Navigate / search

Scholar explores vaudeville circuits and regional architecture

By Paula Lupkin

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.