Vaudeville, popular from the late 1880’s through the early 1930’s, was a theatrical form of entertainment in the United States and Canada. Vaudeville performances, which often ran around the clock, ran a series of separate, unrelated acts which included musicians, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, male and female impersonators, acrobats, jugglers, and one act plays. Famous celebrities were featured at the beginning of the vaudeville shows to attract attendees while the weakest acts put at the end in order to clear the house.
Prior to vaudeville, the upper class would typically be found attending operas while the middle class attended minstrel shows or concert saloons. The vaudeville runs included “lowbrow” acts which were popular entertainment such as acrobats and trained horses, and also included “highbrow” acts such as opera vocalists and classical musicians.
Vaudeville shows were held in large, opulent, palace like theaters which was part of the attraction. The vaudeville shows, which evolved from earlier saloon hall shows, were designed to eliminate the typical bawdy or raunchy performances that were typical of saloon type shows. They were typical held in alcohol free halls with women and children attending. The atmosphere, content, and combination of acts made for an entertainment medium that appealed to all types of audiences.
The origin of the name “vaudeville” is in question. Some stated that the term was derived from the expression “voix de ville” or “voice of the city” or “songs of the town”. Others think the phrase was simply made up and used to connote vagueness or exoticism.
The Beginnings of Vaudeville
Prior to vaudeville, there were many other forms of entertainment available to amuse the masses. Theaters existed before 1860 in Europe and elsewhere where theatergoers could watch Shakespeare plays, professional singing and dancing shows, and stand-up comedy routines. Travelling circuses were very popular across the United States and Canada. Medicine show toured the country and offered a variety of off-beat entertainment spectacles alongside the displays of tonics, salves, and miracle elixirs.
Wild West shows were also popular and toured the country providing attendees a glimpse of the disappearing frontier while entertaining them with demonstrations of trick horse riding, sharpshooters, and country music shows. Dime museums and freak shows appeared in tourist areas and amusement parks with fanciful rides could be found all over the country.
Saloons, music halls, and burlesque houses catered to patrons who had taste for the more risqué forms of entertainment. In the 1840’s, minstrel shows, featuring variety entertainment performances by white people in blackface, were popular throughout the United States.
Vaudeville incorporated all of these forms of entertainment and centered the shows in America’s growing urban hubs.
How societal changes prompted the vaudeville explosion
During the late 1800’s, technological advancements made everyday tasks easier and had the added benefit of giving the general public more leisure time. As such, the middle class grew and had more spending power than past generations. As technology drove business, urban centers grew as people moved from the country to urban areas closer to the cities in which they worked. And finally, an influx of immigrants in the late 19th century created a diverse population of workers in America and Canada. The diverse population wanted an inexpensive, accessible entertainment medium. Vaudeville fit the bill perfectly.
Tony Pastor creates vaudeville
In the late 1880’s, Tony Pastor, a circus ringmaster, used the fame and fortune gained as a singer and songwriter on New York’s Bowery, to open a series of theaters in New York. He located these theaters in Manhattan’s Union Square district which already contained New York City’s top theaters, restaurants, and shops. In these theaters, on October 24, 1881, Pastor staged the world’s first vaudeville show.
Hoping to draw women and children to his shows, he banned the sale of alcohol in his theaters and prohibited vulgar material from the shows. Seats were offered for 50 cents and as a gimmick, he offered gifts of coal and hams to attendees. Pastor hired an assortment of performers from around the country. Pastor himself even performed in some of the shows. His shows were a great success and other theater managers soon began offering vaudeville shows in their theaters.
B.F. Keith owns the vaudeville circuit
Benjamin Franklin Keith (Keith represents the “K” in the later day RKO movie studio company), began his career as a traveling circus barker in the 1870’s and later owned a dime museum in Boston that featured “Baby Alice the Midget Wonder” and other curious acts. In 1896, Keith opened a string of theaters in the Boston area and soon spread these theaters around the United States and Canada. His great success in these ventures provided Keith the funds needed to build the Bijou Theatre, a lavish, fireproof theater that set the standard for theaters to come. Known as the “Father of American Vaudeville”, Keith centralized production of the performances and rotated performers in his theaters on regional and national tours.
As Pastor had done earlier, B.F. Keith forbad the use of vulgar material in the acts so that the house would appeal to women and children too. He even hired a Sunday school teacher to judge one of the shows as a demonstration of the cleanliness of his shows. A sign posted backstage warned the performers:
“Don’t say “slob” or “son of a gun” or “hully gee” (note: this was an abbreviation for Holy Jesus) on the stage unless you want to be canceled peremptorily. Do not address anyone in the audience in any manner. If you do not have the ability to entertain Mr. Keith’s audience with risk of offending them, do the best you can. Lack of talent will be less open to censure than would be an insult to a patron. If you are in doubt as to the character of your act consult the local manager before you go on stage, for if you are guilty of uttering anything sacrilegious or even suggestive you will be immediately closed and will never again be allowed in a theatre where Mr. Keith is in authority.”
According to vaudeville performer Sophie Tucker,
“Between the (Monday) matinee and the night show the blue envelopes began to appear in the performers mailboxes backstage . . . Inside would be a curt order to cut out a blue line of a song, or piece of business. Sometimes there was a suggestion of something you could substitute for the material the manager ordered out . . . There was no arguing about the orders in the blue envelopes. They were final. You obeyed them or quit. And if you quit, you got a black mark against your name in the head office and you didn’t work on the Keith Circuit anymore. During my early years on the Keith Circuit, I took my orders from my blue envelope and – no matter what I said or did backstage (and it was plenty) – when I went on for the Monday night show, I was careful to keep within bounds.”
Hence, risqué material came to be known as “blue” material on the vaudeville circuits.
