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Old Days And New Post by :adamb Category :Essays Author :Carl Van Vechten Date :October 2011 Read :2461

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Old Days And New

Some toothless old sentimentalist or other periodically sets up a melancholy howl for "the good old days of comic opera," whatever or whenever they were. Perhaps none of us, once past forty, is guiltless in this respect. Nothing, not even the smell of an apple-blossom from the old homestead, the sight of a daguerreotype of a miss one kissed at the age of ten, or a taste of a piece of the kind of pie that "mother used to make" so arouses the sensibility of a man of middle age as the memory of some musical show which he saw in his budding manhood. That is why revivals of these venerable institutions are frequently projected and, some of them, very successfully accomplished. When a manager revives an old drama he must appeal to the interest of his audience; it may not be the identical interest which held the original spectators of the piece spell-bound, but, none the less, it must be an interest. When a manager revives an old musical comedy he appeals directly to sentiment.

Of course, the exact date of the good old days is a variable quantity. I have known a vain regretter to turn no further back than to the nights of The Merry Widow, The Waltz Dream, The Chocolate Soldier, The Girl in the Train, and The Dollar Princess, in other words to the Viennese renaissance; another, in using the phrase, is subconsciously conjuring up pictures of La Belle Helene, Orphee aux Enfers, or La Fille de Madame Angot, good fodder for memory to feed on here; a third will instinctively revert to the Johann Strauss operetta period, the era of The Queen's Lace Handkerchief and Die Fledermaus; a fourth cries, "Give us Gilbert and Sullivan!" A fifth, when his ideas are chased to their lair, will rhapsodize endlessly over the charms of the London Gaiety when The Geisha, The Country Girl, and The Circus Girl were in favour; a sixth, it seems, finds his pleasure in Americana, Robin Hood, Wang, The Babes in Toyland, and El Capitan; a seventh becomes maudlin to the most utter degree when you mention Les Cloches de Corneville, or La Mascotte, products of a decadent stage in the history of French opera-bouffe. Not long ago I heard a man speak of the cadet operas in Boston (did a man named Barnet write them?) as the last of the great musical pieces; and every one of you who reads this essay will have a brother, or a son, or a friend who went to see Sybil forty-three times and The Girl from Utah seventy-six. Twenty years from now, as he sits before the open fire, the mere mention of They Wouldn't Believe Me will cause the tears to course down his cheeks as he pats the pate of his infant son or daughter and weepingly describes the never-to-be-forgotten fascination of Julia Sanderson, the (in the then days) unattainable agility of Donald Brian.

In no other form of theatrical entertainment is the appeal to softness so direct. The man who attends a performance of a musical farce goes in a good mood, usually with a couple of friends, or possibly with the girl. If he has dined well and his digestion is in working order and he is young enough, the spell of the lights and the music is irresistible to his receptive and impressionable nature. There are those young men, of course, who are constant attendants because of the altogether too wonderful hair of the third girl from the right in the front row. Others succumb to the dental perfection of the prima donna or to the shapely legs of the soubrette. All of us, I am almost proud to admit, at some time or other, are subject to the contagion. I well remember the year in which I considered myself as a possible suitor for the hand of Della Fox. Photographs and posters of this deity adorned my walls. I was an assiduous collector of newspaper clippings referring to her profoundly interesting activities, although my sophistication had not reached the stage where I might appeal to Romeike for assistance. The mere mention of Miss Fox's name was sufficient cause to make me blush profusely. Eventually my father was forced to take steps in the matter when I began, in a valiant effort to summon up the spirit of the lady's presence, to disturb the early morning air with vocal assaults on She Was a Daisy, which, you will surely remember, was the musical gem of The Little Trooper. Here are the words of the refrain:

"She was a daisy, daisy, daisy!
Driving me crazy, crazy, crazy!
Helen of Troy and Venus were to her cross-eyed crones!
She was dimpled and rosy, rosy, rosy!
Sweet as a posy, posy, posy!
How I doted upon her, my Ann Jane Jones!"

You will admit, I think, at first glance, the superior literary quality of these lines; you will perceive at once to what immeasurably higher class of art they belong than the lyrics that librettists forge for us today.

Wall Street broker, poet, green grocer, soldier, banker, lawyer, whatever you are, confess the facts to yourself: you were once as I. You have suffered the same feelings that I suffered. Perhaps with you it was not Della Fox.... Who then? Did saucy Marie Jansen awaken your admiration? Was pert Lulu Glaser the object of your secret but persistent attention? How many times did you go to see Marie Tempest in The Fencing Master, or Alice Nielsen in The Serenade? Was Virginia Earle in The Circus Girl the idol of your youth or was it Mabel Barrison in The Babes in Toyland? Theresa Vaughn in 1492, May Yohe in The Lady Slavey, Hilda Hollins in The Magic Kiss, or Nancy McIntosh in His Excellency? Madge Lessing in Jack and the Beanstalk, Edna May in The Belle of New York, Phyllis Rankin in The Rounders, or Gertrude Quinlan in King Dodo?

