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Vaudeville Was Not A Place!

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Will Ahern creator of Will Ahern’s Rainbow Rehearsal Studio in Hollywood, Calif.
Photos provided by Real To Reel.

Eddie Parks of Coogan & Parks Orpheum.
Photo by Real To Real.

Will & Gladys Ahern in a Spinning Romance.
Photo by ReaL TO Real.
Step, Ball, Change, Flap, Step: A Trip To Will Ahern’s Famous Rainbow Rehearsal Studio In L.A. Brought Back Memories Of Vaudeville And, Ironically, The Scent of Garlic

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

Nov. 9, 2015 — The hard-driven finger plunks of stride piano played in counterpoint to the steel tones of Capezios in a tap dance, drifted down the steps of Will Ahern’s Rainbow Rehearsal Studio in Hollywood, Calif., as we bounded up. The delightful sounds, however, didn’t mesh well with the waft of garlic from Palermo’s Pizzeria right next door.

“Entertainers come to my studio to train in hopes of making it big in show business,” Ahern quipped. “They might as well start with the quality of the air around here; they’ll face audiences just as bad!”

Ahern’s studio was located on Yucca Street, a block north of the fabled intersection of Hollywood and Vine and a stone’s throw from the Capitol Records Tower which, back in 1980, seemed to loom over everything with architecture that looked like records stacked on a turntable.

When we visited, Ahern was a small, cuddly, silver-haired man with an elfin twinkle in his eye and a smile as infectious as one of Santa Claus’ helpers. He had a rhythm in his speech and urgency in his manner. It was his habit to entertain “at the drop of a hat” and to dazzle with his treasured lore of playing the Orpheum Vaudeville Circuit.

We were pushovers.

Showbiz started for Ahern in 1909 in Waterbury, Conn., where Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was performing for four days. He was a water-boy, slept in hay in a railroad flatcar, and got kicked in the pants by a mule with rubber horseshoes — all for a dollar a day.

“I remember Annie Oakley used to shoot skeet with a shotgun,” Ahern said. “She would always spray the crowd with spent buckshot.”

Ahern (who was born in Waterbury in 1896) was so mesmerized that he ran away with the show and learned how to twirl a rope. He made his vaudeville debut in 1913 at the Lyric Theater in Bridgeport, Conn.

“When I got older I did a sort of Will Rogers act in vaudeville. I would tie knots in my lariat, and with each knot I would repeat: ‘I’m not a cowboy, I am a cowboy’ … I’ve been roping for 71 years.”

It was a long career that included more than a few milestones. “I performed for President Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles Peace Conference after World War I (after serving a stint in the Navy). I made films with Mary Pickford in 1913. And I played the Palace Theater (vaudeville’s Holy Grail) in New York City,” Ahern said.

But admittedly, Ahern’s greatest achievement came when he “lassoed” his wife Gladys into tying the matrimonial knot. They met in Chicago in 1919, formed an act and had been married for more than 50 years when we met.

“On the Orpheum Circuit we were billed as ‘Will & Gladys Ahern in a Spinning Romance.’ My wife did a toe dance inside my rope while I twirled it, then we both danced in it. That was back in 1921.”

In their fast-paced 12-minute act, the Aherns pulled out all the stops in song, dance and comedy shtick to entertain.

“I sang ‘Rancho Grande’ with a sombrero hat on my head,” Ahern said. “Gladys would come onstage, take my hat off and exclaim: ‘I, Chiquita, will do the bolero/yes, I’m going to do that/and dance with my beau’s sombrero/I will have the need of a hat.’ I would grab it back from her; she would grab it from me and so on. I would then say: ‘Who are you?’ My wife would reply: ‘I am Dona Jose Maria Lopez Dias Estado. That is my given name’ I would tell her, ‘You should give it back!’”

Bahrump-bump!

Nothing in show biz is as topical to its given time (or ages as rapidly) as humor, and Will and Gladys’ antediluvian repartee groans quite a bit after being vacuum-sealed in a comedy pickle jar for nearly 100 years. But it was a more naïve, gentler era when popular entertainment was synonymous with family entertainment; and vaudeville was as all-American and “G-rated” as nine innings of baseball.

For many people today, the word vaudeville itself might be easily mistaken for a single stoplight town in North Dakota or maybe images of a loud-mouthed performer with more nerve than talent. In reality, vaudeville as a force died in the 1930s, replaced by the easier access of movies and radio. It remained vivid only in the crystal-clear memories of a handful of men like Ahern, a fast-vanishing breed in the 1980s.

Vaudeville was perhaps the best leisure time deal of the late 19th and early 20th century. For around 15 cents, the fluctuating cost of a balcony seat, one could while away three hours with seven acts of some of the greatest traveling entertainment in the country. From the Kita Banzai Jap Acrobatic Family to Ethel Barrymore in a one-act dramatic “playlet,” vaudeville had something for everyone.

In the course of his own coast-to-coast travels on the Orpheum Circuit, Ahern acquired invaluable theatrical seasoning that performers in the 1980s, much less now, couldn’t get anywhere else. From Wahpeton, N.D. to New York City, he played to every kind of audience and pandered to most mentalities.

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