It Takes a Vaudevillage

Los Angeles Times




In a variety show, In a each act brings something to the whole. To interest young people in how it used to be done, the Lazer troupe juggles traditional physical skills with modern technical wizardry.

By Corinne Flocken


Kids as well as their grandparents may love Lazer Vaudevilles mix of old- fashioned feats and 90s special effects, but the dead guys in the balcony can be tough critics.

“Sometimes when we play the old music halls and vaudeville houses, you can just feel the ghosts of old vaudevillians watching us,” said company founder Carter Brown, a former Ringling Bros. Clown who brings his Ocala, Fla.-based international touring troupe of three to La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts on Sunday.

“I think theyre excited to see these old acts come back. But,” he added with a laugh, “if they dont like something, they let you know.”

Like that time in Carson City, Nev…Brown claims a cast member preparing for a show was dogged by the ghost of an old stage manager. Brown figures the spirit was miffed by the man using roller-blades to move around the stage more quickly.

“The ghost just kept picking on him during the whole setup,” claimed brown. “He ended up tripping the poor guy right into the backstage wall.”

Then there was that theater in New London, Conn., where stage rigging that Brown swore was securely fastened repeatedly came undone and flew over the stage at odd moments during a performance. He pinned the mischief on “a bunch of dead opera singers that probably didnt like vaudeville anyway.”

The American form of vaudeville began in the 1880s as free variety shows offered by saloon owners to attract customers. Juggling, animal acts, comedians and magicians were typical in a vaudeville lineup. Its popularity waned in the late 1920s with the development of talking motion pictures.

Brown, 36, clowned with Ringling Bros. And Barnum & Bailey in 1981-82 and then spent four years performing and designing for Carden International Circus, a Missouri-based circus.

By the mid-1980s, he said, he felt that audiences were ready for a show that embraced the best elements of circus and vaudeville with the technical wizardry of contemporary lighting and sound effects. He was admiring the lighting at a John Mellencamp concert in the mid-80s when it hit him. “I thought, Why couldnt we do all this cool stuff in a theater? Not like Vegas with a bunch of topless dancers or the circus with the big pageantry and elephants and stuff, but in the warmth of the theater where we can really showcase these old vaudeville-style acts?”

A vaudevillian, by Browns definition, is “a multifaceted entertainer who can make people laugh and smile and cry and gawk.”

The one-hour show coming to La Mirada tries to cover all those bases. It features juggling by Cindy Marvell, a former Pickle Family Circus member and the first woman to win the International Juggling Assn.s championship (in 1989), in an act patterned after Trixie LaRue, a top female juggler of the 1930s to 50s, Brown said. Jeff Taub, a graduate of the Blue Lake (Calif.) School of Physical Theatre, performs slapstick comedy that Brown says is reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

The 90s effects include a battle between a laser-wielding wizard and a monster; black-light enhanced rope spinning and juggling acts; a floating crystal ball, and “Geospheres,” a scene that Brown says combines elements of the black-light puppetry troupe the Famous People Players and the contortionist/illusionist skills of modern-movement troupe Mumenschanz.

Browns hoop-rolling act, in which he juggles and rolls more than 10 hoops of varying sizes, is a slice of vaudeville history. He learned about it while still in clown college in 1980 and became intrigued by the idea of reviving it.

“The last guy in the U.S. to do this was a man named Ray Wilburt, who died in the 1960s,” he explained. “There was one other guy in Germany doing hoops, but hes retired now, so Im the only hoop juggler in the world today.”

Brown developed his technique by looking at film clips and interviews with retired vaudeville performers. He practiced during warm-ups with Ringling and refined his solo act for several years – ultimately performing it in Monte Carlos famed Festival du Cirque. He said hes been approached to do his hoop act for Cirque du Soleil, but he turned them down to concentrate on launching Lazer Vaudeville.

Brown uses two sets of hoops in his act: a collection of antique bicycle rims that belonged to Wilburt and a set of lighter, fiberglass hoops he uses strictly for juggling. By controlling the spin and velocity of the hoops, Brown sends them rolling in complex patterns across the stage, turning, circling, making figure eights and ultimately landing, like trained dogs, in a cage at center stage.

The way Brown sees it, a marriage between modern technology and acts that are in some cases more than 100 years old is a match made in entertainment heaven.

The special effects “only enhance what is already phenomenal talent and phenomenal acts,” he said. “Our show reaches beyond the grave to bring the spirit of old vaudeville back to life.”