Juliette Fay presents "The Tumbling Turner Sisters"
Juliette Fay has showbiz in her blood.
Fay's vaudevillian great-grandfather inspired her new novel, "The Tumbling Turner Sisters," from which she read on August 9 in the library. Set during vaudeville’s heyday, "The Tumbling Turner Sisters" explores a down-on-their-luck family who decide to join a troupe as acrobats.
After Fay finished her book "The Shortest Way Home" she had her first experience with writer's block. Her father tried to help her out by pitching her ideas for her next book. His ideas were all historical, like books about Abraham Lincoln or Oliver Cromwell.
"I was intimidated by the prospect of writing historical fiction," Fay said, but then she remembered a stray email a cousin had sent about her great-grandfather Fred Delorme, a vaudeville song-and-dance man.
The highly entertaining Fay came prepared with a slideshow of both family photos and vaudeville history. She showed her great-grandfather's promotional photo and his dancing shoes, and discussed his big break, when he was asked to audition for the Stone Opera House in Binghamton, New York.
Unfortunately, no one in Fay's family knows what came of his audition. At the time, Delorme was married with three children and a steady job, and may just have decided it was best not to go out on the road with a troupe.
Vaudeville was popular entertainment from roughly the 1880s until the 1930s. It was a variety show designed for families and strictly monitored against vulgarity and cursing. "There was no tv, no radio, and movies were black, white and violent. If you wanted to be entertained, you would go to a vaudeville show," Fay said. Every town had a vaudeville house; Boston had fifteen, including the theater now known as the Boston Opera House, built in 1928.
She set "The Tumbling Turner Sisters" in 1919 because historically it was an important year: World War I and the Spanish influenza had just ended, and Prohibition and women's suffrage were just beginning.
Fay spent three months on research, both about the theater business but also on the clothes and housewares of the era. A Montgomery Ward catalog was a valuable source for her, as was a turn-of-the-century Erie Railroad map. She immersed herself in even the minutiae: for instance, in 1919 a cheese sandwich cost 10 cents at a drugstore lunch counter, 15 cents in a restaurant.
The four sisters of the title--Nell, Gert, Winnie and Kit Turner--create their acrobatic routine when their father is injured and unable to work. Facing eviction, the sisters earn money for the family as a gymnastic act.
"They are treated to a new idea of who they can be as women," Fay said.
The novel is written from the viewpoint of the two middle sisters, 17-year-old Winnie and 18-year-old Gert. Fay initially wrote only from Winnie’s point of view, but realized that Gert needed a voice in the story too; in search of a better life, she was having adventures that Winnie wouldn’t know about and that Fay wanted to include in the narrative. Fay, who had never written in the first person before, had to create two distinct voices for the sisters and had to learn to think and write in those voices.
Fay enjoyed creating the background characters and their interactions with the Turner sisters. Many of the surrounding characters are based on real vaudevillians like the Marx Brothers, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and George and Gracie Burns. One character is named after her great-grandfather. Even Archie Leach, better known now as Cary Grant, makes an appearance.
Many vaudevillians were immigrants or the children of immigrants. While society limited the jobs available to immigrants, vaudeville welcomed them and paid them well, about twice the $11 weekly pay of the average worker at the time.
"Vaudeville was a much more open society, a place where people could be a little more free in terms of their social interactions," Fay said. That said, mainstream society denigrated performers. "It was considered kind of sleazy to be a performer."
In small town theaters, performers did eight shows daily. Each show lasted about 2 hours and each performance about 15 minutes. The cost of a ticket in a small town show ranged from a nickel for the mezzanine to a quarter for the floor.
Fay plans to write more historical fiction and is starting a novel set during the silent movie era. "I got such a kick out of learning all this stuff," she said.