vaudeville n : a variety show with songs and comic acts etc. [syn: music hall]
- music hall (British)
- vaudevillian (noun)
Vaudeville was a genre of variety entertainment prevalent on the stage in the United States and Canada, from the early 1880s until the early 1930s. Developing from many sources, including the concert saloon, minstrelsy, freak shows, dime museums, and literary burlesque, vaudeville became one of the most popular types of entertainment in North America. Each evening's bill of performance was made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts. Types of acts included (among others) musicians (both classical and popular), dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, female and male impersonators, acrobats, one-act plays or scenes from plays, athletes, lecturing celebrities, minstrels, and short movies.
EtymologyThe origin of the term is obscure, but is often explained as being derived from the expression "voix de ville", or "voice of the city". Another plausible etymology finds origins in the French Vau de Vire, a valley in Normandy noted for its style of satirical songs with topical themes. Though "vaudeville" had been used in the United States as early as the 1830s, most variety theatres adopted the term in the late 1880s and early 1890s for two reasons. First, seeking middle class patrons, they wished to distance themselves from the earlier rowdy, working-class variety halls. Second, the French or pseudo-French term lent an air of sophistication, and perhaps made the institution seem more consistent with the Progressive Era's interests in education and self-betterment. Some, however, preferred the earlier term, "variety," to what manager Tony Pastor called its "sissy and Frenchified" successor. Thus one often finds records of vaudeville being marketed as "variety" well into the twentieth century.
BeginningsA descendant of variety, (c. 1860s-1881), vaudeville distinguished itself from the earlier form by its mixed-gender audience, usually alcohol-free halls, and often slavish devotion to inculcating favor among members of the middle class. The form gradually evolved from the concert saloon and variety hall into its mature form throughout the 1870s and 1880s. This more genteel form was known as "Polite Vaudeville."
The true beginnings of vaudeville in America probably lie in New Orleans and the "medicine shows" that toured small towns throughout the country, giving small town America a glimpse into the Music Hall culture of Paris and Great Britain.
In the years before the Civil war, entertainment existed on a different scale. Certainly, variety theatre existed before 1860. Europeans enjoyed types of variety performances years before anyone even had conceived of the United States. On American soil, as early as the first decades of the nineteenth century, theatre goers could enjoy a performance of Shakespeare, acrobats, singers, presentations of dance, and comedy all in the same evening. As the years progressed, seekers of diversified amusements found an increasing number to choose from. A handful of circuses regularly toured the country, dime-museums appealed to the curious, amusement parks, riverboats, and town halls often featured "cleaner" presentations of variety entertainment, while saloons, music-halls, and burlesque houses catered to those with a taste for the risqué. In the 1840s, minstrel shows, another type of variety performance, and "the first emanation of a pervasive and purely American mass culture," grew to enormous popularity and formed as Nick Tosches writes, "the heart of nineteenth-century show business." Medicine shows traveled the countryside offering programs of comedy, music, jugglers and other novelties along with their tonics, salves, and miracle elixirs, while Wild West Shows provided romantic vistas of the disappearing frontier complete with trick riding, music, and drama. Vaudeville incorporated these various itinerant amusements into a stable, institutionalized form centered in America's growing urban hubs.
Problematically, the term "vaudeville," itself, referring specifically to North American variety entertainment, came into common usage after 1871 with the formation of "Sargent's Great Vaudeville Company" of Louisville, Kentucky, and had little if anything to do with the "vaudeville" of the French theatre. Variety showman, M.B. Leavitt claimed the word originated from the French "vaux de ville" ("worth of the city, or worthy of the city's patronage"), but in all likelihood, as Albert McLean suggests, the name was merely selected "for its vagueness, its faint, but harmless exoticism, and perhaps its connotation of gentility." Leavitt and Sargent's shows differed little from the coarser material presented in earlier itinerant entertainments, although their use of the term to provide a veneer of respectability points to an early effort to cater variety amusements to the growing middle class.
