By Roy Maloy
The term vaudeville is commonly thought to have French origins meaning Word of the Village. Between approximately 1550’s through until the end of the Victorian era European entertainment was both heavily regulated by license-enforcing authorities and restricted to formalised plays about mainly Christian narratives called ‘mystery plays’. However, along with Shakespeare came a fresh approach to entertainment, and although the bulk of performances were still presented in playhouses such as the Globe and the Rose, tolerance was growing for the burgeoning new forms of entertainment. Amongst those to appear about this time was a performance type known as the Mountebank.
In modern times we saw Sasha Barron Cohen playing the role of a Mountebank in the film version of Sweeny Todd. As the populations of Europe expanded and people from formerly rural villages made their way to the city centres one of the first aspects of city life to explode was the size and scale of market places. The thronging bustle and activity of the marketplaces also gave rise to the entrepreneurial showmen, including the Mountebanks, whose presentations became more and more elaborate. Because most Mountebanks were illegal stall holders in the market places, they would usually make short presentations and then move away to avoid being forced to pay bribes to local sherifs.
As a mechanism of attracting the attention of the market going public the Mountebanks would usually also have in there custody one or two small orphan children, usually under the age of 10, who would perform elaborate displays of gymnastics to gather a crowd. The children had a title and were known as ‘Merry Andrews’. Typically the Mountebank would set up a display or let down the back of a horse drawn wagon to show a display of his snake oils, cures, trinkets and ‘exotic’ wares. The Merry Andrews would be sent out to the furthest reaches of the market place, dressed in costumes similar to a jester, with small bells attached to their clothing, to then slowly move back to where their master’s display was ready to be presented. The Children would cartwheel, whilst singing songs and performing flips and acro-holds as they went; drawing with them an audience to hopefully buy the wares of the Mountebank.
These new forms of entertainments, and specifically the gradual acceptance of the Mountebanks and Merry Andrews became so common in European culture that others began to pop up, including one-man-bands, shell and pea games and so many more acts. It was a short jump by about the middle of the 1700’s when proprietors of pubs and hotels began seeing the appeal of some of the more talented and popular artists available and began hosting their performances in their establishments as a draw card to get more customers to drink their beer and ale.
More and more popular became the variety of live entertainment as natural synergies took place. Music in the forms of brass bands, violins and harps were common features as well as animal acts. Particularly common we’re animal acts that depicted that the animal possessed unusual intelligence or skill.
By 1900 circuses had overtaken all other forms of entertainment ever seen before and it’s overflow was a glut of highly talented acts all over Europe, Australia and the US who were all vying for the extremely well paid, star positions in the biggest big-tops. With the advent of cinema still 20 years away small and large vaudeville theatres were prolific. Some as small as 20 seat halls off the side of someone’s house as well as the whopping Tivoli Theatre in Bourke St Melbourne.
As Speakeasy HQ finds its feet the task has been clear – bring to Melbourne a venue that shamelessly seeks to be provide the widest variety of acts, with the largest number of artists, with amazing skill, talent, pace, speed, colour and movement in a way that does justice to the thousands of hours that each artist has invested in learning their craft.
The December Speakeasy HQ will be a presentation of 23 artists who will be presenting shows across countless disciplines. As far as records seem to indicate, the program at Speakeasy HQ on December 14 will be the biggest vaudeville program ever presented in Australian history! A close second exists in a program promoted in the mid 1920’s in Sydney with a continuos program from 11am-10pm and spanning 20 separate half hour performances.
Don’t miss your chance to see this amazing, Star Studded lineup on December 14 at Speakeasy HQ by logging onto www.Speakeasy-HQ.com