Sunday, June 08, 2008

Mae West: Bloomington

MAE WEST toured for years on the vaudeville circuit, honing her skills. Archivist Bill Kemp recalls the heyday of the Majestic Theatre in Bloomington, Illinois where the Brooklyn bombshell's name on a stage bill could draw crowds. Here is his intriguing article.
• • During the height of the vaudeville era, troupes of comedians, musicians, acrobats, and actors arrived in Bloomington, Illinois by train twice weekly, bringing with them carloads of sketch props, scenery, absurdly garish costumes, and trained animals. Vaudeville, it was said, was “big businesses with a bounce.”
• • The Majestic Theatre, located at the southwest corner of East and Washington streets, was Bloomington’s largest and most successful vaudeville house. Notable entertainers who performed on its stage included MAE WEST, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Roy Rogers, and others.
• • The theater opened on 18 April 1910, and its inaugural bill — — though it included no household names — — had plenty of vaudeville punch. Opening night performers included Carl Emmy’s “$5,000 animal act” and the Holmen Brothers and their “European sensational comedy act on the horizontal bars.”
• • Built of red vitrified brick, the Majestic could hold 1,400 on the main floor and two balconies. Its opening represented nothing less than “a great epoch in the histrionic phase of the city’s life,” declared owner Maj. Max Goldberg. The interior frescoing featured “delicate pea greens, gold and old rose tints.” The “ladies’ retiring room” (with “maids in attendance”) and “gentlemen’s smoking room” were on the mezzanine.
• • The extravagance, though, could not hide one ugly aspect of life in Bloomington, Illinois: Blacks were seated separately from whites in specially designated, segregated rows.
• • In an age of horrific theater fires (in 1903, the Iroquois Theater tragedy in Chicago claimed more than 600 lives), Maj. Goldberg stressed the Majestic’s “modern and up-to-date” design that offered “utter freedom from fire, danger and panic.” There were six ground floor exits, and the balconies emptied by separate stairs and exits, with a fire escape on the exposed wall along East Street.
• • By 1910, vaudeville cards often included short films, and the Majestic included a “moving picture machine” (dubbed the Majesticscope) to show “animated photography.”
• • During its early years, Majestic tickets ranged from a high of 25 cents for reserved boxes to a low of 10 cents for the cheap seats in the balcony (or about $5.50 and $2.20 today, adjusted for inflation). In 1911, acts included King & Brown, described as “two men and a pair of legs,” or “comedy monopede acrobats.” There also was Harry Thriller, “the lad on the tables and the chairs,” and Hector, the mind-reading dog.
• • The history of the Majestic includes sublime observations of life on the vaudeville stage. To save money, the Marx Brothers ate in their dressing room, preparing a dinner of goulash cooked over a Sterno-type stove. And there was the time when an overzealous stagehand turned a too-bright spotlight on fan dancer Sally Rand, leaving little to the imagination. The next day (or so the story goes), the line for tickets stretched from the box office all the way to Front and Main streets.
• • Even in its earliest days, the Majestic faced an uphill battle against the increasing popularity of movies. By 1915, there were several small nickelodeon-type theaters in downtown Bloomington, such as the Princess at 412 N. Main St. and the Scenic at 304 N. Madison St. That year also marked the opening of the Irvin Theater in the 200 block of East Jefferson Street. This “modern photo play house,” with its impressive screen and 1,000 seats, was the largest movie theater in town. By the mid-1920s, the Majestic was the only place in town to see regularly scheduled live entertainment.
• • In November 1937, the Majestic played host to Blackstone, billed as “the world’s most mystifying magician.” His roll call of tricks included “The Spanish Fantasy” and “Girl in the Auto Tires.” Interviewed by a local news reporter, the magician also recalled an appearance 15 years earlier when Jim Tucker, a veteran Majestic stagehand, misread a lighting cue and illuminated the “vanishing horse” before it had rightly “vanished.”
• • What had vanished by the late 1930s, though, was vaudeville, which was unable to compete against movies and radio. By the late 1940s to early 1950s, the Majestic stood empty and forlorn. “Darkened with the passing of vaudeville and grown ugly out of disuse,” observed The Pantagraph in 1955.
• • The theater finally fell to the wrecking ball in April 1956. Crowds gathered to watch the old vaudeville house come down in a shower of bricks.
• • “The pigeons have lost a good home,” cracked one sidewalk wit.
• • “The old vaudevillians lost theirs a long time ago,” was the comeback from Pantagraph reporter Bill Harris.
— — Source: — —
• • Article: "End of vaudeville spelled doom for Majestic Theatre"
• • Written by: By Bill Kemp — — Archivist/Librarian, McLean County Museum of History [Illinois]
• • Published in: The Pantagraph — —
• • Published on: 7 June 2008
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• • Come up and see Mae every day online:

• • Photo:
• • Mae West • • none
• •

Mae West.

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