Vaudeville was the most popular form of American entertainment from the 1880s up until the late 1920s. It influenced almost every form of entertainment for future generations. Music, performance, acting, as well as the entire music industry matured during the Vaudeville days. This kind of entertainment is essential in understanding the development of the American entertainment industry in the 20th century. All kinds of musicians, film and stage actors, and artists who came to prominence during the 20th century were born out of the Vaudeville tradition.
The word Vaudeville most likely came from the Americanization of several European words. Vaux-de-vire, satirical songs in couplets, came from the Parisian theaters in the 15th century at Val-de-Vire, a University in Normandy, France. The term was also used by actors who tired to undermine the theatrical monopoly of France at the time. Forbidden to work in established theaters, these actors began to perform in pantomime (without speaking, using exaggerated physical gestures to get a story across) as well as acting through singing choruses of popular songs. This form of entertainment soon shifted towards a sort of light, short musical: small segments of dialogue alternated with skits and songs to drive the show forward.
In the time after the Civil War, Reconstruction, and beyond, there was a movement of entertainment called Minstrel shows that were meant to entertain white southerners, rich and poor. These Minstrel shows featured performers of all kinds: many comedic skits interspersed with other musical acts such as singers, fiddle players and other instrumentalists, actors, jugglers, and anything else the audience might imagine. African American performers, post-Emancipation, saw Minstrelsy as a way to advance their lives and careers. They also saw the stage as a platform for political speech and the development of new artistic ideas in theater and music alike. Though Minstrelsy saw a decline in popularity through the turn of the century, it did not completely go out of the public eye until the 1930s. Vaudeville played an important role in the transition from southern Minstrel shows to a more broad-based style of variety entertainment with a far broader appeal.
Vaudeville began in mostly American frontier settlements and in sprawling urban areas. Through the 1850s and 1860s, these variety shows grew in popularity through rural town pubs, bars, halls, and small theaters. Variety shows up until this time had been mainly focused on a completely male audience in bars and taverns, as well as poor, white audiences in the south. Obscene in nature, these shows were not focused on audiences which included women or families.
It wasn’t until the 1870s that the focus of variety shows began to shift towards families, women, and children, instead of just working class men. The shows which pioneered this trend capitalized on the potential for increasing audience, fan base, and revenue. These new variety shows were called “polite” variety because the shows began playing in theaters where alcohol and obscenities were not allowed; gradually, the shows made their way from the taverns and bars of more rural and outer-city limits to the more respectable night clubs and theaters in major metropolitan areas. Variety shows began to target middle class, upper middle class, and wealthy Americans.
Tony Pastor, a ballad and minstrel singer, is considered the first performer to bring Vaudeville into the mainstream of American entertainment. Pastor opened a theater in New York City in 1881, dedicating the venue to clean and family-appropriate Vaudeville performances, paving the way for the legacy of Vaudeville from the turn of the century to the present day.