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Vaudeville, What is that?!

Updated on February 6, 2021
Jennifer Garrett profile image

Jennifer has worked in the performing arts community for several years. She obtained her BA from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

Box office


Many people are most likely to know about the Victorian Era of theatre due to Shakespeare or a little bit about Broadway due to today's celebrities, but if you were to mention Vaudeville and you will most likely get questions. Vaudeville for the most part is often a forgotten section of theatre history, so what is it?

Tony Pastor



We have the term vaudeville, but what does it mean or refer to, it is defined as a farce with music (Vaudeville,2014). The term is believed to have been adopted in the United States from the Parisian boulevard theatre, upon which the term vaux-de-vire, satirical songs in couplets sung in the fifteenth century in Normandy, France, was corrupted into vaudeville (Vaudeville,2014). Rozieres headed a theatrical company that left the Comedie Italien and opened a Theatre du Vaudeville in 1792 in Paris, and they were frequently in trouble for their tropical allusions and often had to fall back on semi-historical pieces (Sobel,1961). During the eighteenth century vaudeville bloomed in England into what was called music halls and tavern annexes that offered a wide variety of programs including acrobatic acts, comic songs and conjuring (Sobel,1961).

The term refers to a light entertainment form that was popular during the mid-1890s through the early 1930s; which is the counterpart to the English music halls, in the United States (Vaudeville,2014). In the beginning to put it broadly there were only two types of variety show one for men only and one for mixed audiences (Sobel,1961). Descending from variety shows and the lyceum circuit, which prospered in the United States from the 1830s to the 1870s, came the American version of vaudeville (Mroczka,2013). It also grew from America's love for variety of entertainment (Mroczka,2013).

When it started it was more associated with variety than lyceum and it had a bad reputation to attract drunks, prostitutes, and the "common rabble" to their houses (Mroczka,2013). Variety entertainment became popular in the urban centers and the frontier settlements during the 1850s and 60s (Vaudeville: About Vaudeville,1999). In the United States and Canada vaudeville's life span started in the 1880s and ended in the 1930s, some fifty odd years (Mroczka,2013). In the late 1840s in New York the first "vaudeville house" was built by William Valentine (Sobel,1961). The shows had usually twelve or fifteen acts, with the last half of the show lasting until daylight (Soble,1961). Prior to 1881 vaudeville shows were for men only as they were seen as "indecent" for other audience members; that changed when Tony Pastor, a ballad and minstrel singer, cleaned up variety acts for families (Vaudeville: About Vaudeville,1999). Seeing that wider audiences meant more money other managers started to follow his lead (Vaudeville: About Vaudeville,1999).

Vaudeville Introduction

Stage Bill


The Palace Theater 1920


The Who & The What of Vaudeville

In the theatre world where would we be without our managers there to make sure everything runs as smoothly as possible, nowhere is where we would be. It would be a little more than chaotic without the managers to help keep the flow of a show going. A few all-powerful moguls manipulated the major vaudeville circuits leaving the smaller affiliated circuits to cooperate with them by means of the central metropolitan booking offices and their protective association of vaudeville managers (Sobel,1961). Some of these important managers were: Tony Pastor, Martin Beck, F.F. Proctor, B.F. Keith and E.F. Albee; all of whom started out as performers and became managers and were remembered by their attitudes towards the performers and the public (Sobel,1961). Vaudeville chains, a group of houses controlled by one manager, was a firmly established era by the end of the nineteenth century (Vaudeville,2014). The largest of these chains were United Booking Office, controlling 400 theaters in the East and Midwest, and Martin Beck's Orpheum Circuit, which controlled houses from Chicago to California (Vaudeville,2014). Motion pictures were added to vaudeville shows as an attraction and as a way to clear the house between shows in 1896 (Vaudeville,2014). Slowly motion pictures took more and more time, and after "talkies" were introduced around 1927 and the bills started to show full-length motion pictures with acts of vaudeville (Vaudeville,2014). Beck built The Palace Theatre in New York which became the most outstanding vaudeville house in the United States from 1913 to 1932 (Vaudeville,2014).

During the height of vaudeville's popularity, it was the dream of any vaudeville performer to play at The Palace, by playing there it meant that you had made it (Mroczka,2013). Though the Palace is still around it is now a Broadway theatre instead of a vaudeville theatre (Mroczka,2013). Vaudeville was composed of a wide variety of different show stiles, they had shows like comedians, plate-spinners, animal trainers and singers just to name a few acts (Vaudeville: About Vaudeville,1999). With the shows they would start and end with the weakest, and the performances ranged from truly talented to very quirky (Vaudeville: About Vaudeville,1999).

It wasn't just that vaudeville was a series of entertaining sketches; it was symbolic of all the cultural diversities in the early twentieth century America; through it wasn't free of the day's prejudices it still crossed class and racial boundaries and was the first exposure to the cultures of the people down the street for many people (Vaudeville: About Vaudeville,1999). Some of the biggest stars of the mid-twentieth century like Judy Garland, Bob Hope and James Cagney got their start in vaudeville; but not all of the vaudeville stars were able to make it big elsewhere (Mroczka,2013).

The Palace Theatre 2008


The Death of Vaudeville

The Great Depression hit everyone hard including the patrons, performers and the managers of vaudeville. The effects weren't very obvious until the early 1930s, when the big vaudeville circuits were tightened to the point of strangulation because there were fewer coins in the rainy day funds (Sobel,1961). The radio played its part in vaudeville's fall, it offered the ex-patrons the chance to listen to vaudeville stars for free and from the comfort of their own sitting rooms (Sobel,1961). A rumored cause was that Albee was trying to monopolize it, and in the end killed it instead (Sobel,1961).

Not all vaudeville performers were able to gain back their popularity back but those that did made the jump to other venues like Broadway or television (Sobel,1961). Oddly enough with movies and the TV industry is where vaudeville left its biggest mark with performers like Charlie Chaplin, who incorporated the physical comedy that he learned on vaudeville into his silent films (Vaudeville: About Vaudeville,1999). Even with its decline vaudeville still survives in bits and pieces in different shows throughout the decades; like The Ed Sullivan Show, The Hollywood Palace and even the late night shows of today, like Letterman where each has some form of the vaudeville comedic sketches (Mroczka,2013).

So even though in large part vaudeville is gone it is most definitely still around in new mediums. The comedy sketches on many late night talk shows are one piece of vaudeville that will continue holding up the legacy of vaudeville for years to come.

Sources Cited

Vaudeville. In (2014). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from

Morczka, P. (2013, November 13). Vaudeville: America's vibrant art form with a short lifetime. Retrieved from

Vaudeville: About Vaudeville. (1999, October 08). Retrieved from

Sobel, B. (1961). A pictorial history of vaudeville. New York: The Citadel Press


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