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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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Before the Movies

Before the Movies

GRHC - August 17th, 2011

Before the movies, many Grand Rapids residents got their entertainment at the vaudeville theatre "The Empress", an early burlesque locale.



Grand Rapids’ number one vaudeville theatre was B.F. Keith’s Empress, controlled by the Keith-Albee combine, who operated a string of first class houses around the country. The Temple, Orpheum, and Ramona also presented top vaudeville acts. Legitimate theatres, presenting stage plays, included Powers Opera House, the Majestic, and later the Regent.

Many old-time show business favorites such as W.C. Fields, Lillian Russell, Fanny Brice, and Will Rogers made their names traveling the cross-country vaudeville circuit. Many a top comic got his start as a baggy pants comedian on the burlesque circuit. Born in 1909, burlesque provided entertainment in the guise of buxom showgirls clad in short skirts and flesh colored tight performing bumps, grinds, and high kicks to the delight of the mostly male audience. That world of ‘vaude’ and ‘burley’ bowed out around 1929 succumbing to the influence of radio and motion pictures.

Movies were making incursions, but had not yet won the affection of audiences that preferred their entertainment in the flesh. Theater managers were forced to add short-reelers, only seven or eight hundred feet long, with titillating titles such as, An Impartial Lover or The Escaped Lunatic. The lowering of the screen was the signal for catcalls, boos, and jeers from the audience. As film makers improved the quality of their product and the star system came into being, the motion picture became acceptable and eventually spelled doom for vaudeville.

Full Details

TitleBefore the Movies
KeywordsGlance at the Past, history, Movies, Empress, vaudeville, WYCE, Grand Rapids, Historical Commission, radio, Podcast
Pubdate StringAugust 17th, 2011

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