As they take in a Broadway show from the balcony of one of New York City’s many historic theatres, two Laurier history students try to imagine what life would have been like for a vaudeville performer 100 years ago.
Vaudeville, a theatrical genre that brought magicians, jugglers, dancers and singers together in a variety-show format, spanned a period in American history from the late 1800s to the early 1930s. Pre-radio and television, vaudevillian acts became the epicentre of the country’s entertainment scene and helped shape American social culture.
David Monod, professor of modern American cultural and social history, led five students in his third-year course, American Culture and Society: 1890-1950, on a research-focused field experience to New York City over the fall reading week.
His students had the opportunity to research and write performer biographies for vaudevilleamerica.org, a website cataloguing the theatres, acts and performers of the vaudeville era in the U.S. Monod created the site as part of a 2015 Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight Grant.
“Lots of material on vaudeville exists but it is difficult to access,” says Monod. “Developing a website about this era will be a great tool for historians, as we can trace trends and patterns in early 20th-century American culture.”
With little information available online or from digital sources, Monod’s group had the unique opportunity to work with primary sources in the historic New York Public Library’s Billy Rose Theatre Archives, searching for information that could help them develop performer biographies for the site.
The task wasn’t an easy one.
Hand-written requests to view an archive had to be submitted to the archives desk. A library volunteer would then disappear to the library’s basement and scour the stacks for the requested information. It could take up to 10 minutes (a long wait by today's standards) for the requested information to come back – if it came back at all.
“We quickly learned the disappointment of spending time searching for a performer and submitting an archives request, only to be met with an empty folder,” said Erica Parnis, a third-year history major. “Our first day was full of frustration coming across archival dead ends.”
But disappointment quickly turned to excitement upon finding the sought-after information.
“To hold a document from a hundred years ago really put the work we were doing into perspective,” said Madeleine Howard, also a third-year history student. “Working from a computer can distance you from the information. Working in the archives makes the information come alive.”
Howard’s sentiments echoed Monod’s hopes for the learning outcomes of the trip.
“Students really had a chance to conduct ‘detective work’ in the archives,” he said. “It was profitable for them – it taught them patience, they learned how to use research resources, cross-reference materials and such. These are skills they can use in a variety of career paths.”
Parnis and Howard agreed with Monod’s assessment of the field experience, noting their improved research and time-management skills. Both students also applauded the active learning process that the trip provided.
“I think experiences like this are crucial,” said Parnis. “It’s important to look at primary sources, to then be able to work more efficiently with contemporary material.”
“History is important to understand because it gives us an idea of where we come from, but it can also shape where we go,” Howard said. “We have to understand the events that have happened previously because they explain the here and now.”
One of Monod’s students may just uncover the Lady Gaga or Kanye West of the vaudeville era.
While this was Monod’s first time coordinating a course field trip, they are common learning experiences at Laurier, as exemplified by recent field trips to Greece, Chile, China and Mexico.
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