By Frank Cullen, Founder/Director, American Vaudeville Museum

Vaudeville was America’s first big-time show business, a coast to coast enterprise that at its height reached as many as 5000 theatres and employed as many as 50,000 people full- or part-time as entertainers and a nearly equal number in related business and crafts. The growth was made possible by the nationwide expansion of railroads from the Civil War onward.

Frank Cullen
Frank Cullen, Founder/Director, American Vaudeville Museum

A vaudeville show comprised a series of unrelated variety acts such as comedy, singing, dancing, juggling, acrobatics, illusion, ventriloquism, puppetry performed solo or in groups. Variety had been part of American entertainment in the colonies, offered in place of drama (to which Puritans objected more: texts by Shakespeare did not comport with biblical teaching).

The first known instance in the USA of an entertainment called ‘vaudeville’ occurred when a French troupe arrived in 1819, but the name didn’t achieve consistent currency until 1840 when a Boston actor-producer, Wyseman Marshall, staged a summer season of eleven weeks of short plays, recitations and decorous song and dance at Boylston Hall, renamed the Vaudeville Saloon.

More usually, prior to the Civil War, variety was performed in less cultured venues less like beer halls that welcomed the whole family for food, drink and merriment or the disreputable concert/variety saloons that catered to males only with singing bartenders, serving girls gathering on stage to prance and show their bloomers, and knockabout comedy, often racist and always violent. Bare knuckle boxing was a prime attraction along with cheap toxic liquor, rigged gambling and, less flagrantly, prostitution.

After the Civil War, reform elements joined to purge the variety saloons. Canny owners, tired of paying graft and protection, and seeing profit in potential family audiences, ran off the gamblers, con men and ‘hostesses’, and spruced up their theatres. The name ‘variety’ was tarnished so managers adopted the little claimed name of ‘vaudeville’ (it sounded French, thus must be classy), and presented ‘polite vaudeville’ fit for the whole family.

Some early shows presented by Frank Rivers or Tony Pastor were so popular that they toured to other cities, and thus started the thirty-year growth of the vaudeville industry that flowered in the 1880s, crested in the 1910s but began fading during WWI as the public shifted its patronage to phonographs and silent films during the 1920s, then to free network radio and inexpensive talking pictures after the economic collapse of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression of the 1930s.

By 1932 big-time vaudeville was dead except for a handful of big city venues, but small time vaudeville lingered here and there into the early 1950s when a dozen television shows put vaudeville into our parlors. Today, vaudeville acts, old or new, skilled or clumsy, grace or litter the virtual cloud awaiting the touch of fingertips to summon them into personal devices.