From the 1880’s to the 1930’s, the most popular form of entertainment in the United States was the live variety show known as vaudeville. It has been estimated that vaudeville employed approximately twenty-five thousand performers during its span of popularity, and during its peak in the 1910’s and 1920’s, two thousand vaudeville theaters existed across the United States and Canada. In spite of its great popularity, however, by the 1950’s vaudeville as mass entertainment had been replaced by television, film, and radio.
Although its origins and meaning are debated, the word “vaudeville” might have come from the French phrase “val de Vire,” referring to regional folk songs sung in the Vire River valley. “Vaudeville” may also have derived from the French “voix de ville” or “voice of the city,” a reference to folk music performed in urban areas of France.
Vaudeville evolved as a mixture of several types of early theater. Many of vaudeville’s classic acts had their origins in ancient forms of entertainment enacted by street performers, jesters, and clowns. As far back as the sixteenth century, “music halls” in England presented stage shows (called “pantos,” an abbreviated form of “pantomime”) that presented a variety of different acts in one show. A single performance might include slapstick physical comedy, humorous songs, and humorous short plays or skits. Immigrants brought elements of the English panto to the United States in the late nineteenth century.
Vaudeville was also influenced by American burlesque, a type of show popular from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1920’s. A burlesque show was usually a series of comedy skits, alternating with women singing or performing dances designed to show off their legs. Burlesque shows were closely related to “concert saloon” shows popular during the Civil War. Concert saloons (also called “honky-tonks” or beer halls) often hired piano players, dancers, or singers to entertain their all-male patrons.
With the Industrial Revolution came the growth of an American middle class. In the mid- to late nineteenth century large numbers of people moved from the country to the cities, and immigration from other countries to the United States reached a peak. City dwellers and laborers in new industries had money and leisure time, and concert saloon owners saw an opportunity to attract more patrons by offering more respectable entertainment. Concert saloons and beer halls began to call themselves “music halls,” revising the shows they offered to make them suitable for a wider audience.
Singer and comedian Tony Pastor, “the father of vaudeville,” had performed for years in beer halls, but in 1881 he opened his own theater in New York City called Tony Pastor’s Fourteenth Street Theater. Pastor forbade the sale of alcohol in his theaters and focused on entertainment alone. The shows he produced were designed to attract a middle-class audience including families and featured simple entertainment by singing ensembles and comedians.
Two years after Pastor opened his first theater, Benjamin Franklin Keith opened a “museum” in Boston with a second-floor theater where singers and animal acts performed. Keith would become one of the most powerful men in vaudeville. In the ensuing years he would open many more theaters and would offer, in addition to variety acts, short plays, silent films, operettas, and lectures.
Like Pastor, Keith hoped to attract middle-class families to the theater. Advertisements for Keith’s theaters emphasized that his shows were appropriate for women and children. Keith moved vaudeville even further from the concert saloons by enforcing a family
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