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An Annotated History of Vaudeville Theater

Vaudeville Theater Header

In the years following the Civil War, during the years referred to as The Gilded Age, there was an explosion in urban population. The war ended in 1865 and barely 55 years later the number of people living in urban areas had increased from around 10 million to 50 million. With an increased wage and leisure time, people were willing and able to spend money on entertainment. At the same time, a culture of incorporation was rising in America, and the entertainment sector of American life was not immune to the allure of big business. Perceptive businessmen saw that entertainment was ripe for incorporation, as people now had the time, money, and transportation needed to attend shows at theaters. Therefore, they began standardizing and institutionalizing American popular entertainment in much the same way movie executives would during the 1920s.


Victorian London Variety Theater Illustration

Variety theater was something of a new concept for American culture during the middle of the 19th century, and whereas European audiences enjoyed the art form regularly as early as 1860, it did not reach American audiences until late in the century. To this point, American theater had focused more on the melodrama. Americans progressed gradually toward a distinctive American mass entertainment, attending any one of the six major circuses or any of the popular minstrel shows during the 19th century, and began to demand more variety for their money. Eventually, popular entertainments began traveling together, but, while this was a combination of many of the art forms which would influence Vaudeville, they were still compartmentalized, like showing an audience individual colors one after another rather than a painting. It was not until the first decade of 20th century that popular variety theater reached its peak.

The first recorded instance of the term “vaudeville” being used to describe a distinctly American art form was in the title of a vaudeville company founded in 1871 and based in Louisville, Kentucky, Sargent’s Great Vaudeville Company. The term was most likely chosen because of its vaguely exotic sound, a word which sounded at once mysterious and alluring due to the fact that no one was entirely sure what it meant. In 1880, a man by the name of Tony Pastor took advantage of the genteel sound of the name and used it to market “polite” entertainment for the family. He saw a middle class growing in America and sought to lure them to the theater with his entertainment and the occasional gift of ham or coal.

Vaudeville Strongman Poster

Vaudeville truly came into its own when Benjamin Franklin Keith took the reins. Following success in the traveling circus and the founding of a curio museum in Boston, he decided to open The Bijou Theater in Boston, Massachusetts. So dedicated was he to his “fixed policy of cleanliness and order” in this new venture that he would not allow vulgarity or coarseness of any kind on stage. This was less a moral stance than an appeal to the middle class women and children with time on their hands and money to spend, and it had the intended effect. The Bijou increased the chances that everybody would come by ensuring there was something on stage for everybody during a variety show, from the targeted demographic of women and children, to men and even clergy. The Catholic Church was so impressed with the entertainment was that they funded Keith’s future endeavors to expand his business.


Vaudeville Theater Store Front

Following the success of Keith, the true spirit of capitalism and incorporation took hold in the Vaudeville entertainment industry. Vaudeville theaters were opened up around the country by men like F.F. Proctor and Marcus Loew, to attempt to cash in on what was taking hold in Boston. By the last decade of the 19th century there existed an extensive theater network around the country in an effort by theater managers to cash in on the success of mass entertainment. The theater was a business more so than any previous time in history, with the managers perpetuating the idea by having their variety shows run for 8-12 hours a day with the individual acts performing 2 or 3 times. These extended hours ensured there was not a single demographic of middle class people who could not visit the theater. There were always people at the theater and performances to be seen, so whether the patron was on a shopping trip, on his way to work, or out for a stroll with the family, the theater was open and inviting, featuring such Vaudeville legends as Jack Benny, Buster Keaton, and Will Rogers.

Many of the finer theaters today hearken back to (or were actually constructed during) this time in American theater, when managers would oversee luxurious venues never before open to the public. As such, the public needed to be educated as to proper etiquette at a theater. Being open to both rich and poor, the rich, accustomed to theater etiquette, were often frustrated by those who were unfamiliar with the long-standing traditions and proper etiquette standards which were second nature to regular theater-goers. Theaters informed their patrons of these social mores in a variety of ways, including handing each patron a single card from a silver tray clearly stating the importance of etiquette at a theater, and exactly what behaviors were expected when watching a show.

Profile of W.C. Fields

The modern American theater owes a great deal to Vaudeville, both in terms of the acts and the vast standardization in terms of the quality of the venues and the behavior of the audience. Without this time period, it remains a very real possibility that audiences would never have enjoyed the stardom of W.C. Fields, among others, Vaudeville theater may have introduced the notion of the cameo appearance, with such transcendent personalities as Babe Ruth, Douglas Fairbanks, and even Heller Keller making personal appearances. Furthermore, without the standardization and incorporation of theater, mass audiences may have continued to behave as they had before Vaudeville: being loud even during the show, hollering approval or disapproval, throwing things on stage and even rushing the stage. In fact, rather than standardizing a caliber of excellence on stage, the spirit of incorporation which took hold during this time in the history of American theater did more to demand a level of quality from the audience.


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