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What It Looked Like in the Past: American Vaudeville

Bird In Flight continues the series about what the world looked like in the past. In this issue — the story of the theatre genre that was a forerunner of television.



In spite of the common notion that vaudeville, a popular theater genre from the early 20th century, had connections with Paris or women in lush dresses and stockings - it was not based on sexuality or from France. The word itself is of French origin, but as a variety of theatre performance vaudeville appeared in the USA and Canada in the 1880s-1930s.


Emergence of the Genre

In the 1840s America already had its own “popular theater,” the “minstrel show” where white actors in blackface make-up lampooned black culture. It was a time when the male population of the US was watching the obscenely humorous performances in closed clubs with dancers and gymnasts, and the provincial public was entertained by travelling doctors. Only the vaudeville managed to unite preferences of a diverse audience in one show.


{"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/vaudeville_22.jpg", "alt": "Vaudeville", "text": "March 1904. From the the Washington University libraries archive. A scene from The Sleeping Car vaudeville act."}


{"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/vaudeville_23.jpg", "alt": "Vaudeville", "text": "Vaudeville rifle act. From the the Washington University libraries archive."}


{"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/vaudeville_24.jpg", "alt": "Vaudeville", "text": "Chorus members from the vaudeville act The Cavaliers, 1911. From the the Washington University libraries archive."}


{"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/vaudeville_01.jpg", "alt": "Vaudeville", "text": "Late 1920s. From the Christensen family digital archive. Image of Lew Christensen, William Christensen, Wiora Stoney, and Mignon Lee in costume for a vaudeville performance as the Mascagno Four."}


{"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/vaudeville_02.jpg", "alt": "Vaudeville", "text": "1927-1934. From the Christensen family digital archive. William Christensen, Lew Christensen, Wiora Stoney and Mignon Lee in Venetian costumes from their vaudeville act, the Mascagno Four."}


{"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/vaudeville_03.jpg", "alt": "Vaudeville", "text": "1926. From the Christensen family digital archive. Willam Christensen and Lew Christensen in Berkoff costumes with three female dancers on Vaudeville Tour under management of Stephano Mascagno."}


America’s Favorite Form of Entertainment

The Boston theater Vaudeville Saloon (circa 1840) is considered to be the first American vaudeville. Little is known about what was performed, but is was frequented mainly by men. By the end of the 19th century the welfare of the average American had increased, hence there was a bigger demand on entertainment. In 1881 an American impresario, pop artist and “father of the vaudeville” Tony Pastor introduced the family show format to a few theaters in New York. A few other theater owners came to an obvious conclusion: the bigger the audience, the larger the box office.

The next step was made by Benjamin F. Keith, who built a few vaudeville theaters in Boston. In 1885 he was joined by impresario Edward Franklin Albee, and together they founded a network of theaters and ticket offices throughout the country. The entrepreneurs thus monopolised the vaudeville.

“A vigilant army of ushers and uniformed attendants handed customers printed cards from silver trays requesting, ‘Gentlemen will kindly avoid carrying cigars or cigarettes in their mouths while in the building, and greatly oblige.’”

Urban development contributed to the fact that the Vaudeville became the chief attribute of the American culture in the early 20th century. An average performance lasted for two hours and consisted of ten to twenty acts not connected by theme. Every act was interpreted by artists of theatrer and circus genres: acrobats, jugglers, comedy actors, dancers and magicians — anyone who could keep the attention of the audience for longer than three minutes. It was a variety show, both hilarious and surprising. It didn’t even matter at what time one entered the theater. Keith is quoted by Charles W. Stein in his book «American Vaudeville as Seen by its Contemporaries,» “The audience is always full of people, the show is in full swing, everything is bright, hilarious and attractive.”

Particular attention was given to the theater buildings. Architects were guided by standards of elegance and grandeur in spite of the fact that the access to them was open for any walk of life (for a fee, though). Strict rules were observed during performances. A vigilant army of ushers and uniformed attendants handed customers printed cards from silver trays asking female patrons to remove their hats or requesting, “Gentlemen will kindly avoid carrying cigars or cigarettes in their mouths while in the building, and greatly oblige. The Management.” and “Please don't talk during acts, as it annoys those about you, and prevents a perfect hearing of the entertainment. The Management.”

By the end of the 1920s vaudeville was at the peak of its popularity — performances were attended by nearly two million people a day. In 1925 the Keith-Albee network united 350 theatres with a staff of circa 20 000 people.


{"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/vaudeville_11.jpg", "alt": "Vaudeville", "text": "1907 Entrance to Keith’s theatre, Filadelfia, ca.. The George Grantham Bain collection."}


{"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/vaudeville_12.jpg", "alt": "Vaudeville", "text": "1908. Impresario Ernst Roeber (1861-1944) and his Manhattan saloon at 499 Sixth Avenue. George Grantham Bain Collection."}


{"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/vaudeville_14.jpg", "alt": "Vaudeville", "text": "1909. Majestic Theatre, Detroit, Michigan. From Shorpy Historic Picture Archive."}


{"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/vaudeville_05.jpg", "alt": "Vaudeville", "text": "Cast of Kiwanis Follies on stage, 7th Street Theatre Hoquiam. WA/Flickr."}


{"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/vaudeville_07.jpg", "alt": "Vaudeville", "text": "Five Ames Sisters, 7th Street Theatre Hoquiam, WA/Flickr."}


{"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/vaudeville_13.jpg", "alt": "Vaudeville", "text": "1924. Vaudeville singers Brox sisters. From Shorpy Historic Picture Archive."}


Cinema vs Vaudeville

The era of broadcasting and availability of inexpensive radios, and the subsequent appearance of movie theaters and television distracted the audience from the stage. Theater owners became aware of the high rentability of the cinema — from now on they didn’t need to pay artists and musicians, cover lightning and decoration expenses. Ironically, it was during vaudeville shows that silent films started running in 1895.

In 1934 the last of the best vaudeville theaters, The New York Palace, had to close down. Many actors at that time found their way to the cinematograph, which was better paying and had better work conditions. But a handful stayed and went on working in the city theaters.

Today, the remaining vaudeville theaters exist mainly as tourist attraction sand in order to keep a family business going. For example, Esther's Follies, a Texan vaudeville, opened in 1977, has performances all round the country. In the early 2000s, a group of historians from American universities won a grant to develop a virtual vaudeville, o keep the history of vaudville alive in the 21st century.


{"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/vaudeville_19.jpg", "alt": "Vaudeville", "text": "Fanchon and Marco vaudeville production. Property of MSCUA, University of Washington Libraries."}


{"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/vaudeville_20.jpg", "alt": "Vaudeville", "text": "Fanchon and Marco vaudeville production. Property of MSCUA, University of Washington Libraries."}


{"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/vaudeville_17.jpg", "alt": "Vaudeville", "text": "Emma Kligge, a Hoffman Girls dancer. Property of Wake Forest University archives."}


{"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/vaudeville_16.jpg", "alt": "Vaudeville", "text": "Hoffman Girls, vaudeville dancers. Property of Wake Forest University archives."}


{"img": "/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/vaudeville_18.jpg", "alt": "Vaudeville", "text": "Max Hoffmann (center, seated) and others in costume, possibly for production of Scheherazade. Property of Wake Forest University archives."}

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