What Is Vaudeville?
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:
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:
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 website Vaudeville: A Dazzling Display of Heterogeneous Splendor.
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