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Vaudeville

VAUDEVILLE

VAUDEVILLE. Vaudeville flourished as a form of variety theater from the 1880s to the late 1930s, when it succumbed to competing forms of popular entertainment, particularly "talking" pictures. Recent historians have portrayed vaudeville as a place of struggle over class, race, and gender relations and identities in industrial America. Vaudeville also saw the application of consolidation and franchise techniques to the organization of popular entertainment. Benjamin Franklin Keith may have been the first American entrepreneur to use the term vaudeville, adapted from the French vaux-de-vire, referring to popular songs from the French province of Normandy (the valleys of Vire), or from voix de ville (voices of the town).

Keith is also credited with refining the vaudeville format. He and a partner opened a "dime museum" in Boston in 1883, and then expanded their operations to include singers and animal acts. By the mid-1890s, Keith and his subsequent partner, Edward Albee, owned vaudeville theaters in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Providence. According to Keith, vaudeville differed from variety shows, burlesque, minstrel shows, and sideshows in its intentional appeal to "higher" cultural tastes and audiences that included women and children. The Keith vision of genteel popular entertainment resonated with Progressive Era acculturation anxieties, racialist ideologies, and campaigns to sanitize and organize American cities.

Although performers and audiences may have been disciplined to a bourgeois cultural standard on the "big-time" Keith and later Orpheum circuits (the western circuit that merged with the Keith enterprise in 1927), the "small-time" vaudeville theaters nourished their own local audiences, often working class, immigrant, or African American, and their own kinds of humor. While there was an all-black circuit, managed by the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA), from the beginning African American performers also appeared in white-owned vaudeville (which blacks called "white time"). The Whitman Sisters maintained a popular African American vaudeville company that included Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. In a brutally racist society, African American performers and audiences found ways to resist segregation on stage and in the theaters.

When vaudeville's popularity began to fade in the 1920s, some of its stars carried vaudeville forms into the new media of radio, nightclub entertainment, films, and later, television. These included George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Sarah Bernhardt, Eubie Blake, Sammy Davis Jr., W. C. Fields, Cary Grant, the Marx Brothers, Phil Silvers, and Ethel Waters.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

George-Graves, Nadine. The Royalty of Vaudeville: The Whitman Sisters and the Negotiation of Race, Gender, and Class in African American Theater, 1900–1940. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Kibler, M. Alison. Rank Ladies: Gender and Cultural Hierarchy in American Vaudeville. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Slide, Anthony. The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.

MinaCarson

See alsoBurlesque .

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vaudeville

vaudeville (vôd´vĬl), originally a light song, derived from the drinking and love songs formerly attributed to Olivier Basselin and called Vau, or Vaux, de Vire. Similar to the English music hall, American vaudeville was a live entertainment consisting of unrelated songs, dances, acrobatic and magic acts, and humorous skits and sketches by a variety of performers and acts, each on stage for about five minutes. From humble origins in barrooms and "museums," vaudeville became the dominant attraction in American popular entertainment, playing in hundreds of theaters throughout the United States. It flourished from 1881, when Tony Pastor gave the first "big time" vaudeville show in New York City, until 1932, when its greatest center, New York's Palace Theatre, abandoned live shows and became a movie theater. Such headliners as George M. Cohan, Harry Houdini, Eva Tanguay, W. C. Fields, Fay Templeton, Will Rogers, Ed Wynn, Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante, Irene Franklin, Fred Allen, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, and the Marx Brothers began their careers playing the vaudeville circuits. Beginning in the 1890s there also was an invigorating influx of performers from England and France who were a major influence on the growing sophistication and high quality of vaudeville. The popularity of radio and motion pictures caused vaudeville's decline, and many established performers moved into the new media. Television, however, brought about a revival of vaudeville-style revues.

See C. W. Stein, ed., American Vaudeville As Seen by Its Contemporaries (1984); S. Staples, Male-Female Comedy Teams in American Vaudeville, 1865–1932 (1984); A. Slide, ed., Selected Vaudeville Criticism (1988); Trav S. D., No Applause—Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous (2005).

