Edward Albee: Controversial Father of Vaudeville by Anna Jennings

Edward Franklin Albee II was born in Machias, Maine on October 8th, 1857 to Nathan and Amanda Albee (“Deaths”). In his youth, he attended primary school in Boston, Massachusetts, where he later sold newspapers and worked as a delivery boy for a department store (“E.F. Albee”). His first exposure to show business came with an ensemble role in Charles Fetcher’s play, No Thoroughfare, his first and only performance experience. At age sixteen, Albee saw P.T. Barnum’s “Greatest Show on Earth” in 1873, beginning his career in the circus (Erdman 46). Albee was a “tent boy,” completing tasks such as caring for the hippopotamus and preparing concessions for spectators (“E.F. Albee”). He later said of his experience that only the circus provides the requisite range of experience for the future successful businessman.

Albee spent about seven years working in the circus. After returning to Boston, Albee married Laura S. Smith on May 13th, 1881 (“Deaths”). Soon after his marriage, he visited Benjamin F. Keith’s ten-cent Gaiety Museum in Boston, which presented a variety of short acts, much like the circus (Hanley 62). Though the two may have met earlier, as Keith was also a circus man, their meeting in 1885 marked the beginning of the most powerful partnership in vaudeville (Erdman 47). Keith’s museum was struggling, so he asked Albee, who had quickly risen through the ranks, how he could improve business. Albee said to Keith: “You either have the wrong show on the right street or the right show on the wrong street” (Hanley 62). Due to the museum’s prime location in Boston, the two decided they had the wrong show on the right street. Albee noticed the success of the Hollis Theater’s production of The Mikado, which sold out nearly every night (Hanley 63). Albee created a miniature, rip-off version of The Mikado, with a lower ticket price, hoping to appeal to those theatre-goers unable to see the sold-out production (Erdman 47). This model was extraordinarily successful and launched Keith’s business into vast expansion and high profit, all with the help of Albee.

They opened the Bijou Theater in Boston in 1886, the Gaiety Museum in Providence in 1887, the Bijou in Philadelphia in 1889, and the Hippodrome in New York City’s Times Square in 1893, with many more theaters across the nation to follow (Erdman 47). Albee was very particular about the appearance of the theaters, investing large sums of money into creating lavish theaters with decadent decoration— “nothing is too rich for the vaudeville stage” (Albee 217-218). In his 1920 article, “Twenty Years of Vaudeville,” published in Theatre Magazine, Albee describes the reason for the success of the Keith-Albee theaters: “In building a vaudeville theatre today, we go into every detail scientifically, artistically, and psychologically” (Albee 218). Albee carefully designed every detail, including color, acoustics, lighting, seating, and ventilation.

The careful design proved fruitful. The Keith circuit became the “largest theatrical organization known to the history of the stage, ” and Albee was “perhaps the most powerful administrator vaudeville ever had” (Hanley 92; DiMeglio 15). E.F. Albee was the brains of the Keith circuit. He marketed, produced, censored, casted, and oversaw every aspect of operation (Erdman 2). Keith and Albee also introduced the concept of “continuous performance” (Hanley 63). By running performances in rotation all day, Keith theaters presented more various acts and generated more profit. Albee was such a talented manager, Keith eventually made him a partner. After Keith’s death in 1914, he left Albee in charge of the company and 15 million dollars, half of Keith’s fortune (“Deaths”).

Among Albee’s notable contributions to the vaudeville business was bringing credibility to the existing “variety” genre, which stood on the disrespectable fringes of show business (“E.F. Albee”). For Albee, making “vaudeville and vaudevillians respectable in the eyes of the world was almost a fetish” (“E.F. Albee”). It was important to Albee that vaudeville be considered a wholesome, pure form of entertainment. Therefore, Albee carefully censored acts and posted guidelines for performers, threatening dismissal for any infraction (DiMeglio 8). Notices posted reminded artists not to include profanity, “mother-in-law jokes,” mocking of races and religions (even Jewish jokes by Jewish performers), ridicule of policemen, and many other “destructive” elements. Believing that entertainment can be constructive, Albee told artists to “Drop that stuff. It is beneath an artist of your talent and intelligence” (“E.F. Albee”). Additionally, Albee had the theater staff police the audience for appropriate behavior (Erdman 12). While a certain amount of suggestiveness and innuendo remained for the audience’s titillation, Albee was successful in making “vaudeville theatre a part of community life” as a wholesome entertainment (Albee 220).

Albee himself did not enjoy a pure reputation. Keith and Albee were known by some as a “villainous pair,” as their bigtime theaters had an intense rivalry with the smalltime theaters (DiMeglio 20). Keith and Albee created United Booking Office (UBO), a booking agency which scheduled routes for performers in Keith theaters and other theaters. Eventually, the organization became so powerful that it was near impossible to work as a vaudeville artist without going through the UBO, which also charged the artists a percentage for bookings (Erdman 57). Among his critics was Groucho Marx, who said “Albee was the owner of a large cotton plantation and the actors were his slaves” (qtd. DiMeglio 25). However, later Albee did gain praise from some for respectful treatment of artists. After WWI, Albee was instrumental in forming two organizations, the Vaudeville Managers’ Protective Association and the National Vaudeville Artists, responsible for protecting both artists and managers in negotiations (“E.F. Albee”). Albee explains that after twenty years, an agreeable relationship between artists and managers now existed in vaudeville and many agreed (219-220).

As vaudeville declined and cinema gained popularity, the Keith circuit merged with Joseph P. Kennedy’s Orpheum circuit to form a chain of theaters known as Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO), a part of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) (Erdman 169). Albee died in Palm Beach, Florida on March 11th, 1930 (“Deaths”). His wife Laura, his daughter Ethel, and son Reed Adelbert survived Albee. Reed would eventually adopt future playwright, Edward Franklin Albee III, named after his impresario grandfather (Konkle). An obituary in the New York Times summed up Albee’s contribution: “Mr. Albee was a vital and aggressive figure, who organized and stabilized a fairly unorganized part of the theatre.”


Bibliography

Albee, Edward F. “Twenty Years of Vaudeville.” American Vaudeville as Seen by Its Contemporaries. Ed. Charles W. Stein. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1984. 214-222. Print.

“Deaths in the Profession.” Billboard 22 Mar. 1930: 94-95. ProQuest. Web. 30 Dec. 2016.

DiMeglio, John E. Vaudeville U.S.A. Bowling Green: Bowling Green U Popular P, 1973. Print.

“E.F. Albee: Co-Founder of Vaudeville.” New York Times 23 Mar. 1930: 1. ProQuest. Web. 30 Dec. 2016.

Erdman, Andrew L. Blue Vaudeville: Sex, Morals and the Mass Marketing of Amusement, 1895-1915. Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2004. Print.

Hanley, Parke F. “A Great Fellow for Ideas – E.F. Albee.” McClure’s Magazine May 1928: 62. ProQuest. Web. 30 Dec. 2016.

Konkle, Lincoln. “Biography: Learn the History of Edward Albee.” Edward Albee Society. Edward Albee Society, n.d. Web. 19 Dec 2016.

Name: Albee