Tony Pastor

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Tony Pastor
Born(1837-05-28)May 28, 1837
Manhattan, New York, United States
DiedAugust 26, 1908(1908-08-26) (aged 71)
Elmhurst, New York, United States
OccupationVaudeville Entertainer, Showman and Theater Manager
Years active1867–1903

Tony Pastor (May 28, 1837 – August 26, 1908) was an American impresario, variety performer and theatre owner who became one of the founding forces behind American vaudeville in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. He was sometimes referred to as the "Father of Vaudeville". The strongest elements of his entertainments were an almost jingoistic brand of United States patriotism and a strong commitment to attracting a mixed-gender audience, the latter being something revolutionary in the male-oriented variety halls of the mid-century.[1]

A collection of his papers is maintained at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin,[2] and in the archives of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.[3]

Life and career[edit]

After his Spanish father (Antonio Pastor) came to New York and met his future wife Cornelia Buckley, from New Haven, Connecticut, they lived in Manhattan. Their third child, and first son, Antonio Pastor, was born in Manhattan on May 28, 1837, at his parents' residence at 400 Greenwich Street, in what is now the financial district of lower Manhattan. His father was a Spanish immigrant who supported his family as a barber and part-time musician.[4][5][6]

Early career[edit]

Pastor embarked on a show business career at a very young age, obtaining a job singing at P.T. Barnum's Scudder's American Museum. During the next few years he worked in minstrel shows, the circus business, and as a comic singer in variety revues. He established himself as a popular songwriter during a four-year run at Robert Butler's American Music Hall, a variety theater located at 444 Broadway in what is now called Soho but was then the heart of the lower Manhattan theater district. Pastor published "songsters", books of his lyrics which were sung to popular tunes. The music had no notation, as it was assumed that the audience had a collective knowledge of popular song. The subject matter of his music was intended to be bawdy and humorous.[7]

Tony Pastor and Bonnie Thornton (circa 1897)

Though Pastor was popular with the nearly all-male variety theater audiences, he knew that his ticket sales would double if he attracted a female audience. Soon he began to produce variety shows, presenting an evening of clean fun that was a distinct alternative to the bawdy shows of the time and more appropriate for middle-class families. In 1865 Pastor opened Tony Pastor's Opera House on the Bowery in partnership with minstrel show performer, Sam Sharpley, whom he later bought out. The same year he organized traveling minstrel troupes who toured the country annually between April and October. With shows that appealed to women and children as well as the traditional male audience, his theater and touring companies quickly became popular with the middle classes and were soon being imitated.

In 1874, Pastor moved his company a few blocks to take over Michael Bennett Leavitt's former theater at 585 Broadway. The theater district was moving uptown to Union Square, however, and in 1881 Pastor took a lease on the former Germania Theatre on 14th Street in the same building that housed Tammany Hall. He alternated his theater's presentations between operettas and family-oriented variety shows, creating what became known as vaudeville. His theater featured performers such as Ben Harney presenting a new style called "ragtime" as well as other up-and-coming talents such as Weber and Fields, George M. Cohan, Sophie Tucker, Lillian Russell, Buster Keaton, Gus Edwards, Eva Tanguay, Blossom Seeley, Benny Fields, May Irwin and Eddie Leonard. Harry S. Sanderson was his business manager from 1878 until 1908. The business records from this period are available to researchers.[2]

In the musical Hello, Dolly!, the song "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" includes the line, "We'll join the Astors at Tony Pastor's". It also references seeing "the shows at Delmonico's", which suggests that the character does not really know about upper class social life in New York.

Tony Pastor died in Elmhurst, New York on August 26, 1908 and was interred in the Cemetery of the Evergreens, in Brooklyn. He was 71, and though greatly mourned at his death as one of the last gentlemen of the early vaudeville halls, the medium had passed him by with the advent of the vaudeville circuit in the 1880s. Pastor had remained a local showman in an epoch that increasingly came to be dominated by regional and national chains. Fighting against the monopolies for the rights of individual local showmen was an undertaking that marked the last years of his life, earning him the nickname of "Little Man Tony".


According to the humor of the time, Pastor wrote several songs that negatively portrayed ethnic stereotypes, such as "The Contraband's Adventures", the story of a freed slave. After the slave is set free by Union soldiers, he attends an anti-slavery meeting where the abolitionists try to scrub off his dark pigment. The slave concludes by singing...

...De nigger will be nigger till de day of jubilee

For he never was intended for a white man.
Den just skedaddle home-leave de colored man alone;
For you're only making trouble for de nation;
You may fight and you may fuss
But you never will make tings right
Until you all agree for to let de nigger be

For you'll neber, neber, neber wash him white!

Though he separated some ethnic groups in his music, he also intended to unite the lower and middle classes. In songs like "The Upper and Lower Ten Thousand", he defended the common man of the Bowery:

If an Upper-Ten fellow a swindler should be

And with thousands of dollars of others make free
Should he get into court, why, without any doubt,
The matter's hushed up and they'll let him step out.
If a Lower-Ten Thousand chap happens to steal,
For to keep him from starving, the price of a meal,
Why the law will declare it's a different thing-

For they call him a thief, and he's sent to Sing-Sing!


  1. ^ Snyder, Robert W. (1989). The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505285-4.
  2. ^ a b "Tony Pastor: An Inventory of His Collection". Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. Retrieved 2014-12-23.
  3. ^ "Tony Pastor collection". Archives & Manuscripts. New York Public Library. Retrieved 2014-12-23.
  4. ^ Fields, Armond (2007). Tony Pastor, Father of Vaudeville. McFarland. pp. 4–6. ISBN 978-0-7864-3054-3.
  5. ^ Zellers, Parker (1971). Tony Pastor: Dean of the Vaudeville Stage. Eastern Michigan University Press.
  6. ^ Horton, William Ellis (1902). About Stage Folks. Free Press Printing. p. 9.
  7. ^ "Tony Pastor and His 60 Years on the Stage". New York Times. August 16, 1908.

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