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Vaudeville

VAUDEVILLE


Vaudeville, a light, comical theatrical entertainment, flourished at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century. Its success, like that of organized baseball, was caused by the greater amounts of leisure time and money that industrialization afforded people. The word vaudeville is derived from an old French term for a satirical song, vaudevire, which is a reference to the Vire valley of France, where the songs originated. In the United States vaudeville acts performed variety shows, using music, comedy, dance, acrobatics, magic, puppets, and even trained animals. This form of stage entertainment was based on popular acts that could be seen in British music halls and bar rooms during the nineteenth century.

Vaudeville had made its way to the United States in the 1870s, when acts were performed in theaters in New York, Chicago, and other cities. Two early entrepreneurs in the entertainment form were American theater managers Benjamin Keith (18461914) and Edward Albee (18571930), who opened the Bijou Theatre in Boston in 1885. Eventually they operated almost four hundred theaters, including New York City's Palace Theater, the gem in the Keith-Albee crown. Troupes traveled the circuit of nearly one thousand theaters around the country. As many as two million U.S. citizens a day flocked to the shows to see headliners such as comedians Eddie Cantor (18921964) and W.C. Fields (18801946), singer Eva Tanguay (18781947), and French actress Sarah Bernhardt (18441923). Programs combined a variety of music, theater, and comedy to appeal to a wide audience. Scriptwriters attracted immigrant audiences by using ethnic humor, exaggerating dialects, and joking about the difficulties of daily immigrant life in the United States.


During the first two decades of the twentieth century, vaudeville was the most popular form of entertainment in the country. In the 1930s, just as New York opened the doors of its famous Radio City Music Hall, which was intended to be a theater for vaudeville, the entertainment form began a quick decline. Motion pictures, radio, and, later, television took its place; numerous vaudeville performers parlayed their success into these new media. Among those entertainers who had their origins in vaudeville acts were Rudolph Valentino, Cary Grant, Mae West, Jack Benny, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Will Rogers, and Al Jolsen.

See also: Amusement Parks, Baseball

during the first two decades of the twentieth century, vaudeville was the most popular form of entertainment in the country.

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vaudeville

vaudeville (Fr., either from vaux de vire or voix de ville).
1. In late 16th cent., song with amorous words as sung in the valleys (vaux) near Vire or catches sung in the streets of towns.

2.   In 18th cent., the term came to mean a song with different verses sung in turn by different singers, and this meaning was incorporated into operatic terminology, e.g. a ‘vaudeville finale’, as in Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

3.   In 19th cent., meant short comedies interspersed with popular songs, as in Fr. revues.

4.   In late 19th and 20th cents., a synonym for a variety show or mus.-hall, particularly in USA.

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vaudeville

vaude·ville / ˈvôd(ə)ˌvil; -vəl/ • n. a type of entertainment popular chiefly in the U.S. in the early 20th century, featuring a mixture of specialty acts such as burlesque comedy and song and dance. ∎  a stage play on a trivial theme with interspersed songs. ∎ archaic a satirical or topical song with a refrain. DERIVATIVES: vaude·vil·lian / ˌvôd(ə)ˈvilyən; -ˈvilēən/ adj. & n.

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vaudeville

vaudeville light popular song XVIII; light stage performance with songs XIX. — F. vaudeville †typical song or play, theatrical piece with rhymes, alt. of vaudevire, f. Vau de Vire ‘valley of Vire’, name of a region of Calvados, Normandy, the songs of which had a vogue in XV.

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vaudeville

vaudeville US equivalent of the British music hall variety entertainment. Its rise and fall followed the same pattern as its European counterpart, having its heyday in the late 19th century and eventually succumbing to the cinema's popularity.

