Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

A Vaudeville Hallowe'en

October 16, 2015 Innovation Impact

The Top Hat Side Show performing in Greenfield Village.

New to Hallowe’en in Greenfield Village this year is the Top Hat Side Show. Led by Andrew D'Ascenzo, a professional circus and fire performer, the vaudeville-style show features unique acts in several fields including circus, fire, sideshow, magic, and comedy. Vaudeville performances aren’t new to The Henry Ford; every summer in Greenfield Village our dramatic programs in Town Hall combine music, comedy, and dance revues that pay homage to the great music and zany humor found in vaudeville.

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The Top Hat Side Show got its start after a desire to bring the members’ individual performance styles together and take it to the next level. Their performances in Greenfield Village bring a modern day take on classic vaudeville styles, offering dramatic fire acts, magical demonstrations and sideshow feats, all wrapped in a comedic and family-friendly package.

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For Andrew, his favorite part about this type of performing is how organic the show is and how each performance can be so different from the next based on the audience’s reactions. They’ve done hundreds of shows and none of them have ever been the same.

From the Collections: Eva Tanguay in Flag-Themed Vaudeville Costume, circa 1918. THF82175

For those not familiar with the vaudeville style, Elaine Kaiser, The Henry Ford’s manager of dramatic programs, defines it as a collection of about 10-20 different performance acts presented as a complete slate of entertainment for an afternoon or evening. The majority of performers were comedians and singers, but there were also many actors, magicians, contortionists, dancers, jugglers, musicians, acrobats, and even animal acts. The performers were usually extremely charismatic and dynamic otherwise they risked being booed off the stage or never being booked again.

The time span for vaudeville is generally considered to be about 1881 to 1932. Its popularity declined when movies gained sound because then people could finally see and hear many of the beloved vaudeville performers on the big screen for a cheaper ticket price in a theater that was usually closer to home. Before the golden age of Hollywood, vaudeville was the most popular form of entertainment in the United States.

According to Elaine, vaudeville was so popular long ago for many of the same reasons today’s current television variety shows are: a chance to see an array of favorite and new performers, but in vaudeville it was live and in person, with the added benefit of a shared communal experience. Before radio and film, it was a chance to enjoy a full evening's worth of light entertainment that was high-energy and fast-paced. If you didn't like one act, you knew another act would be on in just minutes. Vaudeville was also the melting pot of performing arts and embraced cultural diversity more so than society at large during that time period.

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Back to today, Andrew thinks the vaudeville style can appeal to everyone. With its comedy and personality, performers are able to create a personal relationship with each person who sees the show. This, combined with the unique acts and suspenseful delivery, makes for a memorable time no matter what you came to see.

Lish Dorset is Social Media Manager at The Henry Ford.

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