What Is Vaudeville?
Our vaudeville theatres make strong appeals to the public by offering
an entertainment that amuses without taxing. To those whose minds are
full of business cares and who do not feel up to following the dialogue
and situations of a play which demands a certain amount of intellectual
effort, vaudeville is a boon.
New York Herald, September 3, 1893
Vaudeville was the most popular form of American entertainment from its
rise in the 1880s through its demise in the 1930s. It played much the
same a role in people's lives that radio and later television would for
later generations. Indeed, many early radio, television and film stars
began as vaudeville performers: Bob
Hope, Edgar Bergen, Abbott and Costello, the Marx
Brothers, Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger (the latter two being best known
today as the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow in the 1939 film The Wizard
of Oz). Every medium-to-large size city had its own vaudeville theatre,
and performers on the vaudeville circuit preformed for a national audience
by traveling constantly from town to town. With its national circuits,
its reliance on train transportation and the telegraph, plus its production
of a mode of performance with interchangeable parts, Vaudeville was the
first truly modern form of popular entertainment.
Vaudeville was variety entertainment, consisting of a highly diverse
series of very short acts, or "turns." The acts ranged from singing groups
to animal acts, from comedians to contortionists, from magic tricks to
short musical plays. A typical vaudeville bill consisted of approximately
13 acts, most of which were typically 6-15 minutes long. Many of the modes
of performance developed in vaudeville had a profound effect on popular
culture that continues into the present day. For example, many of the
ethnic stereotypes prevalent in television and film -- Jewish, Irish,
Italian, African American -- derive from the ethnic caricatures that were
a mainstay of Vaudeville comedy. The comedian Frank
Bush, whose act is recreated for Virtual Vaudeville, exemplifies this
brand of ethnic humor.
Vaudeville appealed to a broad cross-spectrum of the public, representing
every class and ethnic group. The wealthiest patrons could purchase exclusive
box seats or seats in the parterre,
while working class spectators could purchase inexpensive seats in the
galleries. Vaudeville had something for everyone,
and particular acts in the vaudeville lineup appealed differently to different
groups in the audience. Irish comics and tenors, for instance, found a
ready audience among the "lace curtain" Irish in the audience while WASP
mothers out shopping with a child might prefer the circus-like entertainment
of an animal act or juggling.
Variety entertainment emerged gradually throughout the nineteenth century,
starting in circus sideshows, concert saloons, burlesque theatres, minstrel
shows, and dime museum performances. These early forms of variety theatre
had an unsavory reputation associated with rough-house behavior and prostitution
and appealed mainly to working class men.
Producers such as Tony Pastor in 1880s and, especially, B.F. Keith and
E.F. Albee in the 1890s gave birth to vaudeville by turning these earlier
forms of variety theatre into "respectable" family entertainment. This
transformation was not an easy one. For example, Douglas Gilbert, in American
Vaudeville (1940), describes the challenge Keith and Albee confronted
when they first opened the Bijou Theatre in Philadelphia in the late 1880s:
[Boys in the gallery] screamed at acts, shouted obsene epithets at
girl performers, and otherwise made life hell for actors and more orderly
patrons. To curb them Albee hired two husky bouncers, strategically
placed them in the gallery, and himself lectured the hoodlums during
intermissions, giving pep talks in sweetness and light from the stage.
His first appearance was greeted with the bird, but he persisted. "Our
theaters," he said in effect, "are for women and children and, we had
hoped, gentlemen." In a fortnight there was little trouble and gradually
none at all. So Albee fired the bouncers and, having his gallery on
the run, insisted that caps be removed, forbade smoking, and banned
all whistling, stamping, spitting on the floor, and crunching of peanuts.
In addition to domesticating rowdy spectators, Keith and Albee cleaned
up the acts themselves, at one point posting a notice for performers on
the bulletin board of their theatres that warned:
Don't say 'slob' or 'son-of-a-gun' or 'hully gee' on this stage unless
you want to be cancelled peremptorily. Do not address anyone in the
audience in this manner. If you have not the ability to entertain Mr.
Keith's audiences without risk of offending them, do the best you can.
Lack of talent will be less open to censure than would an insult to
Keith and Albee introduced "continuous vaudeville," which became
standard practice at the turn of the century. The performances ran non-stop
all day and into the evening, allowing spectators to enter the theatre
at any time and stay as long as they liked much like turning on
a television set.
Virtual Vaudeville is set in 1895 in B.F. Keith's premiere New York vaudeville
venue, the Union Square Theatre. This theatre
embodied all of the practices that Keith and Albee had recently established
in Boston and Philadelphia, and set the pattern for subsequent vaudeville
theatres throughout the country.
A more detailed description of vaudeville's origins can be found on the
A Dazzling Display of Heterogeneous Splendor.