Cumberland Times-News

James Rada - Looking Back

October 2, 2012

Vaudeville shows predated movies in Queen City theaters

Before movies, Cumberland’s theaters hosted vaudeville shows. These were live theatrical performances similar to a television variety show. Performances might include musicians, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, male and female impersonators, acrobats, jugglers and one-act plays. Vaudeville shows were popular from the 1880s to the early 1930s, when talking movies became commonplace.

Harry Crandall, who owned theaters in Washington, D.C., opened the Strand Theatre at South Liberty and Pershing streets on Sept. 3, 1920, at the height of the vaudeville age. In May 1923, the Cumberland Evening Times announced that the Keith Vaudeville Show would be coming to the Strand and would be the “most expensive attraction of its kind ever shown in Cumberland.”

The Strand was one of a number of Cumberland theaters that staged live shows. Some of the other theaters that also did were the Maryland, Liberty, Majestic and Merryland Park.

Benjamin Franklin Keith produced the Keith Vaudeville Show. Keith got his start as a circus barker. His success allowed him to purchase a theater. He presented shows in his theater that allowed him to purchase more theaters and produce traveling shows. When vaudeville gave way to movies, so did Keith. He became the “K” in “R.K.O.” movies.

The show was coming to town to raise funds for the Dramatic Order Knights of Khorassan, a fraternal order associated with the Knights of Pythias. The Knights of Khorassan were also known as Dokkies, which comes from the organization’s initials, D.O.K.K.

The Keith Vaudeville Show came to Cumberland for six days. It was actually two different shows. One show was performed twice a day the first three days of the week. On Thursday, the show changed for the final three days.

The first set of performers included:

• Vera Burt, Saxi Holtsworth and their Harmony Hounds in “a lively melange of song and dance.”

• The Clinton Sisters doing interpretive costumed dancing.

• Ann Gray, a harpist and vocalist who was an “international artist who has appeared before Princess Mary on nine occasions.”

• John R. Gordon and Co. doing a comedy sketch.

• Saxon and Griffin performing a farcical skit.

• William and Mary Rogers, “Literary Di-Jesters,” which featured comedy and songs.

• Beege and Qupee who combined “speed, grace, skill and novelty” roller skating.

Shows were twice a day. Matinee seats cost 50 cents and evening show seats cost $1 for one on the balcony or $1.50 for orchestra seats.

“It was an ambitious venture to bring this expensive aggregation here, but judging from the effect yesterday, it would seem that the Dokkies have a paying investment and that their benefit week should net them a goodly sum over and above expenses, which are very large,” according to the Cumberland Evening Times.

When the shows switched on Thursday, the new performers were:

• Melody and Steps, a song and dance revue.

• Harry Breen who was a singing comedian and songwriter.

• Hyams and Evans performed a comedy skit called “The Quakeress.”

• Leo Beers, the well-known international entertainer.

• Conlin and Glass performed a musical comedy skit.

• Mignon who was a “dainty little mimic.”

• Dixon, Lynch and Cins who performed a comedy skit.

The extravaganza was considered a great success. “The Dramatic Order Knights of Khorassan put on one of the most stupendous weeks of high-class amusement ever attempted here,” the Cumberland Evening Times reported.

The Strand Theatre switched to showing movies after vaudeville died. The final movie was shown in September 1972. When it closed, the Strand was the last operating theater in Cumberland.

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