Vaudeville has long, storied history in Altoona

Entertainment is an ever-evolving industry, and vaudeville is a part of that history. Now Altoona is the setting where that history will repeat itself.

“I grew up watching many of our great entertainers on TV – George Burns, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Groucho Marx – talk about how they got their start in vaudeville,” Neil Port said in an email. “It peaked my interest in finding out about that form of entertainment.”

P&J Productions, which Port co-owns with Will Jones, is presenting “Vaudeville Returns to the Mishler,” featuring the New York Variety All Stars in June.

“We thought our P&J supporters would be interested in seeing part of our entertainment history,” Port said. “When we learned that a performer who grew up in Altoona – Adam Cardone – was performing magic and vaudeville acts out of Coney Island, NY, we contacted him to see if he could bring his group to Altoona.”

The railroad helped bring vaudeville to Altoona.

“Vaudeville was a significant form of entertainment following the expansion of the railroad Industry. The Pennsylvania Railroad completed its line from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in the mid-1850s,” Port said. “Vaudeville began around 1865, and many of the shows traveled by rail – stopping along the way at places like Altoona. In many communities along the railway line, theaters were built to accommodate vaudeville performers who would do one night stops.

“Isaac Mishler built the Mishler Theater in Altoona in 1906 to present many forms of entertainment, including the vaudeville shows. So the histories of the railroad, Altoona and vaudeville are all entwined.”

Michael Farrow of Altoona, author of the not-yet-released book,”Theatres of Altoona and Blair County,” said vaudeville stemmed from the early minstrel shows of the 19th century and would eventually replace them.

Thomas Edison invented motion pictures, which caught on in the early 1900s, Farrow said. Altoona had its first movie theatre in 1905.

Films would be shown between vaudeville acts, but then it later reversed with vaudeville acts performing between the changing of film reels, Farrow said.

“Vaudeville went out of popularity around 1920 when ‘talkie’ movies were introduced,” Port said.

“It was less expensive to film these great performers than to present them live,” Port said. “Many of the vaudeville greats moved out to Hollywood to get involved with motion pictures.”

George Burns came to Altoona as a vaudeville entertainer.

“Before he took the name George Burns, he had five different names,” Farrow said. “And when he came to Altoona, he was not known by the name of George Burns.”

Farrow said he was pretty certain, according to his research for the book, that Burns performed at The Orpheum, which belonged to the Keith Vaudeville chain and the Wilmer and Vincent chain at different points in time. The chains would provide the acts.

“And he had a one-act play with a little derby hat, and he would sing these little songs and crack jokes and wave his derby hat, but he was not famous,” Farrow said.

Burns came to Altoona because a substitute was needed to fill in for another performer, and the local theater manager had called a company in New York to send a replacement, he said.

While the Mishler Theatre and other spots had vaudeville acts perform, the Orpheum Theatre in Altoona was the big local vaudeville theater of its day, Farrow said. The building -?located on 11th Street and 12th Avenue – was torn down in 1951.

Vaudeville took a hit when, at the end of World War I, an actors equity union formed in New York, Farrow said. Before that, vaudeville performers were taken advantage of by those hiring them, getting paid “next to nothing,” he said.

Once the union was formed, it put the smaller theaters out of business because they couldn’t afford to pay the performers, he said.

Vaudeville’s “heyday” was the first two decades of the 20th century, he said.

The New York Variety All-Stars are not interested in reviving vaudeville because “it never went away,” Cardone said in an email.

“We are just returning it to the places where it was meant to be and to people who have never seen this kind of show,” he said. “For us, the real joy is the look on people’s faces when they see something they have never seen before. This show must be seen live, and we promise you will laugh and be amazed and go home feeling like a kid again.”

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.