Fantastic History #56: What is Vaudeville? by Caroline Stevermer

“It’s French, therefore it is classy.”
–Frank Cullen, historian of vaudeville and variety theater, in “Stateside, part one,” an episode of the BBC Radio program “Palaces of Pleasure.”

Since Tor Books has just published my fantasy novel, The Glass Magician, which is set in vaudeville in 1905, in a New York City not our own, I’ve been asked to talk a bit about researching vaudeville for historical fantasy.

I want to discuss two questions. What is vaudeville? How is researching historical fantasy different from researching fantasy in general?

Vaudeville, my dictionary tells me, is “a stage show consisting of mixed specialty acts, including songs, dances, comic skits, acrobatic performances, etc.”

Historians don’t agree on the origin of the term. Here’s a partial transcription of historian Frank Cullen’s hypothesis:
[After the U.S. Civil War] “We had to get rid of disease, pernicious social conditions, and parallel to that, in the west, people came to town on weekends to raise hell. And as men began to settle there and prosper, they brought their families. Then came churches. The pressure was on. Now, the smart entrepreneur looked at this and said, ‘Okay I’ve got gambling, prostitution, booze, and entertainment. Entertainment is not causing me any trouble, and I can get away with the booze.’ So the next level after that was to establish themselves as something classy. Entrepreneurs went over to Europe and they saw ‘vaudeville’ on a marquee and they thought ‘That is a classy name! It’s French, therefore it is classy.’ And that’s my theory of the eventual but wholesale adoption of the term vaudeville in place of the benighted term variety.”

My protagonist is a young woman stage magician performing on the vaudeville circuit. In 1905, vaudeville was respectable family entertainment, suitable for women and children. So, New York City in 1905, stage magic in general and at the time, life in vaudeville, and travel from city to city on the vaudeville circuit — these were all research topics I tackled when I began this project. I used primary sources, secondary scholarship, and everything Penn and Teller had on Netflix at the time.

As I am writing the novel’s sequel, set in California in 1906, I’m still interested in those research topics. I am still working with primary sources and secondary scholarship. But sometimes I get lucky.

While writing this blog post, I had the chance to listen to three episodes of the “Palace of Pleasure” radio series, hosted by Geoffrey Wheeler, available on BBC Radio’s iPlayer. Most episodes of this radio program concern the history of music hall entertainment in the U.K. or Europe, but there are three “Stateside” episodes, which address vaudeville and variety entertainment in the United States. My transcription of part of Frank Cullen’s contributions is from the first those three episodes.

It’s pure luck that iPlayer granted me access to those episodes at this time. If you’re interested in researching vaudeville, I hope you’re able to access them when you read this blog post, because the BBC program archive is gigantic and things cycle in and out of iPlayer all the time.

How is researching historical fantasy different from researching fantasy in general?

Most of historical fantasy research is no different from non-fiction research. I prefer primary sources when I can get them. Firsthand accounts bring the setting to life for me. Where possible, I like to read newspapers or magazines published at the time and in the place I’m concerned with. As I’m a visual person, visual media help me enormously. (I particularly recommend as an online resource for period photographs.) Recordings are as evocative. “Palace of Pleasure: Stateside” contains a wonderful sampler of music as well as interviews with performers who worked in vaudeville at the beginning of their career.

When doing research for historical fantasy, however, one often comes across evocative facts that open doors to possibility in the story or close them off. In researching The Glass Magician, I came across the name of a business I found so evocative that I used it in almost every draft of the novel. It sounded right. It was right — a business of that name existed at the right place in the right time period. However, that business still exists to the present day. Using the name of the business, while authentic, would risk jerking a reader who knew the business in a real-world context out of the story. (Using the name of an actual business would probably be foolish on more practical levels, but that’s the one that concerned me.)

Still, I was in love with that particular business. It served an intrinsic role in the story. So I kept the business, but changed the name. I don’t like the invented name half as well as the real name. But I’ve learned to respect that internal process so mysterious to me, which determines what research has to be in the novel and what research can be left out.

I respect the mystery of research. But I also respect the luck of research. Finding the right fact at the right time is often pure serendipity. But if I’m not looking, I will never notice when I find it.


Caroline Stevermer writes fantasy novels and shelters in place in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Fantastic History #55: It’s Alive! by Catherine Schaff-Stump

In April, I am debuting a very different series than my usual dark Gothic fare. Abigail Rath Versus Bloodsucking Fiends, the intrepid monster hunting adventures of Abby Rath and her best friend Vince Cooper, is the start of a series set in contemporary(ish) Los Angeles. It wouldn’t seem like I needed to do historical research for this kind of book, but I had to learn a lot about Hollywood B-movies, horror actor culture, and the realm of a certain kind of horror film.

Where to start? I was inspired to write about Abby and her adventures largely because I live with a horror fan. My husband Bryon has entire shelves in his den devoted to historical horror books and films. Make no mistake–he’s not a slasher fan. He has no time for Michael Myers. Not that there’s anything wrong with Michael Myers (okay, there is a lot wrong with Michael Myers), but what Bryon likes is horror that’s a bit noir, or a bit creepy, or even a bit campy (okay, a lot campy, if you take into account some of the Hammer Studios and Roger Corman Poe films he watches). There was something about those films and the spirit with which they were made that has not been recaptured in current horror cinema, although I think Sam Raimi recaptured some of it in his Deadite films.

In my book, Abby Rath’s father is Reginald Rath, vampire killer, a direct parallel to Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing. Peter Cushing was super tough as Van Helsing. In The Brides of Dracula (1960) he actually burns a vampire bite out of his neck with a red hot poker. One of the great joys of writing Abby is that she actually uses real movie titles mixed with ones that I’ve made up. In the climatic scene of the book, Abby and Vince use inspiration once again from The Brides of Dracula, but at the same time, Abby spouts off about totally fictional movies whose titles are in the spirit of these old films, such as Lucifer’s Gladiators or Wolfman! Wolfman!, the werewolf musical.

Being a monster movie buff convincingly is what part of the book is about. The other part is Abby’s mistaken belief that her father’s films are a real life guide for how to kill monsters. In Abby’s world, her parents fight the good fight against the forces of darkness every day, and to be like them is her goal, but she only knows what knowledge she has gleaned from her dad’s films. This part of the book draws not only from Hollywood, but also from the folklore of various monsters and mythos. And, it goes without saying Abby has to learn a lot about how to deal with monsters and how to coexist.

Abigail Rath Versus Bloodsucking Fiends will be available April 20th, and the second in the series, Abigail Rath Versus Mad Science is well under the revision scalpel. Just like the first book plays with Universal and B-movie monster tropes, Mad Science flirts with Frankenstein, freeze rays, and giant robots. It’s a great deal of fun playing fast and lose with pop culture.