Tumbling Turner Sisters Portrays Vaudeville's Declining Years

Juliette Fay
Gallery Books, 326 pages

In the days before mass media, vaudeville was one of the closest things the United States had to popular culture.  From the 1870s through the 1920s every town and overgrown village had some venue that at least doubled as a vaudeville house, and quite a few had elaborate “opera” houses devoted to vaudeville. (The term Opera was loosely used in the 19th century.) In The Tumbling Turner Sisters, novelist Juliette Fay captures vaudeville at its lowest level: those backwoods venues, third-tier cities, and small towns where those harboring dreams of someday playing the Palace in New York or catching on with the Keith-Albee circuit cut their teeth.

For those who might not know, think of vaudeville as a PG-13 variety act.  It was a veritable potpourri: singers, dancers, sword swallowers, ventriloquists, comedians, mimes, plate twirlers, animal handlers, acrobats, and tumblers. One could show a little bit of skin and make mildly suggestive jokes, but acts had to be suitable for “ladies” and children, or the performers were welcome to ply their trade lower down the entertainment totem pole (strip shows, fairgrounds, or R-rated burlesque). Fay sets her tale in 1919–the year before Prohibition took effect–and follows the Turner family of Johnson City, New York. When the paterfamilias injures his hand and can no longer stitch shoes, his wife, Ethel, decides to whip her four daughters into a vaudeville tumbling act in order to make rent money and put mashed turnips on the table.

Ethel is the classic stage mother willing to bend her daughters to her will, their aspirations be damned. Ethel is one part flirty coquette, one part Mother Hen, and one part Minnie Marx. She certainly faces long odds, starting with the fact that her offspring’s “tumbling” had previously been confined to the occasional handstand or cartwheel. Plus, each daughter has her own burdens and dreams. Kit, the youngest, is just thirteen and must pass for sixteen, or she can’t perform; 18-year-old Gert is prone to being pigheaded and salty; 19-year-old Winnie is cerebral and hopes to go to college; and older daughter Nell is a still-lactating mother and recent widow.

Fay takes us to small-town New York and beyond–vaudeville in places where a date in Elmira would be like a trip to Paris. Hers is a circuit of four-a-day performances, cheap (and unsecure) hotels, and drug store sandwiches for sustenance. You’ll meet quite a cast of characters along the way: two kindly Jewish comics who help the Turners learn how things work, a cigar-chewing agent more cutout for being a bail bondsman, a brother/sister Italian-American act, a helpful but odd English acrobat (who was later Cary Grant!), and a brilliant African-American tap dancer for whom Gert has a dangerous attraction. And that’s not the only lurking danger; the circuit is filled with con men, smooth talkers, thieves, egotists, and fellow vaudevillians more cutthroat than helpful. If only most of the acts were as good on stage as they were at off-stage petty bickering and catty behavior. Fay chose 1919 for a reason other than the alcohol angle; vaudeville’s doom is about to take-off: movies. Can the Turners overcome the stacked deck against them? Forget rags-to-riches, can they even pay the bloody rent? Read and find out.

Caution: Fay is a much better storyteller than prose stylist. Some of the latter is downright leaden, so read this novel for what you will find out about vaudeville. Take some of the book’s ethnic convergences with a grain of salt–there is also a bit of ahistorical PC acceptance oozing from the literary pores. Vaudeville memoirs are filled with tales of camaraderie and barrier pushing, but these seldom spilled out of the hall into the hotels or homes.  The Tumbling Turners is a fast read and there’s plenty to entertain, so think of the book’s unevenness as analogous to a night of vaudeville, which was deliberately structured to hide the weakest acts.

Rob Weir

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