Vaudeville: A History (Part 2)

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At the turn of the 20th century, the Wright Brothers took their first flight and Henry Ford mass-produced vehicles that enabled people to travel more freely, enabling a sense of movement during the century’s first decade. Along with these economic changes, there were changes in the arts, especially in painting, literature, music, and theater. Vaudeville dominated American mass entertainment during the time before and after The Great War (World War I). Post-war America had a sense of disillusionment, but was also extremely wealthy. This wealth also added to these changes in art, and a shift in the general consciousness of urban Americans, fostering a cynical mood that was also wild and boisterous. After an era of war, Americans wanted to let loose.

National Vaudeville Artists Yearbook. 1928. General Collections, Library of Congress.

Beginning in Boston, theater chains across the east coast were established for the sole purpose of housing vaudeville performances. Thus, the Vaudeville circuits developed as acts performed at many theaters owned by a single entity, such as B.F. Keith, the Boston-based Vaudeville mogul, who owned nearly every “polite” Vaudeville theatre in the city. These many Vaudeville theaters gave actors, musicians, and other entertainers regional circuits in which to perform up and down the east coast, into the south, as well as cities in the Midwest, such as Chicago and St. Louis. Vaudeville had grown into America’s entertainment pastime.

More than just a variety of sketches through the night at crowded theaters or pubs, Vaudeville was a cultural reflection of late 19th and early 20th century America. Vaudeville at the turn of the century was the culmination of old American traditions like Minstrel Shows from Antebellum America, European plays, and Yiddish theatrical productions. Vaudeville was amongst the first art forms to cross barriers of race, economic, and social class. By 1920 there were over 25,000 actors, musicians, and other performers engaged in Vaudeville shows in major cities around the country.

The notable decline of Vaudeville can be best characterized with New York’s Palace Theater (now known as the Broadway Theater) switching entirely over to cinema screenings in 1935. The Palace Theater had been Vaudeville’s center since the late 1890s. Though it was the movie industry that eventually led to the downturn of Vaudeville, it was Vaudeville itself that had the biggest effect on the movie – and entertainment — industry to date. There are even elements of Vaudeville featured in some of our most popular television shows, like Jimmy Fallon, David Letterman, and Ellen Degeneres. These modern television personalities are heirs to a tradition that began with Vaudeville and worked its way through the early television pioneers Ed Sullivan, Judy Garland, and Dean Martin, to our modern era. Today there remains a longstanding tradition of great movie actors and actresses and musicians who either come from live theater or return to the stage later in their career.

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          February 11, 2017