Harry Greener, the dying ex-vaudevillian
Vaudeville was the most popular form of entertainment in America for many years until the movies supplanted live entertainment. Since there was always a big demand for entertainment, there were many men and women of mediocre talents who were able to put together some kind of vaudeville act and make a living, mostly through what they called one-night stands. They loved the life and loved the limelight. They loved meeting and mingling with others in their own profession. If they couldn't do anything else, they could buy some trained dogs, or perhaps a couple of trained seals, and let the animals provide the entertainment. The acts were all so similar that the public was getting tired of tap dancers, singers, stand-up comics, acrobats, impressionists, and the few other familiar routines. The first motion pictures were not a serious threat to vaudeville because they were technically primitive and had no big stars. But by the time The Day of the Locust was published in 1939 vaudeville was breathing its last gasp, and thousands of people like Harry Greener were struggling to survive from hand to mouth, although they never gave up their love for the limelight and would stand up and give their impressions of Burt Williams and Harry Lauder, or sing their songs, or play their banjos, or tell their stale jokes at any opportunity. Only a few talented individuals managed to survive as entertainers. These included Jack Benny, Jimmy Durante, Bob Hope, George Burns and Gracie Allen, W. C. Fields, and Abbott and Costello. The others were pathetic souls because they were mostly middle-aged and untrained for anything other than whatever they did in vaudeville. These overspecialized entertainers were like strange fish left flopping on the strand by the outgoing tide. It was another example of the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. Machinery was once again replacing people. The fact that Harry Greener is dying in Nathanael West's novel is symbolic, because vaudeville is dying and leaving him nothing to live for. When movies first made their appearance, vaudevillians kidded themselves that pictures would never replace live performers because there was some sort of mystical interaction between live people and a live audience. But the movie moguls invented the star system on the theory that people would rather watch pictures of superstars than live mediocrities in person, especially because vaudeville had nothing new to offer, only the same stale jokes and dances and acrobatics and magic tricks.