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 centuries.
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 frequent crisscrossing of the United States by train. The grueling schedule and cramped conditions were ideal breeding ground for infectious diseases—tuberculosis, in particular, was 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 sanitorium 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.