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vaudeville

vaudevilleanvil, Granville •Jacksonville • Nashville •Greville, Neville •Melville • Grenville • weevil •Merthyr Tydfil • Louisville •Mandeville • Stanleyville • Knoxville •Orville • Townsville • Léopoldville •Huntsville • Elisabethville •vaudeville • Bougainville •Brazzaville • chervil • tranquil •Anwyl • pigswill • jonquil •whippoorwill • frazil • fusil

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Vaudeville

Vaudeville

Vaudeville, a collection of disparate acts (comedians, jugglers, and dancers) marketed mainly to a family audience, emerged in the 1880s and quickly became a national industry controlled by a few businessmen, with chains of theaters extending across the country. The term vaudeville originates either from the French Val de Vire (also Vau de Vire), the valley of the Vire River in Normandy, known as the location of ballads and comic songs, or from the French name for urban folk songs, "voix de ville" or "voice of the city." By the late nineteenth century, entertainment entrepreneurs adopted the exotic title of "vaudeville" to describe their refined variety performances. Whereas variety shows had a working class, masculine and somewhat illicit reputation in the nineteenth century, early vaudeville innovators eliminated blue material from performances, remodeled their theaters, and encouraged polite behavior in their auditoriums to attract middle-class women and their children in particular. This pioneering process of expansion and uplift laid the foundation for the establishment of a national audience for mass-produced American culture.

It is difficult to define the content of vaudeville entertainment because it was so eclectic. The average vaudeville bill, which usually included between nine and twelve acts, offered something for everyone. Indeed, vaudeville primarily provided an institutional setting for attractions from other show business and sports venues of the day. Circus acrobats, burlesque dancers, actors from the legitimate dramatic stage, opera singers, stars from musical comedies, baseball players and famous boxers all made regular appearances on vaudeville bills. Vaudeville bills also featured motion pictures as standard acts around the turn of the century, providing one of the key sites for the exhibition of early films.

Despite the diversity and cultural borrowing at the heart of vaudeville, this industry had its own aesthetic, standard acts, and stars. It featured a rapid pace, quick changes, and emotional and physical intensity; the personality of individual performers was paramount. Vaudeville demanded affective immediacy (performers tried to draw an outward response from the audience very quickly), as opposed to the more reserved, intellectual response advocated in the legitimate theater. On the vaudeville stage, the elevation of spectacle over narrative and the direct performer/audience relationship contrasted with legitimate drama's emphasis on extended plot and character development and the indirect (or largely unacknowledged) relationship between performers and the audience. And players retained creative authority in vaudeville acts, often writing their own routines, initiating innovations in the acts, and maintaining their own sets, while directors were gaining power over productions in the legitimate theater.

Standard acts included the male/female comedy team, in which the woman usually played the straight role and the man delivered the punch lines. One such pair, Thomas J. Ryan and his partner (and wife) Mary Richfield, starred in a series of sketches about the foibles of Irish immigrant Mike Haggerty and his daughter Mag. Many women, such as Nora Bayes and Elsie Janis, rose to stardom in vaudeville as singing comediennes. Perhaps the most famous singing comedienne was Eva Tanguay. Famous for her chunky physique, her frizzy, unkempt hair and her two left feet, she earned huge salaries for her sensual, frenetic, and often insolent performances. Her hit songs included "I Don't Care" and "I Want Someone to Go Wild with Me." W. C. Fields and Nat Wills were among the many tramp comedians who became headliners in vaudeville and Julian Eltinge, a man who excelled in his portrayal of glamorous women, led the field of female impersonators in vaudeville.

Between approximately 1880 and 1905 most vaudeville bills included at least one and as many as three acts of rough ethnic comedy. Joe Weber and Lew Fields, well-known German (also called Dutch) comedians, spoke with thick accents and fought each other vigorously on stage, while Julian Rose succeeded in vaudeville with his comic monologues about a Jewish immigrant's mishaps. Kate Elinore joined the male-dominated ranks of slapstick ethnic comedy with her portrayal of uncouth Irish immigrant women. Along with being a showcase for ethnic stereotypes, vaudeville also was the main outlet for blackface comedy following the decline of the minstrel show. But it was not only white performers who donned the black mask; black comedians like the well-known Bert Williams also blacked up to fit the caricature of a "shiftless darky."

