Vaudeville is a theatrical genre of variety entertainment. It was especially popular in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s. A typical vaudeville performance is made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill. Types of acts have included popular and classical musicians, singers, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, female and male impersonators, acrobats, illustrated songs, jugglers, one-act plays or scenes from plays, athletes, lecturing celebrities, minstrels, and movies. A vaudeville performer is often referred to as a "vaudevillian".
Vaudeville developed from many sources, including the concert saloon, minstrelsy, freak shows, dime museums, and literary American burlesque. Called "the heart of American show business," vaudeville was one of the most popular types of entertainment in North America for several decades.
The origin of this term is obscure, but is often explained as being derived from the French expression voix de ville ("Voice City"). A second speculation is that it comes from the fifteenth-century songs on satire by poet Olivier Basselin, "Vaux de Vire." Some, however, preferred the earlier term "variety" to what manager Tony Pastor called its "sissy and Frenchified" successor. Thus, vaudeville was marketed as "variety" well into the 20th century.
A descendant of variety, (c. 1860s–1881), vaudeville was distinguished from the earlier form by its mixed-gender audience, usually alcohol-free halls, and often slavish devotion to inculcating favor among members of the middle class.[clarification needed] The form gradually evolved from the concert saloon and variety hall into its mature form throughout the 1870s and 1880s. This more genteel form was known as "Polite Vaudeville."
In the years before the American Civil War, entertainment existed on a different scale. Certainly, variety theatre existed before 1860 in Europe and elsewhere. In the US, as early as the first decades of the 19th century, theatregoers could enjoy a performance consisting of Shakespeare plays, acrobatics, singing, dancing, and comedy. As the years progressed, people seeking diversified amusement found an increasing number of ways to be entertained. Vaudeville was characterized by traveling companies touring through cities and towns. A handful of circuses regularly toured the country; dime museums appealed to the curious; amusement parks, riverboats, and town halls often featured "cleaner" presentations of variety entertainment; and saloons, music halls and burlesque houses catered to those with a taste for the risqué. In the 1840s, the minstrel show, another type of variety performance, and "the first emanation of a pervasive and purely American mass culture," grew to enormous popularity and formed what Nick Tosches called "the heart of 19th-century show business." A significant influence also came from Dutch minstrels and comedians. Medicine shows traveled the countryside offering programs of comedy, music, jugglers and other novelties along with displays of tonics, salves, and miracle elixirs, while "Wild West" shows provided romantic vistas of the disappearing frontier, complete with trick riding, music and drama. Vaudeville incorporated these various itinerant amusements into a stable, institutionalized form centered in America's growing urban hubs.
In the early 1880s, impresario Tony Pastor, a circus ringmaster turned theatre manager, capitalized on middle class sensibilities and spending power when he began to feature "polite" variety programs in several of his New York City theatres. The usual date given for the "birth" of vaudeville is October 24, 1881 at New York's Fourteenth Street Theater, when Pastor famously staged the first bill of self-proclaimed "clean" vaudeville in New York City. Hoping to draw a potential audience from female and family-based shopping traffic uptown, Pastor barred the sale of liquor in his theatres, eliminated bawdy material from his shows, and offered gifts of coal and hams to attendees. Pastor's experiment proved successful, and other managers soon followed suit.
Performance bill for Temple Theatre, Detroit, December 1, 1902.
The manager's comments, sent back to the circuit's central office weekly, follow each act's description. The bill illustrates the typical pattern of opening the show with a "dumb" act to allow patrons to find their seats, placing strong acts in second and penultimate positions, and leaving the weakest act for the end, to clear the house.
As well, note that in this bill, as in many vaudeville shows, acts often associated with "lowbrow" or popular entertainment (acrobats, a trained mule) shared a stage with acts more usually regarded as "highbrow" or classical entertainment (opera vocalists, classical musicians).
