The Summer Mummers Revive Vaudeville

July 2, 2014

I once had a college Philosophy professor correct my usage of “extremely unique.” “No individual thing can be more uniquely individual than any other individual thing,” he scolded. But then he had never seen a performance of the Summer Mummers in Midland, Texas! That’s “extremely unique” and certainly something never dreamt of in Professor Carmichael’s philosophy.

Each summer in Midland, the Summer Mummers revive vaudeville, pantomime, melodrama and other theatrical forms that flourished enormously in the United States in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. It’s an entirely volunteer, community effort that is so wildly popular and profitable that it supports Midland’s far more serious and ambitious Community Theater during the rest of the year. And it unfolds or explodes in the also “extremely unique” and beautifully restored Yucca Theater, which was built in 1929 in an exotic Assyrian decorative theme as part of the Little Theatre movement.

The Mummers began in 1949, long after melodramas and vaudeville had faded from American stages and melted into radio, silent film and then television. But in Midland they have been kept alive by mashing these old forms up with contemporary themes, humor, technology, music and refreshments! This year’s production Desert of the Dead is a hilarious melodramatic riff on a zombie invasion of a Midland being overwhelmed by the latest oil boom in the Permian Basin.  And the vaudeville variety show, the olio, following the intermission owed as much to Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, as it did to Tin Pan Alley. All of that assisted by state of the art body mics and computer-controlled, moving lights.

Melodramas—spoken or acted dramas with stock or formulaic characters and musical accompaniment—date back to at least the 18th century. Thanks to melodrama, we’re now just perfectly accepting of musical accompaniment in our TV and movie dramas, but in the 18th century this was enough of a novelty by comparison with opera to catch Mozart’s eye and ear, which he mentions in a letter to his father. It’s amazing that the form is still flourishing in Midland, Texas, though I suspect Midland’s take on melodrama would curl Mozart’s wig were he to set foot in the Yucca Theater today. The Magic Flute this is not!

Did I mention the popcorn? The Summer Mummers is also participatory theatre. The audience is encouraged to cheer and boo the heroines and villains and to underscore their sentiments by throwing popcorn. By the time the night is over, the orchestra of the hall is six-inches deep in popcorn. (The Mummers do provide a popcorn demilitarized zone for those who would enjoy their melodramas in quiet contemplation, which I don’t recommend.)

Thanks to our friends in Midland, Glenn and Louan Rogers and Jim and Eileen Piwetz for escorting Sondra Lomax and me through our initiation with the Summer Mummers. We had a spectacular, “extremely unique” time. And, we’re still enjoying the odd, stray kernel of popcorn that turns up in our pockets and combs. Thanks to Bonesdug1 for the photograph of the Yucca Theater.

Excelsior, y'all!


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