Friday, June 7, 2013

Ronald Probstein – Vaudeville

Vaudeville From Honest Sid

by Ronald Probstein

My father, Honest Sid, was a booker in smalltime vaudeville for a short while during its heyday before the First World War. As a boy I had gotten the idea that vaudeville was off-color but when I asked him about it, pages 22-23 of Honest Sid, he replied:

“ “Dirty? Don’t be nuts. It was cleaner than a baby’s behind.” His descriptions of vaudeville generally left me speechless. In the big-time there might be Gillette’s Monkeys, an act that included Adam and Eve, the twin bowling monkeys. Adam would make a strike or a spare and Eve acted as the pin boy, setting up the pins and returning the ball. After each play Adam ordered a drink and got progressively more drunk as the game went on until finally he tore up the alley. “Kid, you wouldn’t believe the acts I saw. Those animal ones were the craziest. Dogs that did tricks, pigs that played games, and monkeys I swear could have beat me at gin.”

Booking acts for a show required skill, although the smalltime format was patterned after the bills at the Palace. As the booker, my father set the number and kinds of acts, their balance and sequence following the Palace blueprint. It was like a fence operation, since the performers had stolen most of the acts and gags from the big time. Generally there were nine acts with one intermission. “Closing intermission” was a big act with a name star perhaps featuring the Jewish comedienne, Fanny Brice. The Marx Brothers or Will Rogers might star in the top bill following the second act after intermission. The finale was called the “chaser”, also known as “playing to the haircuts,” reflecting the last performer’s view as patrons headed up the aisle. Such line-ups would have been big-time dream shows, my father dealt with pale copies.”

If you’re going to live outside the law, you’d better be honest. This seeming paradox was the operating principle of Sid Probstein’s life. Guileless and endlessly optimistic, he was known as Honest Sid around his stomping ground of New York’s Broadway. Sid wasn’t a tough guy, or even a bad guy. He just never had the patience for the “straight” life, grinding out a living at some monotonous desk job.

He was the quintessential American dreamer, always sure that the good life was just one big score away, a man who never stopped believing in his own good luck, even when the evidence said otherwise. He had all the tools, he was charming, good-looking, quick-witted and decent, but he had an obsession he couldn’t escape.

Honest Sid is the story of an American archetype as seen through the eyes of his son, Ronald, who loved him, and who almost lost him. It follows Sid’s adventures in the world of bookies and bettors, fighters and fixers, players and suckers set against the often-romanticized backdrop of Depression-era New York. It is also the passionate tale of the great and tempestuous love between Sid and his wife Sally, and of his son Ronald whom he idolized.

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Genre – Biographies & Memoirs

Rating – PG13

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