B. F. Keith took the next step, starting in Boston, where he built an empire of theatres and brought vaudeville to the US and Canada. Later, E. F. Albee, adoptive grandfather of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee, managed the chain to its greatest success. Circuits such as those managed by Keith-Albee provided vaudeville's greatest economic innovation and the principal source of its industrial strength. They enabled a chain of allied vaudeville houses that remedied the chaos of the single-theatre booking system by contracting acts for regional and national tours. These could easily be lengthened from a few weeks to two years.
Albee also gave national prominence to vaudeville's trumpeting "polite" entertainment, a commitment to entertainment equally inoffensive to men, women and children. Acts that violated this ethos (e.g., those that used words such as "hell") were admonished and threatened with expulsion from the week's remaining performances or were canceled altogether. In spite of such threats, performers routinely flouted this censorship, often to the delight of the very audience members whose sensibilities were supposedly endangered. He eventually instituted a set of guidelines to be an audience member at his show, and these were reinforced by the ushers working in the theater.
This "polite entertainment" also extended to Keith's company members. He went to extreme measures to maintain this level of modesty. Keith even went as far as posting warnings backstage such as this: “Don't say ‘slob’ or ‘son of a gun’ or ‘hully gee’ on the stage unless you want to be canceled peremptorily…if you are guilty of uttering anything sacrilegious or even suggestive you will be immediately closed and will never again be allowed in a theater where Mr. Keith is in authority." Along these same lines of discipline, Keith’s theater managers would occasionally send out blue envelopes with orders to omit certain suggestive lines of songs and possible substitutions for those words. If actors chose to ignore these orders or quit, they would get “a black mark” on their name and would never again be allowed to work on the Keith Circuit. Thus, actors learned to follow the instructions given them by B.F. Keith for fear of losing their careers forever.
By the late 1890s, vaudeville had large circuits, houses (small and large) in almost every sizable location, standardized booking, broad pools of skilled acts, and a loyal national following. One of the biggest circuits was Martin Beck's Orpheum Circuit. It incorporated in 1919 and brought together 45 vaudeville theaters in 36 cities throughout the US and Canada and a large interest in two vaudeville circuits. Another major circuit was that of Alexander Pantages. At his hey-day Pantages owned more than 30 vaudeville theaters and controlled, through management contracts, perhaps 60 more in both the US and Canada.
At its height, vaudeville played across multiple strata of economic class and auditorium size. On the vaudeville circuit, it was said that if an act would succeed in Peoria, Illinois, it would work anywhere. The question "Will it play in Peoria?" has now become a metaphor for whether something appeals to the American mainstream public. The three most common levels were the “small time” (lower-paying contracts for more frequent performances in rougher, often converted theatres), the “medium time” (moderate wages for two performances each day in purpose-built theatres), and the “big time” (possible remuneration of several thousand dollars per week in large, urban theatres largely patronized by the middle and upper-middle classes). As performers rose in renown and established regional and national followings, they worked their way into the less arduous working conditions and better pay of the big time. The capitol of the big time was New York City's Palace Theatre (or just “The Palace” in the slang of vaudevillians), built by Martin Beck in 1913 and operated by Keith. Featuring a bill stocked with inventive novelty acts, national celebrities, and acknowledged masters of vaudeville performance (such as comedian and trick roper Will Rogers), the Palace provided what many vaudevillians considered the apotheosis of remarkable careers. A standard show bill would begin with a sketch, follow with a single – an individual male or female performer, next would be an alley oop – an acrobatic act, then another single, followed by yet another sketch such as a blackface comedy. The acts that followed these for the rest of the show would vary from musicals to jugglers to song and dance singles and end with a final extravaganza – either musical or drama – with the full company. These shows would feature such stars as Eubie Blake – a piano player, the famous and magical Harry Houdini and child star, Baby Rose Marie, adds Gilbert. In the New York Tribune’s article about Vaudeville, it is said that at any given time, Vaudeville was employing over twelve thousand different people throughout its entire industry. Each entertainer would be on the road 42 weeks at a time while working a particular “Circuit” – or an individual theatre chain of a major company.