Vaudeville's styles and standards were embedded in the social and political changes of the era. Bold women like Eva Tanguay reflected (and energized) women's increasing rejection of Victorian codes of conduct around the turn of the century. Women on stage, who sometimes championed divorce and women's suffrage, and women who flocked to the exciting environment of vaudeville theaters participated in the expansion of public roles for women. Ethnic themes and caricatures in comedy sketches provided a crude code of identification in cities that were becoming more diverse as immigration increased in late nineteenth century. Vaudeville's ethnic comedy addressed anxieties about immigration, including the xenophobia of native-born Americans as well as tensions surrounding upward mobility and assimilation within immigrant families. Although many vaudeville performances were titillating and impertinent, the emphasis on propriety and respectability in the major vaudeville circuits was, according to Robert Allen, "another chapter in the history of the consolidation of the American bourgeoisie." Administrators such as B. F. Keith emphasized the opulence of their theaters, their well-mannered patrons, and the clean, even educational acts on stage: their mixed audience seemed to be led by the middle classes.

Vaudeville entrepreneurs drew most of the raw material for their entertainment from nineteenth century popular theater, namely the heterogeneous offerings in the minstrel show, concert saloon, the variety theater, and the dime museum. In fact, vaudeville theater managers often remodeled concert saloons and dime museums into new vaudeville establishments. Concert saloons and variety theaters (terms often used interchangeably) combined bars with cheap (or free) amusements in connected rooms or auditoriums. These largely disreputable institutions were smoky, noisy and crowded; patrons were likely to be drunk; and waitresses, jostling among the men, were often willing to sell sex along with liquor. After running one of the few respectable concert saloons on the Bowery (a street in New York City well-known for its tawdry amusements), Tony Pastor opened a "variety" theater. He eliminated the smoking, drinking and lewd performances that had previously characterized variety entertainment within the setting of the concert saloon. Pastor's variety theater, one of the most successful and famous establishments of its kind between 1880 and 1890, was a pivotal establishment in the early history of vaudeville because other entrepreneurs copied Pastor's reform efforts to popularize variety as "vaudeville."

Benjamin Franklin Keith, the most powerful vaudeville innovator, adopted Pastor's philosophy in his efforts to make dime museums in Boston into respectable vaudeville establishments. Whereas Pastor operated only one theater, Keith eventually mass produced vaudeville for a nation. Born on January 6, 1846, Benjamin Franklin Keith began his career in popular entertainment as a circus performer and promoter in the 1870s and then opened a dime museum in Boston in 1883. Many dime museums, a combination of pseudo-scientific displays and stage entertainment, were housed in storefronts in inexpensive urban entertainment areas and attracted working-class and lower-middle class audiences. Keith, with his colleague Edward F. Albee (also previously a circus performer) worked to remove the working-class reputation of the dime museum. At the museum they displayed circus "freaks" for an admission charge of ten cents, and they soon opened a second-floor theater where they presented a series of singers and animal acts—their first vaudeville bill. He touted his clean variety and dramatic stage productions, such as a burlesque of Gilbert and Sullivan's HMS Pinafore, to draw more middle-class patrons to his theaters. After combining light opera with variety acts in the late 1880s and early 1890s, Keith eventually offered exclusively vaudeville after 1894.

Vaudeville theaters, depending on whether they were classified as "big time" or "small time," served different clientele. With expensive interior designs and stars who demanded high salaries, big time theaters had higher production costs and, consequently, more expensive admission prices than small-time vaudeville did. Big-time theaters were also more attractive to performers because these theaters offered two shows a day and maintained one bill for a full week. Small-time theaters, on the other hand, demanded a more grueling schedule from performers who had to offer three to six shows a day and only stayed in town for three or four days, as small-time theaters maintained a single bill for only half a week. For performers, according to Robert Snyder, "small-time was vaudeville's version of the baseball's minor leagues." Small-time theaters catered primarily to working-class or immigrant audiences, drawing particularly from the local neighborhoods, rather than attracting middle-class shoppers and suburbanites who would frequently arrive at big-time theaters via trolleys and subway lines. One of the leaders of small-time vaudeville was Marcus Loew, who began to offer a combination of films and live performances in run-down theaters in 1905. Over the next decade he improved his existing theaters and acquired new ones, establishing a circuit of 112 theaters in the United States and Canada by 1918.

