Vaudeville: Defined as a theatrical genre of variety entertainment in the U.S. and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s. Incorporating musicians, dancers, trained animals, magicians, female impersonators, acrobats, jugglers…you name it…but most of all, comedians.
When you look at the early days of comedy, you run into so many names that got their start in vaudeville. Abbott and Costello. Jack Benny. Milton Berle. The Marx Brothers. All the greats.
Then came the rise of broadcast radio. Then came the Great Depression. Then came talking pictures. And vaudeville soon went away.
Many of the comics that made their livelihood in vaudeville had a tough time. Some went on the road. Some found a home on radio. And many went upstate to work in the Catskill Mountains, The Borscht Belt.
The “Catskills,” about 100 miles north of New York City, and nestled in the area of the same name, were made up by a group of resorts that were made popular by Jewish vacationers, mostly from New York, New Jersey and New England. In their heyday, they were something else.
Grossingers. Brickman’s. Browns and Kutsher’s Hotel (the resort that inspired the film “Dirty Dancing) each offered all-inclusive vacations with meals and a host of activities. And many of those activities included a “Who’s Who” of comedians. Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Don Rickles, Lenny Bruce; all got their start playing these resorts.
You had to be good to play them more than once. It was a very picky audience. They were there to eat, to sun…and to laugh. And you had to be funny or you were wouldn’t last a season.
Jan Murray was no exception. Born in the Bronx as Murray Janofsky, he loved comedy and began during childhood, acting out comedy routines he’d seen at the local theatre for his bedridden mother. He was good at it.
At 18, he headed up to the Catskills and honed his craft. He was well-liked and was placed as a “Tummler,” a kind of social director with a sense of humor. He was a huge hit. Like many of the greats, he was considered a comic’s comic. Many of the bigger names would end their shows and go over to where he was playing to catch his sets. He worked that circuit for 15 years.
In the late 40’s, Vegas beckoned. By this time he’d earned a reputation as a “marquee” performer and took that reputation to Nevada, playing the biggest hotels that were reserved for the biggest stars. Sinatra loved him. Dean Martin loved him. Sammy Davis Jr. loved him. And through Ed Sullivan and the Tonight Show, much of America loved him.
He saw that the real money was in television and he soon made his way out to L.A., where he started a new chapter in his career as a game show host, the first established comedian to do so. Starting in the mid-50s, he hosted Blind Date, Dollar a Second, Treasure Hunt, The Jan Murray Show and Chain Letter and gained a huge audience. Later, he was a regular on The Hollywood Squares and even made a few forays into film. But stand-up remained his first love and he did it until he retired in 2000 at age 83. He passed away six years later.
His was a story that’s been told many times, about the beginning of stand-up comedy… and one that deserves to be remembered.
Filed Under: Featured
About the Author: Lawrence Dorfman is the bestselling author (Yeah, right) of The Snark Handbook; The Snark Handbook: Insult Edition; The Snark Handbook :Sex Edition; and the forthcoming Snark Handbook: Politics and Government Edition (really good at the whole naming thing, eh?). He honed his snark chops while working in publishing for more than 30 years. Like you really care.