Vaudeville performers ran the gamut from celebrities such as Helen Keller, Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, W. C. Fields, and Sarah Bernhardt to the Banana Man, whose act consisted of pulling large objects out of his coat. A 1913 mail-order course for hopeful performers suggested countless talents that might be developed into a vaudeville act. These included escaping from handcuffs, posing like a statue, imitating birds or simply whistling, performing feats of strength, yodeling, and reading minds.
Although vaudeville was considered a lower form of entertainment, designed for an unsophisticated audience, famous personalities often worked vaudeville circuits to keep their names before the public or to bolster failing careers. Playing a vaudeville circuit would bring the performer into contact with a vast number of people. Vaudeville performers included magicians such as Harry Houdini (who became famous for his ability to escape from handcuffs and straitjackets) and comedians such as George Burns, Bert Lahr (who later played the Cowardly Lion in the motion picture The Wizard of Oz, 1939), and the famed African American Bert Williams.
Novelty acts were also popular. These might include snake charmers, singing ducks, or dogs that could juggle. Hadji Ali was a popular “regurgitator” who swallowed a pint of kerosene and then spit it out, setting a small model house on fire. Teenage conjoined twins the Hilton Sisters played clarinet duets; the Albee Sisters sang and danced wearing evening gowns and fake mustaches.
Most vaudevillians were, like their audience, from immigrant and working-class backgrounds. If they became successful in larger vaudeville circuits (such as the Keith-Orpheum circuit) they could make two or three times the money they would earn as laborers. They often wrote their own material and designed their own costumes, sets, and props. A vaudeville performer would typically develop one act and play it over and over; the most successful created unique stage personalities and signature pieces that an audience would recognize. The best acts had “insurance”—material that was guaranteed to go over well. Enthusiasm and high energy would usually help put over an act, and speed was important. Vaudeville’s success is often attributed to the great variety and short duration of its acts. Vaudeville managers preferred wild, fast-paced comedy to serious material and would make sure no performance ran over its allotted time.