While the neighborhood character of vaudeville attendance had always promoted a tendency to tailor fare to specific audiences, mature vaudeville grew to feature houses and circuits specifically aimed at certain demographic groups. Black patrons, often segregated into the rear of the second gallery in white-oriented theatres, had their own smaller circuits, as did speakers of Italian and Yiddish. (For a brief discussion of Black vaudeville, see Theater Owners Booking Association.) This foreign addition combined with comedy produced such acts as “minstrel shows of antebellum America” and Yiddish theater. PBS adds that many of these ethnic families joined in on this entertainment business, and for them, this traveling lifestyle was simply a continuation of the adventures that brought them to America. Through these acts, they were able to assimilate themselves into their new home while also bringing bits of their own culture into this new world. White-oriented regional circuits, such as New England's "Peanut Circuit", also provided essential training grounds for new artists while allowing established acts to experiment with and polish new material. At its height, vaudeville was rivaled only by churches and public schools among the nation's premiere public gathering places.
Another slightly different aspect of Vaudeville was an increasing intrigue with the female figure. The previously mentioned ominous idea of “the blue envelopes” led to the phrase “blue” material, which described the provocative subject matter present in many Vaudeville acts of the time. Many managers even saw this scandalous material as a marketing strategy to attract many different audiences. As stated in Andrew Erdman’s book Blue Vaudeville, the Vaudeville stage was even marked with descriptions like, “a highly sexualized space…where unclad bodies, provocative dancers, and singers of ‘blue’ lyrics all vied for attention.” Such performances highlighted and objectified the female body as a “sexual delight,” a phenomenon that historians believe emerged in the mid-19th century. But more than that, these historians think that Vaudeville marked a time in which the female body became its own “sexual spectacle” more than it ever had before. This sexual image began sprouting everywhere an American went: the shops, a restaurant, the grocery store, etc. The more this image brought in the highest revenue, the more Vaudeville focused on acts involving women. Even acts that were as innocent as a sister act were higher sellers than a good brother act. Consequently, Erdman adds that female Vaudeville performers such as Julie Mackey and Gibson’s Bathing Girls began to focus less on talent and more on physical appeal through their figure, tight gowns, and other revealing attire. It eventually came as a surprise to audience members when such beautiful women actually possessed talent in addition to their appealing looks. This element of surprise colored much of the reaction to the female entertainment of this time.
The continued growth of the lower-priced cinema in the early 1910s dealt the heaviest blow to vaudeville. This was similar to the advent of free broadcast television's diminishing the cultural and economic strength of the cinema. Cinema was first regularly commercially presented in the US in vaudeville halls. The first public showing of movies projected on a screen took place at Koster and Bial's Music Hall in 1896. Lured by greater salaries and less arduous working conditions, many performers and personalities, such as Al Jolson, W. C. Fields, Mae West, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Jimmy Durante, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Edgar Bergen, Fanny Brice, Burns and Allen, and Eddie Cantor, used the prominence gained in live variety performance to vault into the new medium of cinema. In so doing, such performers often exhausted in a few moments of screen time the novelty of an act that might have kept them on tour for several years. Other performers who entered in vaudeville's later years, including Jack Benny, Abbott and Costello, Kate Smith, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Judy Garland, Rose Marie, Sammy Davis, Jr., Red Skelton, and The Three Stooges, used vaudeville only as a launching pad for later careers. They left live performance before achieving the national celebrity of earlier vaudeville stars, and found fame in new venues.
The line between live and filmed performances was blurred by the number of vaudeville entrepreneurs who made more or less successful forays into the movie business. For example, Alexander Pantages quickly realized the importance of motion pictures as a form of entertainment. He incorporated them in his shows as early as 1902. Later, he entered into partnership with the Famous Players-Lasky, a major Hollywood production company and an affiliate of Paramount Pictures.
