Notes on The Language of American Popular Entertainment: A Glossary of Argot, Slang, and Terminology
by Don B. Wilmeth (1981)
If you’re like me and looking for jargon related to popular theatre and Broadway then you are also running into the wrong book. However, despite what this glossary doesn’t include it can be an excellent and thorough reference source for anybody writing or researching 19th and early 20th century American carnival, circus, magic and minstrel shows. Wilmeth’s glossary is not in a sophisticated package. It’s pretty much alphabetical listings of 3200 entries, no cross indexing. I love exploring reference books like this but then always find myself in a mobius when it comes to everyday use, if I knew what word I was looking for I wouldn’t need a glossary. Some categorization might have been a more practical format. Online you can find similar glossaries but entries are fewer, less researched and mostly the sites are weakly designed with limited search tools. Someday all books like this will get e-booked and send us right to what we’re looking for. Until then this is best effort out there in its subject matter. And frankly the subject matter is a fascinating historical record. Again the book is heavy on words related to carnival or circus but it also provides terms from magic, minstrel shows, vaudeville, burlesque, tent shows and Toby shows, medicine shows and pitchmen, early cinema and optical entertainment, fairs, puppetry, pantomime, and wild west shows.
I’m not sure if I’m supposed to know the author Bruce Jay Friedman. I came across his novel Violencia! (2001) while doing research for my own novel in progress. Friedman, now in his 80s, over decades has written a bunch of novels I never read, some off-broadway plays I never heard of, and the screenplays for movies made in the 1980s I couldn’t care less about, e.g. Stir Crazy, Doctor Detroit, Splash. If Friedman is a famous author I gather it’s because he’s supposed to be a master wit in hysterical fiction. Hysterical is a pretty good word for describing the mania of Violencia! A retired police precinct clerk is recruited to write the libretto for Violencia!, a Broadway musical based on gritty experiences observed in the crime fighting world. Despite knowing nothing about writing a musical and being a rather ordinary man, the clerk unwittingly becomes a swiveling node for the novel’s cast of neurotic producers, composers and theatre actors. They all see the dull clerk as an embassy for their vanities, character flaws, and harebrained ideas about art and audience. Violencia! follows the attempt to put on a big musical from it’s distasteful concept, to dishonest financing scheme, to pointless and vulgar production numbers, and then to calamitous road tryouts. The novel is intended as a satire on the affectations of backstage Broadway. Situations and characters in this book are clever I have to admit, but satirical comedy like this too often proceeds plausibility: the fatigued composer returns energized after vacationing in less than a day’s travel from New York to PuertaVallarta, no-nothing producers with hundreds-thousands of dollars at stake insist that Violencia!’s success is held in suspense by the script’s call for use of the word “doody.” This style of writing allows for comical leaps in logic and abandoned story detail. Friedman’s novel is creative but I also find the storytelling a little lazy considering it’s something he’s been doing for decades. This may be a good light read for someone in the mood for lampoonery; I take my comedy much more serious.
You didn’t ask for it, so here are my guesses for Oscar winners based on today’s nominations:
Sup. Actr – Christopher Plummer (Beginners)
Sup. Actrss – Octavia Spencer (Help)
Actr – Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailr)
Actrss – Viola Davis (Help)
Adapt Screnply – Moneyball
Orig Screnply – Artist
Directr – Hazanavicius (Artist)
Picture – Descendants