Virtual Vaudeville
by Muriel Pritchett

David Saltz is building a 19th century vaudeville theater on the University of Georgia campus. A replica of New York’s Union Square Theatre in 1895, it will welcome audiences with its blue velvet curtains, 1,200 green and gold brocade seats, delicately carved moldings and ornate walls displaying paintings and classic sculpture.

Yet not one brick or piece of lumber has been used to reconstruct the most influential vaudeville theater of its time. Instead, it’s being created in a UGA drama department computer with a $900,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

A group of expert theater historians, performers, designers and computer specialists from UGA and other colleges across the United States have joined Saltz in the effort to bring the project to reality.

But what’s a computer-generated theater without stage performances and an audience?

“Virtual Vaudeville will take viewers into a 3-D, game-like environment that simulates 19th century vaudeville theaters,” said Saltz, a UGA drama professor. “We picked four acts to represent the range of acts in a typical vaudeville bill.”

In addition to the performances, viewers can observe audience members’ reactions and enjoy the theater’s glamour.

Two acts are already well under way: Sandow the Magnificent, a strongman who became famous in the late 19th century and was managed by Flo Ziegfeld, and the ethnic humorist Frank Bush. Two other acts will feature Maggie Cline, an Irish comic singer, and the Four Cohans, a famous family of actors.

Sandow’s and Bush’s performances, clothing and 3-D figures are based on photos and drawings, plus the discovery of Sandow’s body measurements and full-body cast, Saltz said.

Bush’s act was reconstructed through “performance descriptions and reviews in turn-of-the-century publications, published songs and jokes attributed to or associated with Bush, a two-minute black wax Edison cylinder of Bush telling four stories in dialect and photos of Bush in various character costumes,” said C.B. Davis, a UGA drama professor.

Sandow and Bush came to life on the virtual stage via the drama department’s new wireless, motion-capture equipment. It’s the same motion-capture technology Hollywood used to create Gollum in Lord of the Rings.

The audience reflects the era’s diverse, multicultural population: young and old, rich and poor. Spectators are shown reacting to performances: applauding, laughing or acting inappropriately. Team members adapted scores of photos, mostly of UGA students, faculty and children, to create 800 different spectators with believable facial expressions and authentic clothing and hairstyles. But with only one drawing of the now-demolished New York theater, creating the virtual structure posed a different challenge. “For months, I traveled and saw numerous theaters and buildings — inside and out,” Saltz said.

His research took him to restored 19th century theaters like the Southern Theater in Columbus, Ohio, the New Victory, the oldest operational theater in New York, and the Grand Prospect Hall in Brooklyn, a carefully preserved 1890s building.

Saltz then turned his notes and detailed photos over to Vincent Argentina, a computer specialist in the UGA drama department who, as if by magic, turned them into a realistic 3-D theater.

Before movies and radio took over mass entertainment, vaudeville [entertained], fascinated, educated and amused millions, especially in big cities, said team member and theater historian Bruce McConachie.

“Most popular entertainment we now see on television, film or on the professional stage appeared in vaudeville, which popularized many of the beliefs and values that shaped mainstream American culture for much of the [20th] century,” said McConachie, a University of Pittsburgh theater professor.

While Virtual Vaudeville is great entertainment, it’s an even more important learning tool for historians and drama students.

When the project started two years ago, Saltz and his team used part of the grant money to purchase software and equipment. Such technology doesn’t come cheap. The team spent about $200,000 for a Game Engine “Gamebyro” (also used to create high-end animation games) plus motion-capture equipment. Undergraduate and graduate drama students will continue to use the equipment long after the project is completed.

“For all of us, [this project] has engendered real excitement and has directly involved students in the fascinating work of historical research and the creating of virtual reality,” said Stanley Longman, head of UGA’s drama and theater department.

Until now, theater and performance scholars haven’t been able to experience the “primary phenomenon of their scholarly interest,” McConachie said. “We often have scripts, reviews and pictures, but the past performance itself — especially the performers’ moment-to-moment relationship with the audience — is evanescent and has vanished.”

Team members don’t promise absolute accuracy, but they are confident their work will “open up scholarly debate about the staging of vaudeville acts, performances by specific stars, and the general composition and response of the audience,” McConachie said.

It also will lead to a broader, more accurate understanding of vaudeville, said team member Susan Ellen Kattwinkel, a College of Charleston theater professor.

“When the scripts, music, pictures and clues about movement are put together in a performance format, we will have a framework within which to plug our knowledge of vaudeville,” she said.

Once the first two shows are finished this spring, “anyone can sit down in front of a computer and experience what it was like to attend a real vaudeville performance,” Argentina said. “Just imagine. It will feel like you’re actually in the space that we’ve created.”

For more information, contact David Saltz at or access