In Her 101 Years, Ex-Vaudeville Dancer Maude Wangberg has Lived a Whirl of Splendor
With the passage of time the chances of meeting an ex-vaudeville performer diminish. A few years ago I got the chance to meet a veteran of the vaudeville stage, and while she was never a star or a household name, she shared with me and I shared with readers her experience in one of the great American forms of entertainment. Like most people around today, I never got to witness a vaudeville show. My only reference for it is movie and book depictions of it. But after meeting and profiling Maude Wangberg, who was part of a vaudeville dance act, I feel a bit closer to that enchanting chapter of the American popular stage. My story appeared in the New Horizons when Maude was 101. I don’t know if she’s still living. but I’m glad I got to her when I did, and when her recall was still quite sharp.
In Her 101 Years, Ex-Vaudeville Dancer Maude Wangberg has Lived a Whirl of Splendor
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Vaudeville once ruled the American live entertainment scene. For mere peanuts, an entire family could enjoy a show in an ornate theater on whose stage artists of all kinds took turns performing their well-honed acts. Acrobats, jugglers, comedians, singers, dancers, magicians, orators, trained animals and precocious kids filled the bill. Everything from gymnastics to pratfalls to pirouettes were seen. Everything from hot jazz licks to Shakespearean soliloquies to operatic arias to punch lines were heard. House musicians in the orchestra pit cued the action on stage.
From the late 19th century through the 1910s, vaudeville was king. With the advent of motion pictures and radio, two mediums that stole many of vaudeville’s best talents, this American art form went the way of variety and burlesque. Vaudeville hung on until the 1930s before finally succumbing to the movies. Vaudeville’s wide-ranging impact extended to the slapstick-screwball-sketch comedy routines and variety show formats that ex-vaudevillians brought to radio, film and television.
Omaha’s own Maude Wangberg, age 101, is proud to count herself a veteran of vaudeville, a distinction few can claim today, as most of its artists are long gone now. If not for acting on a whim and studying dance as a girl Maude might have become a nun. Two of her classmates at Mount St. Mary, the forerunner to today’s Mercy High School, did. Maude grew up in a strict Catholic home at a time when a girl’s options were pretty much limited to marriage and motherhood, religious vocation, nursing, teaching or secretarial work. She chose dancing.
Still cutting the trim figure of a dancer, the New Cassel Retirement Center resident defied convention to become a show girl in a vaudeville act called The Whirl of Splendor. The show took its name from the revolving stage that performers made entrances and exits on. She was part of an all-girl dance act that closed the show. In between dance numbers singers performed. Preceding Maude and the other chorines a couple did an adagio. Sharing the bill with The Whirl were all manner of acts. Presented by New York City-based producer Meyer Golden, the popular show toured widely. Maude performed with the act from 1925 to 1930, a stretch that saw her mature into a woman.
The Whirl followed the vaudeville circuit, playing Orpheum Theatres in and around New York, across Canada, down the west coast, the middle of America and then back east, but mostly playing the big Loews Theatres along the East Coast. The act appeared at all the top vaudeville sites. Maude and company sometimes shared the bill with established stars like Sophie Tucker or legends-to-be like Edgar Bergen.
Touring meant a hectic schedule spent in hotels, theatres and rehearsal halls, on trains and two shows a day or more on stage, seven days a week. “You played every place of any size. The bigger the city the more performances you had to do,” she said. Some audiences were livelier than others. “In Pennsylvania we played a lot of smaller places like Redding because the big steel mills were working then and the young men employed there had to have entertainment,” she said. “They would stomp their feet and whistle. It was fun then.”
Young men, naturally, have a thing for pretty young girls in skimpy outfits, but she said there were never any problems with “stage door Johnnies, as they used to call them, but somehow or other we met a lot of them. In Providence, R.I. we met a lot of fellas from Brown University. They came down to the hotel — a whole bunch of ‘em. They were nice. I mean, they didn’t get rough or rowdy or anything. I guess they wanted to say they’d been with show girls.”
