What Was Vaudeville?
Vaudeville was originally the term for a light song. It was derived from the drinking songs attributed to French singer Olivier Basselin and called Vau de Vivre (referring to the Vire valley of France where it originated). At the end of the nineteenth century this light-hearted form of entertainment was adapted for the stage in France, England, and the United States. Eventually known as vaudeville, it evolved into a variety show that consisted of music, theater, and comedy sketches intended for a wide audience.
Vaudeville reached the American stage by the 1870s, when acts were performed in New York, Chicago, and other cities. Troupes traveled a circuit of about 1,000 theaters around the country and as many as two million Americans flocked to the shows each day. Script writers attracted immigrant audiences by using ethnic humor and exaggerated dialects, and by joking about the hardships of daily immigrant life in the United States. For the first two decades of the twentieth century vaudeville was the most popular form of entertainment in the country. Famous performers included American comedians Eddie Cantor (1892–1964) and W. C. Fields (1880–1946), French singer Eva Tanguay (1878–1947), and French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923). Vaudeville began going into decline during the 1930s when it was replaced by motion pictures, radio, and eventually television. Among the movie stars who started out as vaudeville actors were Rudolph Valentino (1895–1926), Cary Grant (1904–1986), Mae West (1892–1980), Jack Benny (1894–1974), George Burns (1896–1996), Gracie Allen (1922–1964), Ginger Rogers (1911–1995), Fred Astaire (1899–1987), Will Rogers (1879–1935), and Al Jolson (1888–1950).
Further Information: Green, Abel. Showbiz From Vaude to Video. New York: Holt, 1951; Laurie, Joe. Vaudeville: From the Honky Tonks to the Palace. New York: Holt, 1953; "Vaudeville." MSN Encarta.[Online] Available http://encarta.msn.com/index/conciseindex/03/00348000.htm, October 23, 2000; "Vaudeville." Electric Library. [Online] Available http://www.encyclopedia.com/articles/13369.html, October 23, 2000.