What do you whistle in your bathtub when you are in a reminiscent mood? Is it The Typical Tune of Zanzibar, or Baby, Baby, Dance My Darling Baby, or Starlight, Starbright, or Tell Me, Pretty Maiden, or A Simple Little String, or J'aime les Militaires (if you whistle this, ten to one your next door neighbour thinks you have been to an orchestra concert and heard Beethoven's Seventh Symphony), or Sister Mary Jane's Top Note, or A Wandering Minstrel I, or See How It Sparkles, or the Lullaby from Erminie, which Pauline Hall used to sing as if she herself were asleep, and which Emma Abbott interpolated in The Mikado, or A Pretty Girl, A Summer Night, or the Policeman's Chorus from The Pirates of Penzance, or The Soldiers in the Park, or My Angeline, or the Letter Song from The Chocolate Soldier, or I'm Little Buttercup, or the Gobble Song from The Mascot, or the Anna Song from Nanon, or the march from Fatinitza, or I'm All the Way from Gay Paree, or Love Comes Like a Summer Sigh, or In the North Sea Lived a Whale, or Jusqu'la, or The Harmless Little Girlie With the Downcast Eyes, or They All Follow Me, or The Amorous Goldfish, or Don't Be Cross, or Slumber On, My Little Gypsy Sweetheart, or Good-bye Flo, or La Legende de la Mere Angot, or My Alamo Love?

There is a very subtle and fragrant charm about these old recollections which the sight or sound of a score, a view of an old photograph of Lillian Russell or Judic, or a dip in the Theatre Complet of Meilhac and Halevy will reawaken. But it is only at a revival of one of our old favourites that we can really bathe in sentimentality, drink in draughts of joy from the past, allow memory full away. You whose hair is turning white will be in Row A, Seat No. 1 for the first performance of a revival of Robin Hood. You will not hear Edwin Hoff in his original role; Jessie Bartlett Davis is dead and, alas, Henry Clay Barnabee is no longer on the boards, but the newcomers, possibly, are respectable substitutes and the airs and lines remain. You can walk about in the lobby and say proudly that you attended the first performance of the opera ever so long ago when operettas had tune and reason. "Yes sir, there were plots in those days, and composers, and the singers could act. Times have certainly changed, sir. Come to the corner and have a Manhattan.... There were no cocktails in those days.... There is no singer like Mrs. Davis today!"

Well the poor souls who cannot feel tenderly about a past they have not yet experienced have their recompenses. For one thing I am certain that the revivals of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas to which De Wolf Hopper devoted his best talents were better, in many respects, than the original London productions; just as I am equally certain that the representations of Aida at the Metropolitan Opera House are way ahead of the original performance of that work given at Cairo before the Khedive of Egypt.

Then there is the musical revue, a form which we have borrowed from the French, but which we have vastly improved upon and into which we have poured some of our most national feeling and expression. The interpretation of these frivolities is a new art. Gaby Deslys may be only half a loaf compared to Marie Jansen, but I am sure that Elsie Janis is more than three-quarters. Frank Tinney and Al Jolson can, in their humble way, efface memories of Digby Bell and Dan Daly. Adele Rowland and Marie Dressler have their points (and curves). Irving Berlin, Louis A. Hirsch, and Jerome Kern are not to be sniffed at. Neither is P. G. Wodehouse. Harry B. Smith we have always with us: he is the Sarah Bernhardt of librettists.

Joseph Urban has wrought a revolution in stage settings for this form of entertainment. Louis Sherwin has offered us convincing evidence to support his theory that the new staging in America is coming to us by way of the revue and not through the serious drama. Melville Ellis, Lady Duff-Gordon, and Paul Poiret have done their bit for the dresses. In fact, my dear young man--who are reading this article--you will feel just as tenderly in twenty years about the Follies of 1917 as your father does now about Wang. Only, and this is a very big ONLY, the Follies of 1917, depending as it does entirely on topical subjects and dimpled knees, cannot be revived. Fervid and enlivening as its immediate impression may be it cannot be lasting. You can never recapture the thrills of this summer by sitting in Row A, Seat No. 1 at any 1937 reprise. There can never be anything of the sort. The revue, like the firefly, is for a night only. We take it in with the daily papers ... and the next season, already old-fashioned, it goes forth to show Grinnell and Davenport how Mlle. Manhattan deported herself the year before.

So if the youth of these days chooses to be sentimental in the years to come over the good old days of Urban scenery and Olive Thomas, the Balloon Girls of the Midnight Frolic and the chorus of the Winter Garden, he will be obliged to give way to the mood at home in front of the fire, see the pictures in the smoke, and hear the tunes in the dropping of the coals. Which is perhaps as it should be. For in 1937 the youth of that epoch can sit in Row A, Seat No. 1 himself and not be ousted from his place by a sentimental gentleman of middle age who longs to hear Poor Butterfly again.

April 25, 1917.

(The end)
Carl Van Vechten's essay: Old Days And New

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