Song and dance manIt's Vaudeville on Bainbridge this weekend.
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:37 PM
"Greg Palmer has more acts than a Vaudeville show.He tells jokes, sings snatches of song, does bits from a skit. It's not much of a stretch to imagine him shuffling off to Buffalo, cane in one hand, straw boater hat in the other.His persona segues from talk radio host to ad man to news reporter - all jobs he's done - but it's Palmer the award-winning documentary film maker who gets air time when he presents Make 'Em Laugh; Make 'Em Cry; Make 'Em Wait: the History and Influence of Vaudeville.The presentation is slated for 4 p.m. Feb. 11 at the Bainbridge Library, as part of the arts council's humanities inquiry series, Culture and the American Character.My mother was a devotee of Fred Allen, said Palmer, a Seattle resident. She and I had similar taste. I realized that the people I found funny were vaudevillians. From 1890 to 1920, Vaudeville variety shows were wildly popular. The format - unrelated song, comedy and dance acts strung together - was translated into early television in such programs as The Colgate Comedy Hour, Sid Caesar's Show of Shows and The Ed Sullivan Show. Programs like Saturday Night Live retain its imprint.Despite the influence of the form, Palmer's video for KCTS/Seattle and WNET/New York, Vaudeville: An American Masters Special, was the first television documentary on the subject. The piece garnered Palmer more kudos and awards to add to an already long list for work that includes PBS series The Art of Magic and Death: Trip of a Lifetime. In a 30-year career, Palmer has won a Peabody Award and 13 Emmys, two Action for Children's Television Awards,three Ohio State Awards - and designation as an Official Hero of the People's Republic of Georgia.One of Palmer's earliest projects was a 1967 play produced on Bainbridge, Betsy Green, the Cannery Queen, a Potlatch Playhouse production at the Grange. The same year, Palmer quit the drama department of the University of Washington.There were better things to do in 1967, Palmer said, than to study drama under 'dead meat' professors who'd been there forever.He pioneered talk radio at KTW. Every half hour he had a new guest, and he interviewed Henry Fonda and Henry Kissinger, Jack Benny and Sid Caesar. He hosted supreme court justices and vaudevillians. From 1977-90, he worked first as media arts critic and then as reporter for King-5. I survived 12 news directors and was fired in 35 seconds by the 13th, Palmer said, so I began to make documentaries. After Death was a success, PBS called and asked me what I wanted to do. I was absolutely amazed to find that no one had done a major piece on Vaudeville. I thought, 'It's already 20 years too late; they're all dying.' He submitted a list of Vaudeville performers he wanted to interview, but he needed $12,000 to begin work.Musician Cab Calloway died two days after he submitted the list. PBS called and said, We've lost Calloway! and Palmer got his $12,000.He interviewed George Abbott two days before that performer died at 106; of the 33 other Vaudevillians with whom he spoke, most were dead within two years.Palmer has compiled a priceless record. His clips include not only the Vaudeville greats, but the interestingly obscure, like the singing duck and the professional regurgitator.Their stories are irreplaceable social and show biz history, Palmer said, as well as hugely entertaining. "