In a small room at the old courthouse on Woodstock’s Square, with a few props and a lot of enthusiasm, seven children paraded letters of the alphabet on cardboard to the hollow sound of “A, You’re Adorable” coming from Donna Dickinson’s handy cassette tape player.
To a common passerby, it may seem like some children preparing for some sort of recital. However, this is not rehearsed. This is not specific. This is vaudeville.
Popular in the United States from the late 1800s through the early 1930s, vaudeville was the start for some very famous names, including Bob Hope, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.
Dickinson, a long-time vaudeville enthusiast and teacher, is bringing back the performance style of yesteryear to Woodstock with Dickinson’s Little Vaudeville classes for kids in first through eighth grade.
What is rule No. 1 of vaudeville?
“Does anyone care if we make a mistake?” Dickinson asked the class. “No! It’s only vaudeville!”
The seven-week class offers Saturday variety lessons through Sept. 29, a 10 a.m. time slot for grades one through four and an 11:30 a.m. time slot for grades five to eight. Class locations rotate between the Woodstock Opera House and the Old McHenry County Courthouse, both located on Woodstock’s historic square.
Dickinson is a former ice skating teacher who started doing vaudeville with her children, Lou and Casey, when they were young. Now in their 30s, her kids still find vaudeville in their everyday lives, even if it’s not on a stage, Dickinson said.
“It’s learning to fly by the seat of your pants. It’s variety,” Dickinson said. “It teaches you to cope in a way that’s going to make you be happy and gets you in the mindset that anything is possible. People stuck in a rut should take vaudeville. Grow with it and go with it.”
Dickinson’s mission statement includes bringing generations closer by teaching children to enjoy old-time music, appreciate performers of yesteryear, and take part in an almost forgotten entertainment artform that brought so much happiness to their grandparents and great-grandparents.
To help young vaudevillians build self-esteem, and a sense of their own creativity in a low-key, fun, amateur setting.
Students are encouraged to perform what they want, whether they sing, dance or do slapstick. It is all about finding “your thing” and following your own lead, not someone else’s, and not a script.
Woodstock resident and Creekside Middle School student Faith Ridge is in class with her younger brothers, Blake, 9 and Joel, 6. Faith said she is not thrilled with the family affair but Dickinson was already in talks with them at the end of class about a family act, which seemed to peak Faith’s interest.
Still unsure of what vaudeville truly means is in itself going to bring Faith to her own unique vaudevillian style, as she will create that definition for herself, through her act.
“I still don’t know what vaudeville is really. I think an act that people did back then?” said Faith. “But I like to dance and act and stuff around the house so I thought this would be fun. I hope to learn a ballet solo.”
Faith’s younger brother, Blake, is also a dancing man. He said he likes to break dance and sees vaudeville as a dancing outlet. Blake said he would like to learn to juggle.
Students are given payment at the end of class in the form of vaudeville dollars that can be used to purchase goodies from Dickinson’s vaudeville trunk. Original vaudevillians performed to make a living, no matter their age, and Dickinson said she thinks it is important to teach her students the true history of the medium. This also includes the slang language of the time such as “taking the veil” meaning to retire or “hitting the boards” which is to take up a career in theater.
A Rolling Meadows resident, Dickinson said she looks forward to making the trip to Woodstock, a gem that her cousin, retired McHenry Edgebrook Elementary School teacher Mary Ellen Karp, just had to show her.
“Woodstock is so great and everyone I’ve spoken to here about what I’m doing have been so receptive. Not one person I spoke to wasn’t excited,” Dickinson said. “This is my day off. When I can come here and do this with the kids, which is what I used to do with my kids, is just the best. I love being here.”
The first show for this session’s students, and the 134th for Dickinson, titled “The Palace Review” and will be held on Friday, Oct. 5 at 6:30 p.m. at MixnMingle in Woodstock. It is a free show and attendees are encouraged to bring a non-perishable food item to be donated to the Woodstock Food Pantry.
When the curtain closes on their initial performance, students will sign-off in true vaudevillian fashion, in the style of George M. Cohan stating, “my mother thanks, my father thanks you, my teacher thanks you, and I thank you.”
For class and enrollment information, contact Donna Dickinson at 847-528-3942 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.