Before movies could talk, there were endless opportunities for those who had talent to make a living performing in front of live audiences. Singers, dancers, actors, and comedians were the backbone of the traveling show. There were also side show exhibits with human oddities and specialty acts such as the circus, the wild west show, and the medicine show. But in those days, just like today, audiences wanted something new and different. And there were many who stepped onto the stage to provide something different.
1. Painless Parker
Edgar Parker opened his dental practice in 1892 and found business was not that great. So he took his practice on the road and became Painless Parker, “the P.T. Barnum of dentistry.” If the idea of dentistry as entertainment sounds odd, remember that folks were eager for odd entertainnment. With the help of a cocaine solution he called "hydrocaine", Parker pulled tooth after tooth in town after town for only 50 cents each. "Painless Parker's Dental Circus" built his business to the point that when he died in 1952, he owned 30 dental clinics and employed 75 dentists. When Parker, who legally changed his named to Painless, performed his public extractions, he wore a necklace made of teeth he had pulled. He eventually collected a large bucket of human teeth, which is on display at Temple University's dental museum.
2. The Boxing Gordon Sisters
One gimmick for drawing in audiences was to put females in a role normally reserved for men. The Gordon Sisters traveled the east coast in a boxing exhibition show beginning in the late 1890s. Bessie Gordon, who was sometimes billed as Belle, gave a punching bag demonstration and then boxed one of her sisters Minnie, Alice, or Freda (who could have been only two or even one woman). The sisters did not come across as particularly talented fighters, rather the novelty was that women fought at all -and it didn't hurt that they wore short skirts in the ring. They also wore boxing gloves, while real (male) fighters at the time did not.
3. Lillian La France
Born in 1894, Lillian LaFrance embraced the freedom and thrills of motorcycle culture and made it into her profession. She began driving on the Motordrome circuit in 1924. LaFrance performed stunts including a turn at the Wall of Death which thrilled audiences across the country in the 1920s and '30s.
4. Ethel Purtle
How do you top a woman doing death-defying stunts on a motorcycle? Take that act and put a wild animal in it! Ethel Purtle performed on the Wall of Death with a sidecar containing her lion named King. There were several acts that combined lion tamers and stunt riders on the Motordrome circuit.
5. Gus Visser
There's not a lot of biographical information about Gus Visser outside of the fact that he was born in 1894 and performed a vaudeville act in which he sang with a duck. The duck had a limited part, but the gimmick was enough to build an act around. Gus achieved immortality when he was recorded in a 1925 experimental sound film singing "Ma, He's Making Eyes At Me", which became possibly the world's first music video. One has to wonder if Visser had any inkling that this experiment on film would eventually lead to the decline of vaudeville and the death of one-trick novelty acts such as his.
6. Cannonball Richards
Frank "Cannonball" Richards seemingly built his act around self-punishment. Strongmen were a staple of the traveling circus, but Richards combined his strength with the thrill of risking injury as he stood still and was shot in the belly with a cannonball. He discovered his unusually strong stomach as a young man and invited his friends to punch him in the gut. Richards went on to allow people to jump on his stomach to show its strength. He even took a punch from Jack Dempsey! His cannonball routine was limited to two performances a day because, despite his showmanship, the stunt was painful.
7. Le Petomane
Joseph Pujol made a living by farting, or rather, by drawing in and expelling air from his anus. He first shared his talent while serving in the French army and began performing professionally in 1887. Pujol, who went by the name Le Petomane on stage, performed fully clothed for most audiences and drew gasps and laughter from the crowd with the sounds he made, from impressions to melodies, including tricks like blowing out candles. He headlined at the Moulin Rouge in Paris for two years, then traveled throughout Europe. Pujol retired during World War I and returned to his former career as a baker in Marseilles. The only available film of his performance is, sadly, silent.
8. Helen Keller
You know the story of how Helen Keller was both blind and deaf and learned to communicate with her teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy. You might not know about their career as vaudeville performers. Keller was offered a place on stage as a teenager, but turned down the opportunity. By 1920, she and Macy were in need of money, and toured the US and Canada on the Orpheum circuit for four years. Keller was already a celebrity as an author and lecturer, but the stage act was reminiscent of a freak show, as Keller demonstrated her finger spelling and speaking voice. She was urged to keep her political views off the stage for fear of alienating the audience.