(Originally published in the San Diego Book Review.)
My father came over for lunch one day. “How’s the writing going?”
Not well. In fact, not at all. For months I’d been casting about for an idea for my next novel and coming up dry.
Dad thought he could solve this problem—and he did, but not the way he expected.
His first suggestion was a book about President Lincoln, an aspect of his life that no biographer had quite captured to my father’s satisfaction. I love Lincoln—who doesn’t? But I didn’t want to write a book about him, not to mention that the comparables would be untouchable. Team of Rivals, anyone?
“Thanks, Dad, but I don’t really think that’s the topic for me.”
His enthusiasm never dimmed as he next suggested Oliver Cromwell’s violent domination of Ireland, which was even further from my wheelhouse.
As Dad talked about how his own family had come over from Ireland to escape the famine and English repression and settled in Binghamton, New York, I was suddenly reminded of an email he’d forwarded months before from one of his cousins. Jim Stein was the family historian, and he’d sent along scans of old newspaper clippings and pictures of my Great-grandfather, Fred Delorme, in his heyday as a vaudeville song and dance man.
Vaudeville was the country’s main form of entertainment from about the 1880s to the 1920s. It consisted of seven to fifteen separate acts, everything from acrobats to animal tricks, comedians to contortionists. There were vaudeville theatres all over the country, even in small towns, until radio broadcasts and movies with sound took over the American imagination.
Vaudeville. It was perfect. And through Great-grandpa Fred, it was personal.
I began to read everything I could get my hands on—biographies, histories, thick tomes on the cutthroat business practices of the circuit owners, picture books full of performers doing all manner of entertaining and/or bizarre things. I watched movies and documentaries, and scratchy footage of acts that had ceased to exist a hundred years ago.
With help from Cousin Jim, I also researched my own vaudeville ancestry. From newspaper clippings, we know that Great-grandpa Fred appeared in numerous local shows around the area of Binghamton, New York where he lived. Over the course of thirty years, from 1904 when he was 17 to 1934 when he was almost 50, he sang, danced and acted in small time shows, all while working at the Endicott-Johnson Shoe Factory by day.
A Binghamton Press article dated July 3, 1912 says:
“As an added feature to an excellent bill which Manager Gillen has booked at the Stone Opera House, Earl Vosberg and Fred Delorme present a dancing act which they call The Scarecrow Dance. Manager Gillen is trying out the act here at the request of the United Booking Office. If it is well received, Messrs. Vosberg and Delorme will be booked for appearances in larger cities next season.”
This caught my eye right away. The United Booking Office was part of Keith-Albee, the biggest and most successful vaudeville circuit in the world, operating the most opulent theatres in every city east of the Mississippi River. This was Fred’s big break!
However, the local papers are silent for several years after that, and I’ve never been able to locate any mention of him in other news outlets. Did they flop? Or did they quit? Fred was 25 years old at this point, married with three children—maybe he didn’t want to leave them for a life on the road.
On a visit with Fred’s last living child, Great-aunt Anne Delorme Castelli, I asked her about it. She had no memory of her father’s big break. My own father says, “If Grandpa had made it to the big time, we certainly would’ve heard about it.”
In later years, he gave dance lessons, and often included his daughter, Margaret, (my grandmother) in the productions he choreographed. She, in turn, taught my father and his eight siblings the Jitterbug, Turkey Trot, and all the old standards. At 78, my father claims he’s still “got it.”
With Great-grandpa Fred’s inspiration, I wrote The Tumbling Turner Sisters, about a poverty-stricken family of four girls who go on the road as a vaudeville acrobatic act in 1919. I even used his name for one of the secondary characters.
As it awaited publication, my father and I traveled to Binghamton for Great-aunt Anne’s funeral. I took him to the ruins of the Stone Opera House, where Fred had had his big break. Its beautiful façade is still there on Chenango Street, the roof and back walls crumbling. My father grew up in Binghamton, but until then he’d never known that the Stone had been the pinnacle of his grandfather’s stage career.
There’s a photo-postcard at the top of this article of my great-grandfather with his dance partner, a promotional piece he’d have sent around to vaudeville theatres to drum up work. He appears quite young, so it must have been taken around the time he’d had his tryout at the Stone Opera House. I love how it captures him grinning slyly from under his top hat.
I often think about Great-grandpa Fred’s big break. With everything I now know about vaudeville, I’m certain he would have been out of his mind with excitement at the chance to be booked on a big-time tour. And he was just as certainly devastated that, for reasons now lost to history, it didn’t work out.
What would he think about having his name and some of his experiences borrowed by a great-grand-daughter he never met, for a novel a hundred years after his heyday? We’ll never know, of course, but I like to think it would appeal to his love of entertaining, and maybe even elicit that sly grin from the photo once again.