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Cartoonists Come to Vaudeville!

The National Vaudeville Artists (NVA) was a union organized by Edward Albee, the most powerful man in theatre and vaudeville during the first quarter of the 20th century.  He was also the adoptive grandfather of the playwright Edward Albee.  Benjamin Franklin Keith and Albee formed the Vaudeville Managers Association (VMA) in 1900 as a way of ending bidding for popular vaudeville acts, as well as eliminating competition between managers for the same audiences.  The VMA had a stranglehold on the industry, which resulted in the formation of the White Rats, an organization of performers who went on strike to abolish some of the VMA’s dictates.  The group was granted a union charter in 1910 by Samuel Gompers.  In the mid-1910s, Albee began the National Vaudeville Artists union as an alternative to the White Rats.  He also blacklisted White Rats members from performing in any Keith-Albee theaters.  Albee eventually broke the collective backs of the White Rats and the NVA took over its headquarters in 1919.  The industry saw the conflict of interests in having theatrical managers also organizing the union.  In March 1924, an article in Equity magazine said the NVA “…was formed so that the vaudeville artists could be herded into an organization under the control of the vaudeville managers. The N.V.A. is a lightning rod down which the collective strength of the vaudeville actor runs harmlessly into the ground.”

For all the power that Albee had, the one enemy he could not fight was the movies.  The 1920s saw the decline of vaudeville, and as there was no New Deal yet in existence to help provide a social safety net, the NVA built a small hospital and lodge in Saranac Lake, New York.  The hospital was for performers ailing from tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments. A larger hospital was built in the mid to late 1920s, later named the Will Rogers Memorial Hospital.

From 1923 to 1929, the NVA put on benefit affairs and published a large yearbook, to raise funds for the hospital, lodge, and vaudevillians in need.  Many cartoonists contributed full-page drawings and cartoons to the yearbooks, including Rube Goldberg, Milt Gross, Harry Hershfield, George Herriman, and Winsor McCay.  There appears to have been a Hearst connection with the yearbooks, as nearly all the cartoonists worked for Hearst and King Features.  While Herriman and McCay contributed one drawing each, Goldberg and Hershfield contributed wonderful work in each yearbook.  What follows is a selection of cartoons from the 1923 to 1926 NVA benefit yearbooks.  Enjoy!

George Herriman, 1923
Rube Goldberg, 1923
Ad Carter, 1923
Clare Briggs, 1923
Milt Gross, 1924
Harry Hershfield, 1924
Winsor McCay, 1924
Rube Goldberg, 1924
Clare Briggs, 1924
Paul Fung, 1925
Jack Callahan, 1925
Ad Carter, 1925
Milt Gross, 1925
Harry Keys, 1925
Rube Goldberg, 1925
Harry Hershfield, 1925
Paul Fung, 1926
Darrell McClure, 1926
Rube Goldberg, 1926
Harry Hershfield, 1926
Milt Gross, 1926

Rob Stolzer has been collecting original comic strip and cartoon artwork for over 40 years. He has written numerous articles for Hogan's Alley, the CFA-APA and other journals. Stolzer teaches art at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where he teaches Drawing, Figure Drawing, Graphic Narration, Illustration, and Painting.

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