A talk on the lost art of Vaudeville
Local actor will tell his story at Think Again discussion Thursday
Vaudeville isnt something most people know much about any more. But for Tom Gressler, it was the first act of his life.
We didnt want to go on stage but my father said, Yes you will, because he wanted to go into Vaudeville, Gressler said. At 12 years old, Gressler and his older brother were joined by a cousin and neighbor to create an act. Somehow some sort of magic happened that whatever we did, which wasnt much believe me, was entertaining to people. Kid acts were big too at the time. One thing lead to another and an agent said you need to go on the Ed Sullivan Show.
And they did, as well as travelling when they could around the East Coast, performing one-night events for the next 10 years.
We were all still in school so it was one-night gigs at a time, usually, sometimes we had to skip school, he said. I was really torn. It was really nice to be applauded, the travel sucked, but I really liked school and I wanted to play football, so I was torn.
In 1960, he was a junior in college and the group finally disbanded, each member going a different direction.
We were called a novelty musical act so we did almost no straight songs because none of us were singers, none of us really knew music either, but we knew enough to be dangerous, Gressler said. So the quartet would perform comedic songs, unique songs or popular songs with their own take on them. It was very different. We did a lot of comedy skits we made up, we didnt dance (because) we couldnt dance. It was often a combination of all those things. Most of our routines were a little bit of this, little bit of that and it was fun.
Gressler will share his story as a part of the Think Again Series at the Chehalem Cultural Center.
Hes a great storyteller and whats exciting to me is his stories offer a view of a time and an art form that is something of the past, said Caleb Thurston, CCC programming coordinator.
Gressler said he plans to spend a little bit on the history of Vaudeville and how it came to be and then work toward his experience, sharing some of his favorite stories from the road and as a performing artist.
Ive had strange experiences, he said. I was just going through some, going We lived through this? Geez.
Take a late night journey through the mountains in West Virginia for example. Gessler said he thinks it was about 1955, and his father was driving the group home from a gig.
This truck pulls up behind us. My father says just pass us Im not going to go that fast, he said. The guy keeps flashing his lights getting right up against us. Finally the guy goes zoom and passes us and puts on brakes and goes slower and slower so were up against him.
The driver continued to drive slowly, so his father passed him. Only to be passed again by the truck again. Finally, Gressler said the truck driver pulled over and his father followed suit.
By now my father is really angry he gets out (and) starts to say, What are you doing! I have four kids in the car. The guys reaches in the car and grabs his gun, cocks it and starts walking toward us, he said, at which point they quickly drove away. We never knew what was going on.
But they werent all scary experiences. Most of the time, he said, it was a lot of fun.
Gresslers talk begins at 7 p.m. May 8 at the CCC.