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What Role Did Vaudeville Play in the Evolution of Entertainment as a Big Business?
- by Mackenzie Postel ‘08-‘09


The Birth of Vaudeville

Birthed from the corporate culture that defined post-Civil War American life, Vaudeville was the Genesis of popular entertainment as big business. A type of variety entertainment, it blossomed from an increased amount of leisure & spending power granted, and depended upon the changing tastes of its audience- urban middle class America. The success of Vaudeville also relied upon showmen with savoir-faire, and white-collared patrons who utilized the era’s improvements in technology (most notably transportation and communication) to develop and monopolize an extensive system of theatre circuits. In effect then, Vaudeville standardized, specialized, and became the roots of American popular entertainment.
The etymology of the term “Vaudeville” is slightly obscure, either derived from the French idiom “voix de ville,” meaning the "voice of the city," or the French valley Vau de Vire known for its satirical songs and specific style of theatre. To further add to the confusion, the first American application of the term was in “Sargent's Great Vaudeville Company of Louisville,” which was completely unrelated to theatre.
Some consider the Father of Vaudeville to be ringmaster-turned-theatre-manager Tony Pastor. Taking advantage of middle class receptiveness and especially spending power, he started featuring variety programs in his New York theatres in the 1880’s. In an effort to have a large, universal audience, including families and mid to upper class women, Pastor eliminated all questionable material from his performances, and even gifted audience members with coal and hams. He truly set the Vaudeville precedent for pleasing the customer at whatever cost.

Normally, Benjamin Franklin Keith, however, has been credited as the true Father of American Vaudeville. ,Keith started out as a barker with a traveling circus and New York dime museums in the 1870's. His dream was to developed a form of variety amusements specifically for the new middle class- to turn them into consumers of experience and sensation. In 1883 he established a museum in Boston which featured his famous "Baby Alice the Midget Wonder" act among others. An enterprising, driven man, Keith established a precedent for perfection with The Bijou- a lavish theatre where the acts were as clean and spotless as the floors. As did Pastor, Keith forbade vulgar material in his acts so as to gain the support/not alienate women & children. Keith is also known for having developed the idea of the continuous performance that left its imprint on vaudeville of the next two decades. Continuous performances ran normally twelve hours, and scheduled acts would perform several times so as to create an illusion of constant/thriving business. In his later years, he established the Vaudeville Manager's Association, establishing a monopoly that was kept alive by his partner E.F. Albee after Keith’s death in 1914.
With revolutionary Keith as their model, soon imitators established themselves around the country- managers such as the famous S. Z. Poli, Klaw and Erlanger, F.F. Proctor, Marcus Loew, and Martin Beck. By the 1890's theatre systems spanned the country and new booking offices handled the promotion and production of shows.

The Show
(Part I)

(part II)

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How can they tell that I'm Irish?
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1910 Edison Records recording of vaudeville performer Edward M. Favor's rendition of Clarence Wainwright Murphy's song How can they tell that I'm Irish?

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"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 [1]

Ante-bellum American entertainment existed on a different level than gentile post-war Vaudeville. Unlike early variety entertainment with its unsavory, infamous circus sideshows, concert saloons, burlesque theatres (and prostitution), minstrel shows, and dime museum performances which appealed to rough-housing, working-class men with an affinity for the risqué, Vaudeville featured clean acts. Vaudeville was the first modern form of popular entertainment (from the 1880s through the 1930s), with circuits across the nation (all medium-to-large cities had their vaudeville theatres, and performers traveled from town to town), & its reliance on new technologies (train transportation, the telegraph, & even use of interchangeable parts). Performances consisted of greatly diverse turns (approximately 13 acts, most of which were typically 6-15 minutes long) which ranged from vocal performances, to animal acts, to comedians, to contortionists, to magic shows, to small musicals & plays.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kvopera.jpg http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA02/easton/vaudeville/vaudevillemain.html
Vaudeville venues were striking monuments of Gilded Age architecture- manifestations of zenith of the new sophistication of urban areas capitalized by corporations. The following is a description of typical Vaudeville theatre:
“The lobby and foyer with white and green marble, burnished brass, leather upholstered furniture, large plate mirrors, and enormous panel paintings by the "eminent artist Tojetti." Keith commissioned Tojetti to create more panel paintings above the huge and heavily gilded proscenium arch inside the auditorium, complimenting the ornate white and gold balconies, twelve private boxes, and walls of green and "rich" rose "in a brocaded silk effect." The design of Keith's New Theatre overlooked nothing. From the elaborate hand-painted ceiling to "the finest toilet and retiring rooms in the country" to the number oft "fragrant floral displays," the offering of "the purest artesian well water" and the "writing materials furnished free--gold pens, sterling silver handles, monogrammed paper and envelopes," Keith's New Theatre conveyed a feeling of lavish abundance coupled with an inescapable air of refinement. Reportedly, even the boiler room featured a thick carpets and a whitewashed coal bin.” [1]
Vaudeville’s success is probably most due to how it appealed to a large cross-spectrum of the American public- almost every class and ethnic group. Well-to-do patrons were able to purchase box seats while working class spectators sat in the cheap galleries. It had something to please everyone- acts were designed to appeal to different groups in the audience. Unfortunately, it is from Vaudeville’s greatest victory for entertainment which today’s biggest downfall in entertainment derives. Many of the stereotypes prevalent in entertainment following the era take their roots in Vaudeville- Jewish, Irish, Italian, African & American ethnic caricatures that were a staple of Vaudeville comedy.




Most consider the slow death of Vaudeville to have been due to the the shift of Vaudeville’s epicenter location- New York City's Palace Theatre- to an exclusive cinema, November 16th 1932. Some believed the withering away of Vaudeville was due to a new and fickle audience of the 1920’s. More logical, however, is the theory that continued growth of the cheaper cinema (in the early 1910s) dealt the final blow to vaudeville. The cost of renting films was much more reasonable in comparison to the price of maintaining performers, recently-unionized stagehands, booking fees, lighting & equipment. Some famous Vaudevillians performers turned to cinema as well; others found that their Vaudeville talents didn’t easily translate to film (called “vaudfilms”), and so had to try out new entertainment media (e.g. the radio).
Vaudeville was a stepping-stone, perhaps even the corner-stone of modern-day entertainment. It set the precedent for what became a widespread appreciation of entertainment and the performing arts. It also set a standard for the genteel treatment of customers/the audience. Even on a more concrete level can one see Vaudeville’s imprint in today’s screwball comedies, horror movies, and musicals.


Interesting Vaudeville Links






[1] "Vaudeville." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 29 May 2009, 17:08 UTC. <citation>29 May 2009</citation> <http://en.wikipedia.org

- Easton, Nick. "vaudeville! A Dazzling Display of Heterogeneous Spelndor." America Studies @ UVa. 2002. incorporation of America. 26 May 2009. <http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA02/easton/vaudeville/vaudeville.html>