By the late 1920s, almost no vaudeville bill failed to include a healthy selection of cinema. Earlier in the century, many vaudevillians, cognizant of the threat represented by cinema, held out hope that the silent nature of the "flickering shadow sweethearts" would preclude their usurpation of the paramount place in the public's affection. With the introduction of talking pictures in 1926, the burgeoning film studios removed what had remained the chief difference in favor of live theatrical performance: spoken dialogue. Historian John Kenrick wrote:
Top vaudeville stars filmed their acts for one-time pay-offs, inadvertently helping to speed the death of vaudeville. After all, when "small time" theatres could offer "big time" performers on screen at a nickel a seat, who could ask audiences to pay higher amounts for less impressive live talent? The newly-formed RKO studios took over the famed Orpheum vaudeville circuit and swiftly turned it into a chain of full-time movie theaters. The half-century tradition of vaudeville was effectively wiped out within less than four years.
Inevitably, managers further trimmed costs by eliminating the last of the live performances. Vaudeville also suffered due to the rise of broadcast radio following the greater availability of inexpensive receiver sets later in the decade. Even the hardiest in the vaudeville industry realized the form was in decline; the perceptive understood the condition to be terminal. The standardized film distribution and talking pictures of the 1930s confirmed the end of vaudeville. By 1930, the vast majority of formerly live theatres had been wired for sound, and none of the major studios was producing silent pictures. For a time, the most luxurious theatres continued to offer live entertainment, but most theatres were forced by the Great Depression to economize.
Some in the industry blamed cinema's drain of talent from the vaudeville circuits for the medium's demise. Others argued that vaudeville had allowed its performances to become too familiar to its famously loyal, now seemingly fickle audiences.
There was no abrupt end to vaudeville, though the form was clearly sagging by the late 1920s. The shift of New York City's Palace Theatre, vaudeville's epicenter, to an exclusively cinema presentation on November 16, 1932 is often considered to have been the death knell of vaudeville. No single event is more reflective of its gradual withering.
Though talk of its resurrection was heard during the 1930s and later, the demise of the supporting apparatus of the circuits and the higher cost of live performance made any large-scale renewal of vaudeville unrealistic.
The most striking examples of Gilded Age theater architecture were commissioned by the big time vaudeville magnates and stood as monuments of their wealth and ambition. Examples of such architecture are the theaters built by impresario Alexander Pantages. Pantages often used architect B. Marcus Priteca (1881–1971), who in turn regularly worked with muralist Anthony Heinsbergen. Priteca devised an exotic, neo-classical style that his employer called "Pantages Greek".
Though classic vaudeville reached a zenith of capitalization and sophistication in urban areas dominated by national chains and commodious theatres, small-time vaudeville included countless more intimate and locally controlled houses. Small-time houses were often converted saloons, rough-hewn theatres or multi-purpose halls, together catering to a wide range of clientele. Many small towns had purpose-built theatres.
Some of the most prominent vaudevillians continued the migration to cinema, though others found that the gifts that had so delighted live audiences did not translate well into different media. Some performers such as Bert Lahr fashioned careers out of combining live performance, radio and film roles. Many others later appeared in the Catskill resorts that constituted the "Borscht Belt". Many simply retired from performance and entered the workaday world of the middle class, the group that vaudeville, more than anything else, had helped to articulate and entertain.
Yet vaudeville, both in its methods and ruling aesthetic, influenced the succeeding media of film, radio, and television. The screwball comedies of the 1930s, those reflections of the brief moment of cinematic equipoise between dialogue and physicality, reflect the more madcap comedic elements of some vaudeville acts (e.g., The Three Keatons). The arsenal of the vaudeville tradition was reused in the preeminent prime-time radio variety shows, like The Rudy Vallee Show. From the structure of vaudeville, with a comic host doing a monologue and introducing a series of acts, originated highly successful television shows, from Milton Berle in 1948 to David Letterman's late night show of the 1980s. The multi-act format had renewed success in shows such as Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar and, The Ed Sullivan Show. Today, performers such as Bill Irwin, a MacArthur Fellow and Tony Award-winning actor, are frequently lauded as being "New Vaudevillians."
