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Scholar explores vaudeville circuits and regional architecture

Paula Lupkin, a professor in the American Culture Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis, recently spent time as a fellow working in the Hoblitzelle-Interstate collection at the Ransom Center. Her research yielded some surprises and insights into the regional vaudeville circuits in the Southwest, which she shares here.

When I arrived at the Ransom Center to take up the Mayer Filmscript Fellowship, my intention was simple: to learn as much as possible about the design and use of the fabulous vaudeville theaters designed by architect John Eberson for the Interstate Amusement Company in Texas. These theaters are an important component in my study of regional architecture in the Southwest at the turn of the twentieth century.

Many of them are no longer extant, and it was essential to find period photography and documentation of the buildings themselves. The Center is home to the Hoblitzelle-Interstate collection, which has the most complete photographic record of the theaters, as well as accounts of their planning, construction, programming, and management. Right away I found wonderful pictures, theater programs, and company records that suggested how and why the buildings looked as they did. Through these materials I learned a great deal about these fantastical structures, which included themed interiors, starlit skies, luxurious lounges, and even child care centers.

To an architectural historian, these archival sources were rich indeed, but they were not the greatest treasure I found during my fellowship month. After about a week, I came across something that transformed and enriched the way I think about those theaters: a 1912 program for Interstate’s southwestern vaudeville circuit.

Of course I knew about circuits before I saw this pamphlet. From the first day in the archives, the company’s business records made it clear that the theater buildings were only one part of Interstate’s system of delivering talent to the public in a profitable and efficient way. The company assembled talent into programs of entertainment, known as “bills,” and then sent the acts on a railroad journey from theater to theater. Some were the elaborate venues designed by Eberson, but equally important were the smaller towns and more modest opera houses that allowed performers to travel profitably the long distances between places in this region, with regularly spaced “jumps” between gigs. The circuit was an experience designed from a business perspective to make efficient use of the existing rail lines to offer as many shows as possible on consecutive nights.

With this basic knowledge of the vaudeville circuit, I began to see that Interstate’s theaters were more than a regional group of buildings linked by a common architect and ownership; they served as a series of nodes within an entertainment transportation system. Interstate’s building activity was not restricted to theaters; the company was constructing patterns and systems of movement along the Illinois Central, the Frisco, the KATY, and the Missouri Pacific Railroads.

The 1912 pamphlet I found crystallized and confirmed this rereading of the history of theatrical architecture. This clever piece of ephemera presented Interstate and its southwestern vaudeville circuit in the guise of a railroad system. The red cover introduced “The Interstate Line” as “the Route of Superior Attractions.” As was typical in railway literature of the time, the name of the president and local agents of both the national and local officials of the company are listed in the brochure. The “railway” president was the company president, Karl Hoblitzelle. The “traffic manager” is listed as Cecilia Bloom, the company’s booking agent. For each city on the circuit, the local theater manager is listed as the “city passenger agent.” The week’s entertainment bill is presented as a special train, “The Interstate Flyer,” which leaves from Chicago and runs in seven sections (acts) to Fort Worth, and then on to the rest of the cities on the circuit.

With this pamphlet in hand, as it became clear to me that the Interstate Company envisioned itself not as a series of theaters, but an infrastructural system and a space-time experience that united performers and audiences across the southwest. Actors traversed the territory in a series of rail cars, dressing rooms, hotels, and restaurants, playing to urban audiences in theaters in Little Rock, Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Galveston, and Birmingham. The performers and audiences were linked together, defining a regional entertainment landscape.

My newfound understanding of the theaters as part of the railroad-based geography of the vaudeville circuit fits very well into my developing project, “The Great Southwest: Trade, Territory, and Regional Architecture.” Most studies of regional architecture focus on formal and material similarities between buildings in a particular location. My project moves away from style and suggests instead that regional architectural patterns are formed by banking, commerce, and transportation networks. Looking at the triangular strip of land between St. Louis and Texas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I map financial and architectural connections between buildings and sites along the conduits of the railway lines.

What I found in the Hoblitzelle-Interstate collection helped me understand that these buildings are regional not on the basis of their appearance, but as elements of a regional entertainment system: like beads strung along a necklace. The “Interstate Line” brochure encapsulated that in a series of images, confirming that my own way of understanding the theaters was shared by the company itself, and no doubt by the vaudeville performers themselves, whose lives and experiences were defined by movement from theater to theater on the spine of the railroad system.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

Comments

joseph Lupkin
Reply

a fascinating and impressive piece of research ……..

…..and as usual…….very readable !

Jennifer Warren
Reply

As the official historian of the Waco Hippodrome Theater,
originally known on the vaudeville circuit as the Hippodrome Theater, I would be most interested in discussing vaudeville history with Ms. Lupkin as the theater was a member of the Interstate-Hoblitzelle line.

If someone could please have her contact me, I would really appreciate discussing vaudeville history in more detail with her.

Sincerely,
Jennifer Warren
Hippodrome Historian and
Board Member, Waco History Project
Waco, TX

Paul Martin
Reply

I recently found a pair of ticket stubs in the breast pocket of an unidentified WW-I officer’s tunic. They were for the Majestic Thater (city unknown), Diamond Cicle Box for the November 11 (year unknown) 8:30 perfomance. The stamped price was $1.10 each. The back of the tickets had the disclaimer “This ticket is sold to ladies with the undertsanding that they are to remove their hats.” An interesting commentary on society and fashion of the time. Any clues or leads as to a more specific date or venue for these? I can furnish images if needed.

Paul Martin
Curator of Collections
USAF Academy, Colorado

Denise Patterson
Reply

My mother was in vaudeville for about ten years. I have an album of photos if interested.

Jeanette Howeth Crumpler
Reply

In 2003 I wrote “Street of Dreams, A History of Dallas’ Theatre Row” detailing the entertainment history of Dallas and the advent of vaudeville, silent movies, then sound and the “palace” type of theatres which became the hub of downtown life for decades. Hoblitzelle’s Interstate Company was an essential part of all of that. Also included in the book are all of the theatre organs and the players and their importance as an adjacent and exciting part of it also. I love the history of many of the theatres in cities all over the U.S. as well as their architecture, the activities and more that went on in them and their impact on society. Always happy to see any interest or work done about this kind of thing.

Jeanette Howeth Crumpler
Reply

Sadly my book “Street of Dreams” is out of print. It sold out very quickly and at present I don’t have plans to update & publish it again. I also wrote “The Theatre Organ Murders” which is still available and covers some of the same history but on a much smaller scale and with no pictures. It does have an updated list of all of the downtown theatres that were here in Dallas, Texas and importantly the complete history of the most famous theatre organ that was here in Dallas, “The Palace Publix Wurlitzer”.

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