Vaudeville was a form of entertainment during the Gilded Age in America which revolved around traveling theatrical acts that included classical musicians, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, female and male impersonators, acrobats, illustrated songs, jugglers, and one-act plays or scenes from plays. Vaudeville began in a formal matter in the mid 1880’s, but evolved from saloon concerts, burlesque, minstrelsy (skits and musical performances mocking blacks), freak shows, and dime museums (centers for entertainment and moral education for the working class). These shows were technically informal vaudeville, although it did not have the name vaudeville at the time. Early workings of vaudeville were thought of as risqué and unsuitable for families and woman. So beginning in the early 1880’s a man named Tony Pastor, a circus ringmaster turned theatre manager, capitalized on changing these acts to feature “polite” variety programs in several of New York’s theaters. The official date given to the birth of actual Vaudeville is October 24th, 1881 at New York’s Fourteenth Street Theater, where Pastor staged the first “clean” vaudeville in New York City.
This changed the image of vaudeville, trying to become more family friendly and gain a female audience. In Pastor’s theater he banned liquor, eliminated raunchy material from shows, and even gave audience members gifts such as food or coal. Vaudeville theaters began to open up across the country and Canada. These theaters would book acts and form chains that would run on a circuit which were managed and actually became a big economic success. Circuits such as those by Keith Albee turned vaudeville into a major economic innovation by enabling a chain of allied vaudeville houses to have contracting acts for regional and national tours that could easily be lengthened or shortened. Albee also followed after Pastor and stuck to his plan for “polite” entertainment. A commitment to entertainment that was equally inoffensive to men, woman, and children.
Acts that violated this commitment were punished and threatened with expulsion from the week’s remaining acts and performances or they could be canceled all together. Even with the warnings and threats many performers defied the rule and would flout censorship, often to the delight of the audience who were supposedly endangered by these acts. Albee ended up making guidelines to be an audience member that were reinforced by ushers. Albee also extended guidelines to his company members and maybe signs back stage reminding people to not use certain words or phrases if you don’t want your performances canceled. If actors chose to ignore these orders or quit they would get a “black mark” on their name and never be allowed to work on Keith Circuit. Eventually this lead actors to follow instructions.
By the late 1890s, vaudeville had large circuits in almost every sizable location. One of the biggest circuits was Martin Beck’s Orpheum Circuit. It brought together 45 vaudeville theaters in 36 cities throughout the United States and Canada. Another major circuit was that of Alexander Pantages. In his hey-day he owned more than 30 vaudeville theaters and controlled, through management contracts, 60 more in both the United States and Canada. On the vaudeville circuit, it was said that if an act would succeed in Peoria, Illinois, it would work anywhere. The question “Will it play in Peoria?” is now a metaphor for whether something will appeal to the American public.
The three most common levels were the “small time” (lower paying contracts for more frequent performances in rougher theatres), the “medium time” (moderate wages for two performances each day in purpose built theatres), and the “big time” (possible wage of several thousand dollars per week in large, urban theatres largely populated by the middle and upper-middle classes). The capitol of the big time was New York City’s Palace Theatre or just the Palace, built by Martin Beck in 1913 and operated by Keith. Vaudevillians considered making it to the Palace the epitome of their careers. It is said that at any given time, Vaudeville was employing over twelve thousand different people throughout its entire industry. Each entertainer would be on the road 42 weeks at a time while working a circuit.
Vaudeville began to crawl to a specific mature audience and certain demographic groups. Blacks were usually segregated into the back of white oriented theaters so blacks had their own small circuit. There were also small circuits that revolved around ethnic and foreign backgrounds where acts would go on in native tongues and the traveling lifestyle was simply a continuation of their adventure that brought them to America. Another slightly different aspect of Vaudeville was an increasing intrigue with the female figure and became known as Blue Vaudeville. Such performances highlighted and objectified the female body as a “sexual delight”. The sexual image began sprouting everywhere in America such as shops and restaurants. Blue Vaudeville was much higher priced because people were willing to pay more. Girls began to focus less on the talent and more on physical appearance. Blue vaudeville has led to the shaping of female entertainment today.
No single event lead to the end of vaudeville, however the movie business became more and more popular as time went on. Vaudeville entrepreneurs became more invested in the movie business and less in the theatrical. The shift of New York City’s Palace Theatre to an exclusively cinema presentation on November 16th, 1932 is often considered the death of vaudeville.
The Popular and the Sacred: Nineteenth century American Theater