References to vaudeville and the use of its distinctive argot continue throughout Western popular culture. Terms such as "a flop" (an act that does badly), for example, have entered the American idiom. Many of the most common performance techniques and "gags" of vaudeville entertainers are still seen on television and on film. Vaudeville, like its dime museum and variety theatre forebears, also continued and solidified a strong American absorption with foreign entertainers.
The WWE's Developmental Program, NXT, has a tag team of Aiden English and Simon Gotch, the Vaudevillians.
The records of the Tivoli Theatre are housed at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia, with additional personal papers of vaudevillian performers from the Tivoli Theatre, including extensive costume and set design holdings, held by the Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.
The American Vaudeville Museum, one of the largest collection of vaudeville memorabilia, is located at the University of Arizona.
The Benjamin Franklin Keith and Edward F. Albee Collection housed at the University of Iowa includes a large collection of managers' report books recording and commenting on the lineup and quality of the acts each night.
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- Trav S.D., No Applause-Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, 2005, Faber & Faber, ISBN 0-571-21192-5
- Kenrick, John. "A History of The Musical: Vaudeville".
- F. Cullen, F. Hackman, D. McNeilly, "Vaudeville History," in Vaudeville, Old & New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performers in America, xi-xxxii (London: Routledge, 2007).
- "Television in the United States." Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2011. Web. 06 Jun. 2011.
- Tosches, Nick (2002). Where Dead Voices Gather. Boston: Back Bay Books. p. 11. ISBN 0-316-89537-7.
- Nils Grosch, Tobias Widmaier (Hrsg.) (2010) Lied und populäre Kultur - Song and Popular Culture p.233 quotation:
[...] the widespread influence Dutch minstrels and comedians had with their musical and dramaturgical idiom on vaudeville, the circuit of traveling tent shows. [...] The Black Crook of 1866 [...] already displayed a mixture of "ersatz German romanticism" (Gerald Bordman) and burlesque elements inherited from the Dutch character shows [...]
- Gilbert, Douglas (1940). American Vaudeville: Its Life and Times. Whittlesey House.
- Webwerks. "The New York Tribune: Vaudeville". Oldnewsads.com. Retrieved January 17, 2012.
- PBS. "Vaudeville: About Vaudeville". PBS. National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
- Erdman, Andrew L. Blue Vaudeville. McFarland & Company, Inc.
- Kenrick, John. "History of Musical Film, 1927-30: Part II". Musicals101.com, 2004, accessed May 17, 2010
- Senelick, Laurence (1993). Don B. Wilmeth and Tice Miller, ed. Cambridge Guide to American Theatre. Cambridge. p. 480. ISBN 0-521-40134-8.
- Hilmes, Michele (2010) Only Connect: A Cultural History of Broadcasting in the United States p.97, quotation:
[...] it is in the form of the variety show itself, network radio's offering, that we can see the influence of vaudeville on radio most clearly. From The Rudy Vallee Show through Jack Benny and Bing Crosby to TV programs like The Ed Sullivan Show, The Smothers Brothers, Saturday Night Live, In Living Color, and even Late Night with David Letterman, we can see strong remnants of vaudeville's typical variety act structure. Combining a host/announcer with comedy sketches, musical performances, dance, monologues, and satiric banter--sometimes even animal acts--the variety show takes myriad forms today. The vaudeville circuit of touring companies and local theaters is gone, but it lives on electronically.
- Henry III, William A. (1989-05-15). "Theater: Bowing Out with a Flourish". Time. Retrieved 2010-05-27.
- Thirteen / WNET New York is the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) affiliate station for the metropolitan New York area and one of the key program providers for PBS. Anu Krishnan, Peter Tierney, Diana Cofresi-Terrero, Leslie Kriesel, Ruiyan Xu, Brian Santalone. "Great Performances . Dialogue. Bill Irwin, Crown Prince. Bill Irwin". PBS. Retrieved 2010-09-12.
- "Vaudeville Lives: The world’s largest Vaudeville memorabilia collection has been donated to the UA," UA News. February 25, 2009.
- "The Keith/Albee Collection: The Vaudeville Industry, 1894-1935 by M. Alison Kibler, From Books at Iowa 56 (April 1992)"
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