Whereas before 1900 vaudeville theaters were owned independently or were part of small chains, after 1907 the control of vaudeville rested in the hands of a few vaudeville magnates, including B. F. Keith. In 1923 there were 34 big-time vaudeville theaters on the Keith Circuit, 23 owned by Keith and eleven others leased by Keith. F. F. Proctor and Sylvester Poli each controlled chains of theaters in the East, and Percy G. Williams and Martin Beck, the head of the Orpheum circuit, had extensive vaudeville interests in the West. Another vaudeville organization, the Theater Owners' Booking Association (TOBA), catered to black audiences in the South and employed black performers, including the great blues queens Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, big-time vaudeville in the United States was consolidated under the guidance of Keith largely because of his extensive control of booking arrangements. In 1906 Keith established a central booking office, the United Booking Office (UBO), to match performers and theaters more efficiently. Performers and theater managers subsequently worked through the UBO to arrange bookings and routes. The UBO had tremendous leverage over performers because it was the sole entryway to the most prestigious circuit in the country: if performers rejected a UBO salary, failed to appear for a UBO date, or played for UBO competition, they could be blacklisted from performing on the Keith circuit in the future. When Equity, a trade publication for actors, surveyed the history of vaudeville in 1923, it emphasized the power of central booking agencies, including the UBO (the most prominent booking firm): "It is in the booking office that vaudeville is run, actors are made or broken, theaters nourished or starved. It is the concentration of power in the hands of small groups of men who control the booking offices which has made possible the trustification of vaudeville."

Vaudeville performers tried to challenge the centralized authority of vaudeville through the establishment of the White Rats in 1900. Initially a fraternal order and later a labor union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, the White Rats staged two major strikes, the first in 1901 and the last in 1917. The White Rats never won any lasting concessions from vaudeville theater owners and managers and the union was defunct by the early 1920s.

The leaders of vaudeville organized theaters into national chains, developed centralized bureaucracies for arranging national tours and monitoring the success of acts across the country, and increasingly focused on formulas for popular bills that would please audiences beyond a single city or neighborhood. In these ways, vaudeville was an integral part of the growth of mass culture around the turn of the century. After approximately 1880 a mass culture took shape in which national bureaucracies replaced local leisure entrepreneurs, mass markets superseded local markets, and new mass media (namely magazines, motion pictures and radio) targeted large, diverse audiences.

Vaudeville began to decline in the late 1920s, falling victim to cultural developments, like the movies, that it had initially helped promote. There were a few reports of declining ticket sales (mainly outside of New York City) and lackluster shows in 1922 and 1923 but vaudeville's troubles multiplied rapidly after 1926. Around this time, many vaudeville theaters announced that they would begin to advertise motion pictures as the main attractions, not the live acts on their bills; by 1926 there were only fifteen big time theaters offering straight vaudeville in the United States. The intensification of vaudeville's decline in the late 1920s coincides with the introduction of sound to motion pictures. Beginning with The Jazz Singer in 1927, the innovation of sound proved to be a financial success for the film industry.

In 1928 Joseph P. Kennedy, head of the political dynasty, bought a large share of stock in the Keith-Orpheum circuit, the largest organization of big-time theaters in the country. Kennedy planned to use the chain of theaters as outlets for the films he booked through his Film Booking Office (FBO) which he administered in cooperation with Radio Corporation of American (RCA). Two years later Kennedy merged Keith-Orpheum interests with RCA and FBO and formed Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO). Keith-Orpheum thus provided the theaters for the films that were made and distributed by RCA and FBO. The bureaucratic vaudeville circuits had worked to standardize live acts and subsume local groups into a national audience but vaudeville did not have the technology necessary to develop a mass-production enterprise fully. As Robert Snyder concludes in The Voice of the City, "A major force in the American media had risen out of the ashes of vaudeville."

