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Last night, I was watching a PBS documentary on Vaudeville, when John Lahr, the son of the Cowardly Lion, said that we have lost our frivolity. Given the state of our world – and the subject being vaudeville, where his father, Bert, got his start – I think it’s a fair assessment. This was a world full of frivolity, void of enforced child labor laws, but packed with eccentricity and ingenuity, where natural talent led the way. With names like Burns and Allen, Rose Marie, and Fanny Brice, purpose and passion became intertwined: entertainment and money, and not necessarily in that order. The men, women, and children of the vaudeville stage, a medium that predated television and film, also chased a creative outlet – and, sometimes, their meal tickets – around the country, city by city, packing houses with punchlines and individual passion. In that desire, even lacking frivolity, we can still acknowledge and see the grunt work in others.
This week, as he awaited the streaming and DVD release of his film, “Night of the Undead,” a friend of mine, director Kenny Scott Guffey, made a post on social media reflecting on his journey toward living his dream. In his, and many others, vaudeville and since, life has a way of throwing us off path, but when our course is meant to be, the universe also has a unique way of righting the ship. His thoughts offered me a chance at pause and opened the door for my own reflections.
Like so many before her, the British society beauty, the oft-described bohemian Caggie Dunlop, who has lived much of the last decade evading the spotlight, thanks, in part, to a short stint on reality television, has admitted that it took her some time to realize that she could be the authority of her own life, acknowledging that, both as a culture and individuals, we tend to focus on the fears of failure, rather than on the fear of success. A century ago, there wasn’t that option. Today, that fear can stop us in our tracks, cause us to pivot and turn and make bad decisions. The human propulsion to abandon ship made me think of something that Mike Rowe, the grand proprietor of ‘Dirty Jobs,’ recently told college graduates, “never follow your passions, but always bring it with you.” I had to take a minute to think about it. In truth, I had a meandering relationship with the core of Rowe’s message, but, on passions, at least, I tend to agree. Because our passions tend to bring us elements of joy, calm, and accomplishment amidst life’s storms, we should carry them with us, wherever life takes us, whatever career path, vaudeville stage or otherwise, but, like Caggie Dunlop, we also should assume some responsibility for life’s turns.
Like many of you, my passions have always been deeply ingrained in me. I’d be hard-pressed to pick one. I’m an historian, a writer, an artist, a wanderer, and a storyteller. For as long as I’ve been conscious, there’s been a propensity for creativity that runs through my veins, with things as simple as an innate need for balance and uniformity. It’s one of those kindly things that I’ve determined over the years must be God-given. Such things have the power to push through us like a freight train; the universe propelling us forward. It was that freight train that made successes of many Vaudevillians. It can us, too.
Over the past few weeks, happenstance, over Mama Rose and rightwing glances, has provided the opportunity for me to embrace that. I always appreciate opportunity when it comes. You roll up your sleeves and tackle what lies ahead. If passion wasn’t ingrained in you and carried along for the ride, where, then, would you turn for the assist, the ultimate sideman; the Burns to your Allen. So, as I’ve added the art of newspaper composition to my resume, my advice is to keep carrying it along. It comes in handy. Know your worth, embrace eclecticisms and your own eccentricities, and take on challenges with a keenness for the adventures they allow.