Commonly thought of as a 1920s and 1930s showing, vaudeville’s roots are at least 100 years before our iconic rememberances. More to the point, those 20s & 30s shows are the last vestiages, the downhill spiral of a once great brance of entertainment.
As a motley of specialty acts, vaudeville was an itinerant enterprise without name that, over many centuries, could be found in the marketplaces of Africa, Asia, Europe. It spread around the world to the last frontiers of the Americas and Australia. Performers worked where they could and where their acts seemed most suitable: saloons, fairgrounds, circuses. A certain cachet attached to performing in inns, saloons and public houses after their owners added stages and audience pits separate from the tavern.
In England it was called variety, a designation that followed the performance to the Empire’s colonies in America and Australia. It was in the United States that variety was christened “vaudeville,” a name of ambiguous lineage that implied something French, hence cultured. It was selected by hucksters not to define the art form but to obscure its coarse background with a respectable sheen. Producing relatively wholesome entertainment spared the entrepreneur clashes with the law and attracted the patronage of the entire family rather than the men alone.
Though vaudeville had been used in the United States as early as the 1830s, most variety theatres adopted the term in the late 1880s and early 1890s for two reasons. First, seeking middle class patrons, they wished to distance themselves from the earlier rowdy, working-class variety halls. Second, the French or pseudo-French term lent an air of sophistication, and perhaps made the institution seem more consistent with the Progressive Era’s interests in education and self-betterment. Some, however, preferred the earlier term “variety”. Thus, vaudeville was marketed as “variety” well into the twentieth century.
George M. Cohan started in vaudeville. Doesn’t ring a bell? I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy, Over There, You’re a Grand Old Flag…no? Father of the Broadway Musical Comedy? Played by James Cagney in the movie? Well, he started in vaudeville in the 1890s and went on to become of the the most successful Broadway composers/directors in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s.
In the early 1880s, impresario Tony Pastor, a circus ringmaster turned theatre manager, capitalized on middle class sensibilities and spending power when he began to feature “polite” variety programs in several of his New York City theatres. The usual date given for the “birth” of vaudeville is October 24, 1881, when Pastor famously staged the first bill of self-proclaimed “clean” vaudeville in New York City. Hoping to draw a potential audience from female and family-based shopping traffic uptown, Pastor barred the sale of liquor in his theatres, eliminated bawdy material from his shows, and offered gifts of coal and hams to attendees. Pastor’s experiment proved successful, and other managers soon followed suit.