Advances were common from not only fans but other performers on the bill. If Maude were ever singled out for special attention from stage struck paramours it’s no wonder because her classical-training earned her featured parts in two of the troupe’s dance numbers. Of the six chorines, she shined brightest.
“I always had a little special part. See, I had more training than the other girls did and I had much better training too. I had ballet, tap and toe dancing where they just had ballroom. I was a better dancer alright. You could tell the difference.”
She well recalls the dance numbers she performed in.
“The first act we clanked hand-held cymbals as we danced around in little Grecian costumes. The costume was a pink cotton under thing with a filmy deal over it. Real short. I would dance around and take a big leap off the stage,” she said. “The second act was an Italian folk dance. I had the lead along with another girl who did some turns. I was dressed as a boy. I had black velvet shorts on and a big red sash around my waist with long streamers and a red bandana on my head with streamers too. We had tambourines. I was supposed to kind of romance her and then she would spurn me and I would dance off and then do this Italian folk dance.
“Then the last one was a jazz number. Our costumes were one-piece silver tops and shorts with fringe all over. We danced to Black Bottom, a real popular tune that was THE song then. That ended the act.”
Although a lifetime ago now, once Maude gets to reminiscing it seems like only yesterday she cavorted on stage at New York’s Palace Theatre or the Hippodrome, two of vaudeville’s finest venues. Those years gave her the time of her life.
“It was just a lot of fun. I liked it. I just liked being on the stage and wearing a costume and, oh, hearing the applause and everything. It’s just very enticing when you hear your music come on. You’re ready. You get keyed up. You know what’s coming exactly because you’ve been rehearsed and rehearsed. It’s nice to get out there and see a big audience in front of you and to wait for the applause, and then when you get the applause you enjoy that,” she said.
There were other benefits too.
“I loved traveling and seeing all those different places,” she said. “I loved New York. We were there during the Prohibition Era and there were speakeasies on almost every corner. We were in Washington, D.C. when the cherry blossoms were in bloom. New Orleans, I think that’s the most interesting city in the United States. I love the French Quarter. I used to stroll through there all the time. Just a wonderful place. Sorry about the flood. I would name San Francisco second (most interesting) because of the Wharf district…Chinatown..and all they have there.”
Dancing opened up a world of splendor to Maude, who learned under the tutelage of a petite, attractive Omaha woman named Adelaide Fogg. An intimate of hoofers Fred and Adelle Astaire, the Omaha brother-sister act that became the toast of Broadway before Fred achieved fame in Hollywood, Fogg might have been a star herself if she’d desired it. “She could have been in any New York show she wanted to be in,” Maude said. “She was that good.”
In a century of living Maude’s pretty much seen and done it all. Show biz accounted for a brief period in her life, but no matter how short her time in vaudeville it provided fond memories and linked her to a great tradition of which she’s one of the few survivors. Hers is the classic tale of a starry-eyed girl who ran away from the stodgy Midwest to see the bright lights of the big city and to dance amid the footlights and spot lights of the stage. She gleefully recalls how it is a gal from a convent school ended up a chorus girl.
Fogg’s dance studio was in the ballroom of the ritzy Blackstone Hotel. She had a reputation as “the leading dancing teacher here,” according to Maude. “She went to New York every summer to get the latest dancing steps for her classes.” Maude was about 15 when she heard about Fogg from some neighbor girls who studied with her and she pestered her mother to let her join the dance school too.
“I insisted on it. Even though I started kind of late — most kids start in grade school — I enjoyed it. It was just a lot of fun. I danced and danced. I practiced at home too. I got so that I took two private lessons a week.”
She proved a natural. “I don’t really know, it’s just that I loved moving around like that and learning new things. It wasn’t that hard to conquer the steps.” The by-then dance crazy young lady sought out dancing wherever she could find it.
“I never missed any dancers that came. I saw Anna Pavlova (great Russian ballerina) dance The Dying Swan at the Brandeis Theatre. That was really something.”
Never dreaming she’d one day be on stage, she “went every chance I got” to Saturday matinee vaudeville shows at the Orpheum and Gaiety Theatres. Maude attended Duschene College for a time but the pull of dance made her leave.