Vaudeville was also facing greater competition from full length revues, such as the Ziegfeld Follies. While vaudeville bills often included spectacular revues as a single act on the bill, full-length revues increased in popularity after 1915, employing vaudevillians and stealing many of vaudeville's middle-class customers along the way. Between 1907 and 1931, for example, there were twenty-one editions of the Follies. Such productions, actually reviewed as vaudeville shows through the early twentieth century, used thin narratives (like a trip through New York City) to give players the opportunity to do a comic bit or song and dance routine, borrowing the chain of intense performances from the structure of a vaudeville bill.

Just as the revue borrowed vaudeville performers and expanded on spectacles that had been popular as part of a vaudeville bill, the motion picture industry also incorporated elements of the vaudeville aesthetic. Vaudeville performers such as Eddie Cantor, the Marx Brothers, Bert Wheeler, Robert Woolsey and Winnie Lightner took leading roles in film comedies of the 1920s and early 1930s. They brought some of vaudeville's vigor, nonsense, and rebelliousness with them to the movies. Motion pictures, therefore, drew on the traditional acts of vaudeville and, with the aid of technology, perfected vaudeville's early efforts at mass marketing commercial leisure. Vaudeville had helped create a world that made it obsolete.

Vaudeville helped recast the social and cultural landscape of the United States at the turn of the century. From a scattered array of commercial amusements, vaudeville helped build a national system of entertainment. From a realm of raunchy, male-dominated popular entertainment, vaudeville crafted a respectable culture that catered to the female consumer. From a fragmented theatrical world, this entertainment industry forged a mass audience, a heterogeneous crowd of white men and women of different classes and ethnic groups. Vaudeville was thus a key institution in the transition from a marginalized sphere of popular entertainment, largely associated with vice and masculinity, to a consolidated network of commercial leisure, in which the female consumer was not only welcomed but pampered.

—M. Alison Kibler

Further Reading:

Allen, Robert. Vaudeville and Film, 1895-1915: A Study in Media Interaction. New York: Arno Press, 1980.

Bernheim, Alfred. "The Facts of Vaudeville." Equity 8 (September, October, November, December 1923): 9-37; 13-37; 33-41, 19-41.

Distler, Paul Antonie. "Exit the Racial Comics." Educational Thea-tre Journal 18 (October 1966): 247-254.

"The Facts of Vaudeville." Equity 9 (January, February, March,1924): 15-47; 19-45; 17-44.

Gilbert, Douglas. American Vaudeville: Its Life and Times. New York: Dover Publications, 1940, 1968.

——. Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture. ChapelHill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Jenkins, Henry. What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

Kibler, M. Alison. Rank Ladies: Gender and Cultural Hierarchy in American Vaudeville. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

McLean, Albert F., Jr. American Vaudeville as Ritual. Lexington:University of Kentucky Press, 1965.

Snyder, Robert. The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Staples, Shirley. Male/Female Comedy Teams in American Vaudeville, 1865-1932. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984.

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Vaudeville

Vaudeville



For decades during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, vaudeville was a primary means of spreading mainstream entertainment in the United States. Vaudeville came before the establishment of a popular dramatic theater movement on Broadway (see entry under 1900s—Film and Theater in volume 1), and before movies, radio (see entry under 1920s—TV and Radio in volume 2), and then television gained footholds on American popular culture. Vaudeville programs consisted of groups of diverse performers—including singers, dancers, actors, comedians, jugglers, acrobats, animal acts, and magicians—who were hired by talent bookers to tour through regions of the country, performing live, on what was known as the vaudeville "circuit."

