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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 335-336
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We know precious little about concert saloon practices, and that realization is both Brooks McNamara's feat and his frustration, palpable throughout this groundbreaking study. The New York Concert Saloon is an extended definition argument, establishing criteria for how this form of popular performance can be distinguished from those occurring at other liquor-and-entertainment venues such as dance halls and beer gardens. McNamara locates concert saloons in the same milieu as burlesque, minstrelsy, dime museums, circuses, and pleasure gardens; therefore his audience extends beyond theatre and performance studies scholars to include popular culture historians. Based chiefly on two contrasting sources, a run of New York Clipper reviews and a ten-year stretch of reports from the Society for Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents, this book should also interest historiographers, for McNamara has woven these scarce records into a convincing interpretation of performance history. He readily admits the gaps in such history making—"no one knows [where concert saloons originated]," he repeats twice in the prologue (3)—without allowing these omissions to derail his narrative.
That said, the narrative ride is hardly smooth. Rather, the book sputters and stalls at several points, shifting from scholarly prose to conversational qualifiers that belie the paucity of evidence at McNamara's fingertips. In his chapter on the acts performed by concert saloon entertainers, for example, he reveals his thought process candidly: "What is clear is that many owners and managers [End Page 335] of concert saloons were consciously violating the rather ambiguous spirit of the various bills. But perhaps they were willing to do so because of the extra fees sometimes charged for entertainment, from the increased alcohol sold, or, in some cases, from a sideline of prostitution. Or because they misinterpreted the rather convoluted meaning of the bills. Or possibly because they had some 'arrangement' with the City for the investigators from the Society which kept them from being raided or fined. At any rate, it brought in patrons" (41).
Although such musings expose how historians grapple to define heretofore (relatively) unknown performance practices, they require patience and diligence from readers as active respondents to (what becomes) a conversation of possibilities.
The book is organized both chronologically and topically, with two chapters describing concert saloons during and after the Civil War, followed by three chapters devoted to the elements of concert saloon performance, which concentrate on the shows, the spaces, and the people who worked in the saloons as well as those who patronized them. The sixth chapter considers the related forms of beer gardens and dance halls, with an extended section on Harry Hill's, a dance hall of lasting infamy. A prologue and an epilogue frame these chapters, and a set of appendices (reprinting anti-concert saloon legislation, a list of entertainers, and another of their songs) concludes the study. Undergirding the descriptive prose that characterizes the central chapters is the book's thesis, which surfaces most vividly in the prologue and the epilogue. Like cultural historian William Leach (whom he does not cite), McNamara believes that early American advertising "used [and continues to use] popular entertainment as a tool" for its own devices, and he locates concert saloons at the center of this trend (xiii). Because their patrons did not pay admission, the product concert saloons peddled was not performance but booze—the songs and sketches performed merely enticed customers to drink more. The role of saloon "waiter girls" (who possibly doubled as prostitutes) in this process seems paramount but is only superficially explored here.
Overall, the mysteries uncovered here (an intended metaphor, since McNamara calls his work a "detective story") upstage the more tedious descriptions of what happened in concert saloons. That the Society managed to control (and profit from) performances through licenses and levied fines reveals a complicated power struggle, not just between reformers and offenders but also among New York theatre practitioners themselves. The...