The Tuberculosis Hospital That Treated America’s Vaudeville Stars
The actor and vaudeville performer Donald O’Connor does a backflip during a dance number in 1953.
Before films and television became the primary source of entertainment in America, vaudeville reigned supreme. These variety shows—where audiences could see everything from sideshow performers to slapstick comedy to Babe Ruth singing during the offseason, all on the same bill—offered access to the day’s top talent, as well as a glimpse of the glamour of the stage. If a town was big enough to have a small theater or community hall, chances are they hosted a show touring on one of the several vaudeville circuits in operation in the late 19th and early 20th century.
But the constant traveling meant that the living conditions vaudevillian performers faced were starkly different than today’s celebrity lifestyle: Picture damp, crowded boarding houses, cold dressing rooms, and a constant crisscrossing of the United States by train. The grueling schedule and cramped conditions were ideal breeding ground for infectious diseases—tuberculosis, in particular, one of the leading causes of death at the time, especially in crowded tenements in urban areas.
In the 1860s, tubercular patients had begun flocking to the Adirondacks in an attempt to use the fresh air to cure their respiratory disease. Edward Livingston Trudeau, a pioneer in the treatment and research of the disease, opened the first sanitarium in the mountains dedicated to the illness in 1884. But those who worked both on and off the vaudeville stage typically could not afford adequate medical care. So, in 1900, the theater promoter and vaudeville impresario Edward Franklin Albee took matters into his own hands: He created the National Vaudeville Artists, or NVA, which funded three “cure cottages” in the Adirondacks, at a village called Saranac Lake. These three cottages eventually grew into a much larger facility: the Will Rogers Memorial Hospital.
The Will Rogers, which was first known simply as the NVA Lodge when it opened in 1929, provided free health care to employees and retirees of the entertainment industry—including those who worked behind-the-scenes and performers on the radio, television, motion pictures, or stage—as well as their family members. It was the first and only hospital of its kind in the United States at the time, designed to promote the curing of of a disease while still allowing its ailing patients to keep one foot in the entertainment industry. And while it lasted for less than half a century, the hospital had an impact on medicine in America far beyond the drafty dressing rooms of community theaters.
The Will Rogers, a work of Tudor-Revival architecture, was built to look comfortable and non-institutional so patients didn’t necessarily feel like they were confined to a hospital, but rather visiting a lodge in the Adirondacks. It was one of an impressive array of buildings added to the remote village—a hotel, a town hall, Trudeau’s sanitarium. “Today you come to this town of 5,000 in the middle of the wilderness, and we have this incredibly built environment,” says Amy Catania, the executive director of Historic Saranac Lake.
A lot, she says, comes from the money brought in by the legendary talent agent William Morris, who represented some of the most famous stars of the time, including Charlie Chaplin, Al Jolson, and Will Rogers. Morris initially came to Saranac Lake to recover from tuberculosis in 1902, and was spending most of his time there by the 1920s. He became heavily involved with local civil groups and charities in the village, bringing in some of the biggest acts of the time—including Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker and Harry Lauder—to raise funds to construct new buildings, including churches for various religions and a day care center.
In the 2015 documentary Hotel Hope, the former Will Rogers Memorial Hospital employee Lucy Dukett and the former patient Elda Cooke met for the first time in more than 65 years to discuss their time at the Will Rogers. Dukett discussed some of her experiences working at the hospital as a receptionist, including when the Western star Roy Rogers went room-to-room visiting patients and let them tear the fringe off his cowboy jacket, and when the legendary tap dancer (and apparent inventor of the moonwalk) Bill Bailey was a patient and got in trouble for dancing too much when he should have been resting.
Another time, Dukett went to the room of a woman who was a Rockette and found her in the bathroom brushing her teeth and doing the dance group’s iconic splits on the wall. When Dukett asked her what she was doing she replied, “What does it look like, I’m brushing my teeth!”
While Cooke was not a performer herself, she had family members in the entertainment industry and came to the Will Rogers from New York City when she was 19 to cure. In Hotel Hope, she read a poem entitled “Good Luck, Elda” given to her by “the gang” at the hospital upon her departure.
“It was a hospital per se, but if you walked in it didn’t look like a hospital,” Dukett said in the documentary.
Patients and visitors entered the Will Rogers through a sprawling carpeted parlor area, complete with a hearth, piano, and plenty of comfortable seating. The dining room doubled as the auditorium, with tables set up in front of a stage in the back of the room. There was one long table for the hospital staff, and more intimate four-person tables for the patients throughout the room. It felt more like a restaurant than an institution; patients could even select from a few meal options on a daily menu.
The dining room and parlor were off-limits between 2:00 and 4:00 p.m. each day, the patients’ designated time of rest. Rather than being treated in massive wards full of beds lining each wall, patients lived in modestly furnished suites, which consisted of private bedrooms with a shared a bathroom and cure porch with large windows to usher in the fresh air.
According to the Saranac Lake resident Jim Griebsch, who directed Hotel Hope, camaraderie was a crucial component not just at the Will Rogers, but also for others curing at Saranac Lake. “You were thrown into this situation and you had to find your level of survival, and your level of survival was how you cultivated your friendships,” Griebsch says. “It was a very strong thing. Also there was the common awareness that there was a common stigma against TB when people went back to their regular lives.”
Sometimes, these relationships went beyond friendship. Because of the stigma surrounding the disease and uncertainty of what would happen if two people with tuberculosis reproduced, having a romantic relationship with a fellow patient was frowned upon, and therefore referred to as euphemistically as “cousining.”
In the documentary, John Nolan, a former Will Rogers patient, indicated that the foyer between the kitchen and the dining room was where he and his wife shared their first kiss.
Almost immediately after opening, the the Will Rogers, back when it was called the NVA Lodge, struggled to maintain funding due to vaudeville’s steep decline in popularity, resulting from the Depression and the rise of radio and motion pictures. Meanwhile, in Alaska, the beloved American humorist Will Rogers was killed in a plane crash in 1935, and a memorial fund was established in his name with the aim of continuing his humanitarian legacy. This included taking over the ownership of the NVA Lodge.
Changing the hospital’s name didn’t affect patient care or experience, but did put it on the map, which helped with fundraising. The hospital also made public-service announcements in movie theaters across the country, asking moviegoers for a modest donation. These announcements featured some of the biggest names in entertainment, including John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant and Gregory Peck.
In 1975, the Will Rogers Memorial Hospital closed because of the widespread use of antibiotics to treat tuberculosis, as well as the building’s aging infrastructure. There were attempts to make the hospital into a nightclub—complete with Elvis impersonators—but that never took off. The building went on to host conferences and offices for the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. Eventually, it was abandoned. But then in the late 1990s, plans were approved to turn the historic structure into a retirement community called Saranac Village at Will Rogers. After a complete interior renovation, it opened to both residents and the public in 2000, returning to its former life as a community center for entertainment, dances, and conferences.
The idea of providing some level of care for entertainers didn’t end when the Will Rogers Memorial Hospital discharged its last patient. In a way, it was the precursor to organizations like SAG-AFTRA and the Actors Fund, which now make health-care more accessible for performers.
Griebsch says that the name of the Hotel Hope documentary came from a poem of the same name by Harold English that appeared in a 1926 vaudeville news publication. “It took the energy of the vaudevillians who were looking for something to help save them, and this was one of the places that was considered to be a place where people could be cured,” Griebsch notes. “These were people who were in a life and death situation in terms of their careers. This was their little ray of hope.”