Keith developed the concept of “the continuous” where shows ran up to 24 hours per day. Acts typically began at 10:00 AM and ended at 11:00 PM and looped throughout the day. A patron could enter the show at any time and left when the show reached the point where the show had begun when the attendee walked in. According to Keith, “it didn’t matter what time of day you visit, the theatre is always occupied by more or less people, the show is in full swing, everything is bright, cheerful, and inviting.”
The front of B.F. Keith’s theater featured a wealth of decorative detail – wrought iron decorations, stained glass, incandescent lighting, gargoyles, arches, and marble pillars. His theaters were truly palaces for entertainment. The lobby was filled with green marble, burnished brass, leather upholstered furniture, large plate mirrors, and enormous panel paintings. Inside the auditorium were ornate white and gold balconies, twelve private boxes, and walls of green and rich rose in a brocaded silk effect.
B.F. Keith’s rules of vaudeville etiquette extended beyond the performers and included the audience as well. An army of ushers and uniformed attendants handed customers printed cards from silver trays asking female patrons to remove their hats. One card intended for gentlemen read:
“Gentlemen will kindly avoid carrying cigars or cigarettes in their mouths while in the building, and greatly oblige. Gentlemen will kindly avoid the stamping of feet and pounding of canes on the floor, and greatly oblige the Management. All applause is best shown by clapping of hands. Please don’t talk during acts, as it annoys those about you, and prevents a perfect hearing of the entertainment.”
As Keith explained,
“Our rule was to have the party approached by the usher first, second by the assistant head usher, then by the head usher, and lastly by the management who would request the party to leave . . .”
Prior to Keith’s introduction of theater etiquette, audiences expressed their disapproval of a theatrical performance by screaming, hollering, stomping, or throwing vegetables at the performers. In some cases, they even rushed the stage to attack the performers who they felt were particularly unworthy. Keith’s new rules developed a form of entertainment that was well suited to the new middle class and their clean, urban lifestyle.
By 1890, vaudeville had large circuits and houses spread throughout the United States. At its height, vaudeville was rivaled only by churches and public schools as the nation’s premiere public gathering place. Managers like S. Z. Poli, Klaw and Erlanger, F.F. Proctor, Marcus Loew, and Martin Beck began their own profitable enterprises. A comprehensive network of booking offices handled the promotion and production of the vaudeville shows from a centralized location. Vaudeville theaters and circuits were bought and sold as commercial interests. B.F. Keith consolidated their control of vaudeville, first through the United Booking Artists and later through the establishment of the Vaudeville Manager’s Association, establishing a virtual monopoly that lasted well past Keith’s death in 1914.
The epitome of vaudeville was New York City’s Palace Theater. Built by Martin Beck in 1913 along with the new Orpheum Circuit, The Palace was later taken over by B.F. Keith when Keith demanded ¾ of the stock in the theater in order to use acts from Keith’s vaudeville circuit. The Palace billed inventive novelty acts, national celebrities, and masters of vaudeville performance such as Will Rogers.
Other, smaller circuits operated throughout the country too. New England’s “Peanut Circuit” served as a training ground for new performers and allowed established acts a venue to experiment and polish their new material.
By this time, actors on the vaudeville circuits were very skilled. A successful act toured for forty or more weeks per year. Keith’s companies typically demanded two shows per day while vaudeville company’s such as Loew (which eventually morphed into the movie company of the same name) required three and Pantages required four or more shows per day. One of the largest circuits was Martin Beck’s Orpheum Circuit (with Orpheum eventually becoming the “O” in RKO studios). Beck operated forty five vaudeville theaters in thirty six cities throughout the United States and Canada. Another major circuit was owned by Alexander Pantages who launched more than thirty vaudeville theaters and managed another sixty in the United States and Canada.
As vaudeville’s popularity soared, performers rose in renown and established regional and national followings. By 1907, vaudeville was earning $30 million per year with B.F. Keith and his partner, Albee, possessing enough power to neutralize anyone who threatened to move in on their territory. Performers could earn $3,150 per year during a time when a typical factory worker earned less than $1,300 per year. Headliners in “big time” acts could do even better commanding $1,000 or more per week.
The decline of vaudeville
The first public showing of a projected movie on a screen took place at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in 1896. 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 venues to vault their careers in this new form of entertainment. 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 their later careers. By 1910, the popularity of the lower priced cinema venues continued to grow as the popularity of vaudeville began to dwindle. Ironically, cinema was first presented in vaudeville halls.
Alexander Pantages realized the importance of motion pictures and began showing them as early as 1902. By the 1920’s, the vaudeville form of entertainment was beginning to slow down. Most every vaudeville show included a silent film feature on its bill. In 1926, talking pictures were introduced and top vaudeville stars filmed their acts for cinema presentation which let small time theaters offer big time performers on screen at a much lower cost than they would have paid if they hired them for personal appearances.
Vaudeville managers began trimming costs by eliminating segments of live performances. By 1930, most live vaudeville theaters had been wired for sound. Soon after, RKO studios took over the Orpheum vaudeville circuit and turned it into a chain of fulltime movie theaters. Other factors, such as the introduction of radio that allowed people to stay home and listen to entertainment shows on inexpensive receiver sets and the 1930’s depression which forced theaters to cut more live performances in order to save costs, served to fuel the decline of the vaudeville form of entertainment.
On November 16, 1932, New York City’s Palace Theater, the epicenter of vaudeville, changed to an exclusively cinematic presentation format. Vaudeville was dead.
Vaudeville produced a profound impact on popular culture. In form, the television variety shows owed much of their style and content to vaudeville. The multi-act format had renewed success in shows such as Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar and the Ed Sullivan Show. The screwball comedies of the 1930’s which propelled the cinema format to the front and center of the general public, took much of their content from vaudeville acts.