The term vaudeville was derived from one of two sources. The first source was the French Val de Vire (or Vau de Vire), the valley of the Vire River in Normandy. The valley was famed for the comic songs and ballads originating in the region back in the fifteenth century. The second source is the "voix de ville" ("voice of the city"), the French term for urban folk songs. Vaudeville came to the forefront during the 1880s, when forward-thinking entrepreneurs (perhaps the best known was Benjamin Franklin Keith [1846–1914]) began to market entertainment for the masses. These entrepreneurs remodeled their theaters, sometimes to lavish proportions, and booked better-quality performers. Some vaudeville theaters were "small time." These theaters were the less ornate venues (sites of events), many located in smaller towns, where lesser-known performers worked longer hours and earned more modest paychecks. Meanwhile, others were "big time." These theaters, located in the major cities, were large, extravagantly designed entertainment palaces. The most popular, highest-salaried performers worked the major theaters, where schedules were less grueling and working conditions were far superior. Part of a vaudevillian's professional status depended upon whether he or she worked a three-a-day or five-a-day schedule, referring to the number of performances per day.

A typical vaudeville bill consisted of between nine and twelve individual acts. Shows generally were fast paced. As the decades passed, styles and standards were altered to fit the changing American scene. Into the early 1900s, even with an emphasis on bringing in family audiences, sensationalism was a great attraction in vaudeville. Customers were treated to such scandalous theatrics as wiggling exotic dancers removing layers of clothing while performing the "dance of the seven veils." Customers came to the theater for star glimpses of such notorious beauties as Evelyn Nesbit (1884–1967), who had been the "other woman" in a celebrated murder case, and swimming champion Annette Kellerman (1887–1975), who had been arrested in Boston for wearing a one-piece bathing suit that had been deemed indecent.

In addition, the humor occasionally was rowdy. Vaudeville programs featured songs and jokes that featured ethnic slurs against Irish, German, Italian, and Jewish immigrants. These insults provided laughs for both deeply rooted Americans and recent European immigrants. Nor were African Americans spared from being the butt of humor based on stereotype; however, many songs spotlighting black behavior actually were sentimental, particularly those that waxed nostalgic for a peaceful life down South. These numbers were performed mainly by white performers who "corked up" (used the black ash off burned corks as makeup) and appeared in blackface, which then was an acceptable practice.

Among the many great stars of early vaudeville were singing comediennes Nora Bayes (1880–1928), Elsie Janis (1889–1956), and Eva Tanguay (1878–1947); juggler-comedian W. C. Fields (1879–1946); Julian Eltinge (1883–1941), a female impersonator; the comedy teams of Joe Weber (1867–1942) and Lew Fields (1867–1941) and Joe Smith (1884–1981) and Charlie Dale (1881–1971), specialists in ethnic humor; and Bert Williams (1874–1922), a renowned African American comedian. Around the turn of the twentieth century, motion picture shorts were added to many vaudeville bills. These were considered novelties, and few vaudevillians realized that the growth of the motion picture industry eventually would result in the death of vaudeville. While many vaudevillians made appearances in early motion pictures, W. C. Fields and other stars became movie headliners. Joining Fields were singer-comedian Eddie Cantor (1892–1964); and the comedy teams of Bert Wheeler (1895–1968) and Robert Woolsey (1889–1938), the Marx Brothers (Harpo [1888–1964], Groucho [1890–1977], Chico [1886–1961], and Zeppo [1901–1979]), and the husband-and-wife duo of George Burns (1896–1996) and Gracie Allen (1902–1964).

Vaudeville began its decline in the late 1920s, with the expanding mass popularity of motion pictures. Back then, a typical screen program included two feature films and, perhaps, a newsreel or travelogue, a comedy short, and a cartoon. When compared with the easy profits that could be made showing films to the public, the coordination and presentation of live vaudeville shows became financially prohibitive—and so "canned entertainment" won the day.


—Audrey Kupferberg


For More Information

Gilbert, Douglas. American Vaudeville: Its Life and Times. New York: Dover Publications, 1940, 1968.

Green, Abel, and Joe Laurie Jr. Show Biz: From Vaude to Video. New York: Henry Holt, 1951.

Laurie, Joe, Jr. Vaudeville: From the Honky Tonks to the Palace. New York: Henry Holt, 1953.

Snyder, Robert. The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Staples, Shirley. Male/Female Comedy Teams in American Vaudeville, 1865–1932. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1984.

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