The American Variety Stage, 1870 - 1920


Variety entertainment dominated the popular recording industry's acoustic era (pre -1925), from its beginnings in the 1890s, when records were made on wax cylinders, right up to the beginning of the jazz age in the mid-1920s. From slapstick vaudeville routines and ethnic dialect skits to romantic ballads and dramatic recitations, sound recordings brought variety entertainment into the homes of millions of Americans. The following ten sample recordings are representative of the variety acts captured on disc by the Edison Company.

The Arkansas Traveler (Descriptive Scene), performed by Steve Porter and Ernest Hare
Edison 51010-R, recorded 1922
WAV version of this recording.

This is a classic "rube" sketch that has its origins in an 1852 lithograph by Currier & Ives depicting a wise-cracking, fiddle-playing hillbilly's encounter with a sophisticated city-slicker. Originally released on a wax cylinder in the 1890s, The Arkansas Traveler was probably the best-selling example of the popular genre "descriptive scene" (also called "descriptive specialty"), a humorous dramatic sketch that often included sound effects and music. Steve Porter was a versatile vaudeville comedian who wrote and performed many comedy routines on early sound recordings. Ernest Hare teamed with Billy Jones in 1920 to form Jones & Hare, "The Happiness Boys" of radio fame, and the most popular singing comedians of the 1920s.

Desperate Desmond - Drama, written and performed by Fred Duprez
Edison 50254-L, recorded 1915
WAV version of this recording.

Fred Duprez was a vaudeville comedian and was famous for his comic monologues. An Edison record catalog, circa 1927, had this to say about the Desperate Desmond bit: "Duprez invented all this himself and has given it before many audiences. It is really very cleverly worked out; some of the incidental music fits the characters with a burlesque fashion, and some of it, apparently to Duprez's intense disgust, is wildly inappropriate. To quote a popular advertisement If you can't laugh at this, see a doctor.'"

Laughing Record (Henry's Music Lesson), performed by Miss Sally Stembler & Edward Meeker
Edison 51063-R, recorded 1923
WAV version of this recording.

This comic sketch was so popular nearly every early record company sold a recording of it. This is the Edison Company's version. Known as the "laughing girl," Sally Stembler was recalled in Jim Walsh's seminal column, "Favorite Pioneer Recording Artist," in Hobbies Magazine (September, 1973): "Miss Stembler was a vaudeville comedienne who for a generation or more entertained audiences with laughing specialties."

I Want to Go Back to Michigan (written by Irving Berlin), performed by Billy Murray and Chorus
Edison 50198-L, recorded 1914
WAV version of this recording.

Penned by Irving Berlin in 1914, this tune was a hit that year. Later it was a success in vaudeville and eventually, in it's most famous rendition, sung by Judy Garland in the film Easter Parade (MGM, 1948). Of all the "phonograph singers," none made or sold more records than Billy Murray. Recording for all the major record companies of the period--Victor, Columbia, and Edison--Murray's renditions of the era's popular songs on cylinder and disc numbered in the hundreds and sold in the millions.

Lasca (written by Frank Deprez), performed by Harry E. Humphrey
Edison 50575-L, recorded 1919
WAV version of this recording.

Dramatic recitations were frequently on the variety show bill. Harry E. Humphrey delivers this romantic poem of the American West in the typical dramatic style of the time.

New York Blues (Rag Classical), written and performed by Pietro Frosini, accordion
Edison 50454, recorded 1917
WAV version of this recording.

Accordionist Pietro Frosini is described an Edison record catalog, circa 1927: "Frosini is considered one of the best accordion players now before the public. His success in vaudeville throughout the United States has been, as they say, terrific.' This selection he wrote himself. He calls it a "classical rag."

Over There (written by George M. Cohan), performed by Billy Murray
Edison 50443, recorded 1917
WAV version of this recording.

Written in 1917 and introduced by the famous singer Nora Bayes, this World War I hit became the anthem for America's war effort.

A Study in Mimicry (Vaudeville Sketch), performed by John Orren and Lillian Drew
Edison 50485-R, recorded 1918
WAV version of this recording.

"This is not in any sense a burlesque, or a descriptive sketch, but real imitations by two of the cleverest mimics now before the American vaudeville public. Mr. Orren does, in the order named, imitations of the following: Train Whistle,' Orchestra Tuning Up,' Sawmill,' Three different tones produced at once,' Chicken,' Rooster,' etc. . . . Then Miss Drew whistles a bird imitation with piano accompaniment. The record closes with Mr. Orren's imitation of five dogs in an argument." (Edison Company catalog, ca 1927).

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (written by Ballard McDonald and Harry Carroll), performed by Walter Van Brunt
Edison 50083-L, recorded 1913
WAV version of this recording.

No variety bill would be complete without a romantic ballad. Tenor Walter Van Brunt renders McDonald and Carroll's 1913 hit in the style that made him one of the most successful recording artists of the era.

Recollections of 1861-65 (Trumpet Solo), performed by Edna White
Edison 80613-R, recorded 1921
WAV version of this recording.

There were many Civil War veterans among the audience members of American variety shows, and the selections played here would have been familiar to all. The Edison Company catalog, circa 1927, comments not only on the music, but also the novelty of the recording artist: "Not many women play the trumpet, and for this reason alone "Recollections of 1861-65" will arouse a great deal of curiosity. Some years ago, concert goers were given a new thrill by a female quartet of trumpet players, headed by Miss Edna White, who was a pioneer in the field of such music. Her trumpeters wore white robes and reminded one of Fra Angelico's angels. This record is a special arrangement of famous bugle calls, together with some of the songs associated with the war between the States. Following is their order: Adjutant's Call,' Just Before the Battle, Mother,' Mess Call,' When Johnny Comes Marching Home,' Assemble Call,' We'er Tenting To-night,' and Taps.'

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