In the early 1880s, impresario Tony Pastor, a former ringmaster with the circus turned theatre manager, capitalized on middle class sensibilities and spending power when he began to feature "polite" variety programs in several of his New York City theatres. The usual date given for the "birth" of vaudeville is 24 October 1881, when Pastor famously staged the first bill of self-proclaimed "clean" vaudeville in New York City. Hoping to draw a potential audience from female and family-based shopping traffic uptown, Pastor barred the sale of liquor in his theatres, eliminated questionable material from his shows, and offered gifts of coal and hams to attendees. Pastor's experiment proved successful, and other managers soon followed suit.
PopularityB.F. Keith took the next step starting in Boston, where he built an empire of theatres and brought vaudeville to the people of the United States as well as Canada. Later, E.F. Albee, adoptive grandfather of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee, managed the chain to its greatest success. Circuits such as those managed by Keith-Albee provided vaudeville's greatest economic innovation and the principal source of its industrial strength, enabling a chain of allied vaudeville houses that remedied the chaos of the single theatre booking system by contracting acts for regional and national engagement that could grow from a few weeks to two years.
Albee also gave national prominence to vaudeville's trumpeting of "polite" entertainment, a commitment to entertainment equally inoffensive to men, women, and children. Acts who violated this ethos (e.g., using the word "hell") were admonished and threatened with expulsion from the week's remaining performances or with the canceling of their contracts. In spite of such threats, performers routinely flouted this censorship, often to the delight of the very audience members whose sensibilities were supposedly endangered.
Some of the most prominent vaudevillians continued the migration to cinema, though others found that the gifts that had so delighted live audiences did not translate well into different media. Some performers whose eclectic styles did not conform well to the greater intimacy of the screen, like Bert Lahr, fashioned careers out of combining live performance, radio and film roles. Many others later appeared in the Catskill resorts that constituted the "Borscht Belt". And many simply retired from performance and entered the workaday world of the middle class, that group that vaudeville, more than anything else, had helped to articulate and entertain.
Yet vaudeville, both in its methods and ruling aesthetic, did not simply perish but rather resounded throughout the succeeding media of film, radio and television. The screwball comedies of the 1930s, those reflections of the brief moment of cinematic equipoise between dialogue and physicality, reflect the more madcap comedic elements of some vaudeville acts (e.g., The Three Keatons). In form, the television variety show owed much to vaudeville, riding the multi-act format to success in shows such as "Your Show of Shows" with Sid Caesar and, of course, The Ed Sullivan Show. Even today, performers such as Bill Irwin, a Macarthur Fellow and Tony Award-winning actor, are frequently lauded as "New Vaudevillians".
References to vaudeville and the use of its distinctive argot continue throughout Western popular culture. Terms as “a flop” (an act that does badly), for example, have entered into accepted usage in the American idiom. Many of the most common performance techniques and "gags" of vaudeville entertainers are still seen on television and on film. Vaudeville, like its dime museum and variety theatre forebearers, also continued and solidified a strong American absorption with foreign entertainers.
In the early 21st century, Vaudeville as a concept has been revived in New York City, notably on the Lower East Side. A number of performers - many associated with the venues / promoters Surf Reality and the venue the Bowery Poetry Club - reference vaudeville when describing their type of performance. Notably, Surf Reality has produced a show called "Radical Vaudeville" for several years on end.
- Borscht Belt
- Concert saloon
- Music hall
- Tom Shows
- 1913 Book: How to Enter Vaudeville
- Vaudeville Ventriloquists
- Legends of Vaudeville
- American Vaudeville Museum
- Virtual Vaudeville
- Glossary of Vaudeville Slang
- Listen to the Song "Will It Play In Peoria"
- University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections – J. Willis Sayre Photographs
- University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections – Prior and Norris Troupe Photographs
- University of Washington libraries Digital Collections - 19th Century Actors Photogaphs
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