Vaudeville was a theatrical genre of variety entertainment in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s. Each performance was made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill. Types of acts included popular and classical musicians, 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. Vaudeville developed from many sources, including the concert saloon, minstrelsy, freak shows, dime museums and literary 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 the term is obscure, but is often explained as being derived from the expression voix de ville, or "voice of the city." Another plausible etymology finds origins in the French Vau de Vire, a valley in Normandy noted for its style of satirical songs with topical themes. The term vaudeville, referring specifically to North American variety entertainment, came into common usage after 1871 with the formation of Sargent's Great Vaudeville Company of Louisville, Kentucky. It had little, if anything, to do with the Comédie en vaudeville of the French theatre. Variety showman M.B. Leavitt claimed the word originated from the French vaux de ville ("worth of the city, or worthy of the city's patronage.") As Albert McLean suggests, the name may have been selected "for its vagueness, its faint, but harmless exoticism, and perhaps its connotation of gentility."
Leavitt's and Sargent's shows differed little from the coarser material presented in earlier itinerant entertainments, although their use of the term to provide a veneer of respectability points to an early effort to cater variety amusements to the growing middle class. Though vaudeville had been used in the United States as early as the 1830s, most variety theatres adopted the term in the late 1880s and early 1890s for two reasons. First, seeking middle class patrons, they wished to distance themselves from the earlier rowdy, working-class variety halls. Second, the French or pseudo-French term lent an air of sophistication, and perhaps made the institution seem more consistent with the Progressive Era's interests in education and self-betterment. 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 twentieth 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. 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 United States, as early as the first decades of the nineteenth 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. 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, minstrel shows, 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 nineteenth-century show business." 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, 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 United States 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.
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 United States 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 United States and Canada.
At its height, vaudeville played across multiple strata of economic class and auditorium size. 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 apotheoses of remarkable careers.
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. African-American 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.) 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.
The shift of New York City's Palace Theatre, vaudeville's epicenter, to an exclusively cinema presentation on 16 November 1932 is often considered to have been the death knell of vaudeville. Yet, no single event is more than reflective of its gradual withering. The line is blurred further 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 motion picture distributor Famous Players, a subsidiary of Paramount Pictures. Likewise the Orpheum Circuit merged with Keith's and Albee's chain of theatres in 1928 to form Keith-Albee-Orpheum. A few months later the company became the major motion picture studio RKO Pictures (Radio-Keith-Orpheum). So there was no abrupt end to vaudeville, though the form was clearly staggering by the late 1920s.
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 United States 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 early film and old-time radio performers, such as Al Jolson, W. C. Fields, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Jimmy Durante, Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, Edgar Bergen, Fanny Brice, and Eddie Cantor, used the prominence gained in live variety performance to vault into new media. (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, Kate Smith, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Judy Garland, Rose Marie, Sammy Davis, Jr., Red Skelton, Burns and Allen, 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, but found fame in new venues.
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, however, the burgeoning film studios removed what had remained, for many, the chief point in favor of live theatrical performance: spoken dialogue.
Theatre owners discovered they could make more profits by renting films than by producing the labor-intensive vaudeville. Performers tried hanging on for a time in combination shows (often referred to as "vaudefilm") in which, in an inverse of earlier vaudeville, live performances accompanied a cinema-centric performance.
Inevitably, managers further trimmed costs by eliminating more 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 within 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 were producing silent pictures. For a time, the most luxurious theatres continued to offer live entertainment, but the majority of 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.
Though talk of its resurrection was heard throughout the 1930s and after, the demise of the supporting apparatus of the circuits and the inescapably 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 impressario 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 clientèle. 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). In form, the television variety show owed much to vaudeville. The multi-act format had renewed success in shows such as Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar and, of course, 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 American Vaudeville Museum, the world’s largest collection of vaudeville memorabilia, is located at the University of Arizona.
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