Vaudeville Analysis

The Bill

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Vaudeville theater managers would arrange the “bill” for each show, deciding the order in which performers would take the stage. A vaudeville show might include anywhere from two to twenty-two acts; a typical show would have eight to ten. The audience would be taking their seats during the opening act, so the first performance was usually a “dumb act,” something that was visually interesting but not dependent on music or dialogue—perhaps a juggler, tightrope walker, magician, or a trained animal act.

The second act might be a singing duo or song-and-dance team. The third act, called by vaudeville performers the “three-spot,” could be a short play, a comedy skit, or a group of dancers. The three-spot was typically followed by either a famous performer who was not quite famous enough to be the headliner, or something elaborate and eye-catching—perhaps a large dance troupe—to thrill the audience just before intermission. The best act on the bill would appear next to last, followed by the closing spot, called “the chaser” or “playing to the haircuts” because most of the audience would leave after seeing the headlining act.

Vaudeville The Performers

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Vaudeville performers ran the gamut from celebrities such as Helen Keller, Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, W. C. Fields, and Sarah Bernhardt to the Banana Man, whose act consisted of pulling large objects out of his coat. A 1913 mail-order course for hopeful performers suggested countless talents that might be developed into a vaudeville act. These included escaping from handcuffs, posing like a statue, imitating birds or simply whistling, performing feats of strength, yodeling, and reading minds.

Although vaudeville was considered a lower form of entertainment, designed for an unsophisticated audience, famous personalities often worked vaudeville circuits to keep their names before the public or to bolster failing careers. Playing a vaudeville circuit would bring the performer into contact with a vast number of people. Vaudeville performers included magicians such as Harry Houdini (who became famous for his ability to escape from handcuffs and straitjackets) and comedians such as George Burns, Bert Lahr (who later played the Cowardly Lion in the motion picture The Wizard of Oz, 1939), and the famed African American Bert Williams.

Novelty acts were also popular. These might include snake charmers, singing ducks, or dogs that could juggle. Hadji Ali was a popular “regurgitator” who swallowed a pint of kerosene and then spit it out, setting a small model house on fire. Teenage conjoined twins the Hilton Sisters played clarinet duets; the Albee Sisters sang and danced wearing evening gowns and fake mustaches.

Most vaudevillians were, like their audience, from immigrant and working-class backgrounds. If they became successful in larger vaudeville circuits (such as the Keith-Orpheum circuit) they could make two or three times the money they would earn as laborers. They often wrote their own material and designed their own costumes, sets, and props. A vaudeville performer would typically develop one act and play it over and over; the most successful created unique stage personalities and signature pieces that an audience would recognize. The best acts had “insurance”—material that was guaranteed to go over well. Enthusiasm and high energy would usually help put over an act, and speed was important. Vaudeville’s success is often attributed to the great variety and short duration of its acts. Vaudeville managers preferred wild, fast-paced comedy to serious material and would make sure no performance ran over its allotted time.

Vaudeville Ethnic and Racial Acts

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Most vaudeville bills included male or female comedians portraying Chinese, Jewish, Asian, or Italian immigrants. Their comedy skits usually involved an immigrant not knowing how to behave properly in American society. Immigrants in the audience would also have struggled to feel at home in the United States, and they seemed to enjoy these exaggerated portrayals of ethnic groups. Racial and ethnic humor fell out of favor with vaudeville managers as new organizations such as the United Irish Societies of New York and the Associated Rabbis of America objected to acts that made ethnic characters appear foolish.

Vaudeville also incorporated many elements of “minstrel shows,” variety shows popular through the late nineteenth century. In early minstrel shows white performers entertained each other with comic portrayals of stereotypical African American characters. The performers wore “blackface”—dark black facial makeup with exaggerated mouths painted on in white lipstick. Minstrel shows included jokes, songs, comic dialogues, and short plays. Vaudeville often featured acts based on minstrel shows, and some African American performers even used the traditional blackface makeup.

Many vaudeville managers would not put more than one African American act in a show, and most did not want to book African American acts that offered serious material rather than stereotypical comic characters. Some African American acts refused to present these characters or to perform in the expected makeup or costumes . The teenage Nicholas Brothers sang and danced dressed in tailcoats. Cabaret musician Bobby Short performed in vaudeville as a child but quit after being made to perform his song “Shoe-Shine Boy” while shining the shoes of a line of chorus girls.

The Decline of Vaudeville

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The release of the first talking films in the late 1920’s heralded the end of vaudeville. Movies became more popular during the Great Depression, offering fantasy and escapism during hard times, and at a low price. Theaters originally built for the vaudeville circuits increasingly showed movies instead. Stars of vaudeville left the circuits to perform in movies, on radio, and eventually in television, where variety programs mirrored the vaudeville format. The growing popularity of radio and television programs also kept vaudeville’s audience at home. By 1932 there was only one theater left in the United States devoted exclusively to vaudeville. Many former vaudeville acts became stars in radio, television, and films, including the Marx Brothers, Fields, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Mae West, and Bob Hope.

Vaudeville Bibliography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Alter, Judy. Vaudeville: The Birth of Show Business. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998. This introduction to vaudeville discusses the rise and fall of vaudeville, the types of performances that were popular in vaudeville, the theaters, and performers. Also looks at the influence of vaudeville on modern entertainment.

Laurie, Joe, Jr. Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace. New York: Henry Holt, 1953. A detailed history, with profiles of the circuit owners and detailed descriptions of many typical vaudeville acts, presented through a series of letters between two fictional veteran vaudevillians.

Palmer, Greg. Vaudeville. New York: Fox/Lorber, 1997. Documentary explores the history of vaudeville through vintage clips of more than eighty vaudeville acts and interviews with many former vaudevillians. Originally produced as an episode of the PBS American Masters series.

Slide, Anthony. The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Detailed historical and biographical entries covering performers, managers, composers, troupes, routines, and animal acts, as well as histories of important cities and theaters in the vaudeville genre. Recounts some sample vaudeville routines, and includes comments from former vaudevillians and contemporary performers.

Stein, Charles W., ed. American Vaudeville as Seen by Its Contemporaries. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984. A collection of magazine articles, performers’ reminiscences, and descriptions of vaudeville acts, many originally published during vaudeville’s heyday.