Saturday nights were reserved for Peony Park, where she and her future husband, John Wangberg, “would dance the night away” to the swing tunes of a live orchestra in the ballroom. But weekdays meant practice. Lots of practice. It wasn’t long before Maude was a star pupil of Fogg’s. She even conducted classes in Omaha when Fogg was away teaching in outstate Nebraska and in Iowa. At her mentor’s urging, Maude left home at age 20 to pursue a dancing career back East. Her father disapproved, suggesting she’d only come running back home disappointed, but her mother encouraged her. It was the chance of a lifetime.
“When Adelaide Fogg’s dancing master in New York wanted to form a dancing act he asked her to bring any of her dancers that would be interested to New York for him to see,” Maude said. “She asked several of us to go with her. Her mother always went with her in those days. They rented an apartment with two bedrooms. We girls had one bedroom, with all four of us jammed up in it, and she and her mother had the other bedroom. You could see the Hudson River from there.”
Of the four girls from Omaha who went East, only Maude stayed, the others either getting married or soon tiring of The Life. Maude stuck with it. There were lots of good times. She and her roommate for most of those years in vaudeville, Edie, became fast friends. There were also some tough times. Maude and Edie and the rest of the girls did a lot of growing up far from home and family.
“You were on your own. Well, see, I was a convent girl and the other girls were just out of high school. Totally unsophisticated — that’s what we were. Totally new to everything. That’s the way it was.”
Maude finally got “sick” of the $55 a week road grind and retired from the stage at 25. She resettled in Omaha, taking up with her old beau, John Wangberg, an RKO Pictures salesman. Much happened in between the time Maude went from girl next door to show girl and much more happened after she hung up her dancing shoes.
The former Maude Fodrea was born in Grand Island, Neb. on May 16, 1905 to Pennington Parker Fodrea and Blanche Watson. She was the youngest of three sisters. Her parents met and married in Grand Island. When her father, a manager with the Burlington Northern Railroad got a promotion, the family moved to Chicago. Blanche returned home to Grand Island to have her babies. When Maude was about 5, the family moved back to Grand Island after her father lost his job and her mother suffered a nervous breakdown. After her mother recovered, the family moved to Omaha, where her father got work, first as a reporter with the Omaha Bee, and then as advertising-sales manager for the Iten Biscuit Company.
Maude grew up near downtown, in a home at 2869 California Street long since gone in the wake of Creighton University campus expansion. She’s seen Omaha’s skyline rise and fall and rise again, just as she’s seen the city’s boundaries expand ever westward. She witnessed one mark to its landscape she’d rather forget — the devastation left behind by the 1913 Easter Sunday tornado.
“Oh, yes. My family and I were out in Benson visiting my grandmother. Towards the middle of Sunday afternoon there was such a strange light in the sky and then it got real dark after awhile,” she said. “So my father and mother decided it just wasn’t safe to go out. No, it just didn’t look right. There was something wrong. So we stayed there all night and then the next morning we left. The streetcars were running. Nothing moving but them. No automobiles. No people. It was just very quiet. Just dead silence. On our way home we saw clothes hanging up in trees and trees down and, oh, things like that. We didn’t know if anything happened to our house or not. But everything was OK in that section of Omaha. There wasn’t anything bothered at all. That’s about all I remember of it. It was soon forgotten.”
Streetcar lines once crisscrossed Omaha and that’s how Maude, her family and her friends got around town. “We took the streetcar every place — downtown, to high school and back. It was a nice ride, you know. I think it was a nickel.”
One of her streetcar rides brought her smack dab in the middle of a violent mob. It was September 28, 1919, a day of infamy in Omaha history. Only a few days before a black man named William Brown was arrested and charged with the rape of a white woman. Serious questions were raised even then about his guilt, but racist fervor made for a tense situation. An attempt to lynch Brown the day of his arrest failed. Calm seemed to prevail but on the 28th passions reignited and an angry crowd bent on vigil ante justice gathered outside the Douglas County Courthouse in the afternoon. Word spread that Brown would be taken by force and hanged.
