-time Vaudeville houses, the New York Palace, closed its doors in 1932. Seventy years later, and just five blocks south, vaudeville is back in mid-town Manhattan where, Ms. Monseu says, audiences are loving it. "They're a very warm audience. They're tourists, some of them are local, some are people with families," she says. "We have this 90-year-old woman that comes to the 8 o'clocks on Saturdays recently. So it's a really interesting mix."
The performers in the Palace of Variety shows are grateful for the opportunity to demonstrate unconventional talents in front of a mainstream audience. Miss. Saturn performs a dazzling show involving numerous hula-hoops. "Here, you do more than one show and it's in one place," she says. "And also, I get to do whatever I want. Each time is completely different. If there are kids in the audience, I'll do something for kids. If it's an adult show, I'll do something because I'm also a burlesque artist. So, that's what I love. I love that."
Performers come and go, and some of them stop at the Palace on the way to somewhere else. Says co-founder Stephanie Monseu, booking the acts is uncomplicated. "We have an international network of friends and friends of friends. People come to us we get e-mails all of the time from people saying, you know, "I'm a Vegas juggler, and I'm going to be passing through New York. Can I get a slot in your show?" We say "Sure, we can't pay you much but you'll be working on Times Square," she says.
The Palace of Variety presents material aimed at mature audiences later at night, and family-oriented shows in the afternoons. One 3-year-old boy exiting an afternoon show seemed to grasp the mystique of the modern vaudevillian performance. "I think it was funny. Because he put the knife in his mouth," he says. "Then he put a sword in his mouth. And I saw no elephants."
In its lobby, the Palace of Variety hosts The Free Museum of Times Square, where visitors can get a good look at where it all began.