Vaudeville at the Town Hall Theater

Shakespeare readingEverybody knows the Town Hall Theatre.  It is Main Street’s jewel in the crown -- a genuine art-house cinema smack dab in the middle of a rural New Hampshire town, successfully run for many years by the indefatigable Dennis Markaverich.  What many don’t know is that, as well as being a movie theatre from the early 20th century on, the stage at the Town Hall hosted live entertainment almost from its beginning; plays, minstrel shows, musical entertainments, lectures, recitals, and readings from Shakespeare. It was a mixture of locally produced fare as well as traveling companies of actual, honest-to-God vaudeville.  Those of us of a certain age no doubt remember the old Ed Sullivan show (the place where The Beatles made their American TV debut), which comes close to representing what old-time vaudeville was in its prime –  an all-encompassing form which included comedians, jugglers, plate spinners, acrobats, musical acts, dancers and scenes from plays or musicals.  

Vaudville programIn the days before radio or television, even before the advent of the Edison Gramophone and silent films, live professional vaudeville was where you went if you wished to be entertained. It was broken up into three main categories – big time, small time and medium time.  Big time vaudeville played in large theatres in major cities, up to eight or ten shows a day, depending on the length of the program and the size of the theatre.  Medium time was, as its name implies, in middling-sized towns and venues.    Small time vaudeville played all over the back roads and hick towns of America, usually in one-night, one show only stands, in  Town Halls, Grange Halls, church basements; wherever you could set up enough chairs, erect a platform, and move in a piano.  Small time vaudeville was the home of performers either just starting out or in the waning phase of their careers.

Waldo Whipple programFrom the end of the 19th  Century  on, touring vaudeville acts on the small-time circuit played our Town Hall;  one representative example was a small-time circuit vaudeville group that toured in the 1920’s,  “The Waldo Whipple All-Star Speciality Company”, headed by the eponymous Mr. Whipple himself, which included performances by “Mademoiselle Desmomda, the Female Baritone”,  “Millard & Annie Fillmore, Comedy Duo”, “Harry & Annie Ladell, Novelty Acrobats”, “Carmanella & Lucille in their comedy sketch ‘Fun In A Butcher Shop’ ”, and “Ned West, Blackface Eccentric Comedian”.  Tickets were .25 and .35 cents. 

Dennis says that, somewhere under a few layers of paint on the sides of the Town Hall stage, there are scribbled the autographs of many performers who played the theatre over the years.  I have no doubt that, if you were to go into the Town Hall theatre some night after the movie patrons were all gone, and kept very still, you could probably hear a few choruses of “Shine On, Harvest Moon” or one comedian asking another that age-old question, “Who was that lady I saw you with last night?”.   At least, that’s what I’d like to believe.

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