Maude, then a 14-year-old schoolgirl, was in a group of girls who heard news of the trouble and she and the others went downtown “out of curiosity.” What they found scared and sickened them. Brown, protected by a cordon of police far too small for the growing crowd, fled under guard to the balcony level of the courthouse, which people began laying siege to.
“My sister and I and another girl and her sister went down on the streetcar to the courthouse and we stood across the street. There was just a mob of people all over,” she said. “The man who was going to be lynched was up there on the steps higher up where you could see part of him. It just was awful, that’s all I can say. It was terrible and you wished that it wouldn’t be. It was just an eerie feeling. It was very unpleasant. We stayed awhile just looking and wandering around and then we went home. We never saw the actual lynching. We didn’t want to really. I remember that very, very well. I won’t forget it.”
As night fell some in the crowd armed themselves with guns and shots rang out. Blacks were beaten. Lives lost. A pitched battle between the mob and police ensued. In the process, the courthouse was riddled with bullets and set ablaze. Brown and other prisoners were forced to the roof to escape the smoke, flames, gunfire and ropes. Late that night Brown was captured by the mob, killed and his lifeless body strung to a telephone pole, a fate the mayor nearly met earlier. A race riot followed. The violence made news across America. The woman who accused Brown of the crime recanted her story.
A mix of memories — good and bad — abound for Maude. Like sharing the bill with a young Milton Berle, whose mother traveled with him and “would go down into the audience when it was time for his act and start the laughing. We could tell her laugh standing back there in the wings.” Watching performers from the wings Maude and the other girls sometimes got “silly” and caused a ruckus, whereupon a flustered stage manager would shoo them away. It was a kind of game.
Her last year on tour she got to perform at home, on the Orpheum stage. Friends and family saw her strut her stuff there and feted her at a banquet her dad put on.
Twice, Maude was offered chances at stardom and twice she declined, once to lead a Paris revue and again to head a new vaudeville act. The prospect of Paris came soon after arriving in New York, she said, and “it scared me to death.” She wasn’t ready for such an opportunity so early in her career. Besides she said, “I didn’t have any ambitions, so I didn’t really envision myself as a big dancer all by myself. I never really thought about that.” The chance to be a vaudeville headliner came after she already decided she’d had enough. “I don’t know what came over me, but I kept telling myself, You don’t want to do this anymore — you need to go home.” So home she went. On the very next train.
Like many a star-struck girl she fancied a fling at Hollywood but never could work up the courage to go try her luck there.
Following her abrupt departure from the stage she opened her own dance school at the Elks Club. Just as Adelaide Fogg did for her, Maude did for young girls. Hard times came with the Great Depression. “My father lost a lot of his money. Things were just pretty sad for awhile there around home,” she said. Given this reversal of fortune, Maude and John opted for a small wedding. His job took them to Kansas City. He rose through the RKO ranks to become regional manager. When his job required relocating to the South, the couple lived out of hotels in various cities and states. They returned to Kansas City, visiting their folks in Omaha on weekends.
With John on the road a lot, a “lonely” Maude began adoption proceedings for their only child, Lorraine. It was 1946. When little Lorraine was old enough, Maude gave her ballet lessons. Lorraine Boyd became a Creighton University grad and is now a reporter with The Daily Record in Omaha.
In Kansas City Maude volunteered for several Catholic causes and groups and played lots of bridge. “I was active. I really enjoyed Kansas City. I call that my home,” said Maude, who has a big framed poster of the night-time K.C. skyline above her bed. Except for that stint down South, she lived there until 1988, when she and John moved back here to be near their daughter. After nearly 60 years of marriage, Maude lost John in the early 1990s.
Today, she keeps active working crossword puzzles (in ink), reading, watching TV and going to mass. If there’s a ballet on she might give it a look but not so much anymore as her favorite artists, like Mikhail Baryshnikov, no longer perform. Yet her love for dance is always near and it doesn’t take much prodding for her to recall her days on stage. Even though Maude claims her passion for it’s all in the past, her daughter says her octogenarian mother is “always up for dancing at parties,” where she’ll demonstrate a few steps to anyone interested. At 101 she’s still gotta dance!
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