Vaudeville was a type of American Theatre that was prominent in the United States from the 1870s through the 1920s.
The shows could be about anything from juggling to a mathematics demonstration. While singers, comics and dramatic recitations were usually on every bill specialty acts often occurred in between. Vaudeville was also noted that it stressed "clean" entertainment. The more risque elements were found in burlesque
Specialty acts included:
Contortionists (Twisting one's body)
Escape artists (Houdini and his many imitators)
Specialty acts also consisted of freaks. These were anything from people with and extra finger on each hand to those anatomically normal but just going on stage and acting silly and crazy.
Sometimes the act was a person who was well known. Helen Keller and Babe Ruth would come on and take a bow. Sometimes answer questions from the audience.
The audiences of vaudeville were encouraged NOT to be passive. Insult comics flourished egging people on and having the audience yell back so they could insult the audience members. It was a sign of worthiness to be "victim" of a good insult comic.
Jack Benny found success in vaudeville by silent pauses. If a joke failed he's stand totally inert and stare at the audience till they laughed, often saying, "I can hold out longer than you can."
Noted vaudevillian George Burns said the nice thing about vaudeville is you could fail at your act, change your name and move on to the next town where no one knew you. Then you'd change your act till it became popular. Unlike television today when you do your act to millions of people, in vaudeville once you had a successful routine you could spend years going all over America doing the same thing at theatres.
As time went, vaudeville became more organized. Although every small town had at least one theatre, the bigger cities had theatres bought up by companies, such as the Pantages or Orpheum theaters. When you hear of people playing the "Orpheum Circuit" what they were doing was playing exclusively for that group of theatres all over the nation.
These larger theatre chains organized the vaudeville shows into seven sections.
This was the opening act and it was a silent act, maybe a juggler or animal act. It had to be silent because people were always coming in late and the noise of being seated would make it hard to hear if it was a talking act.
The Second Act:
This was a "sister singing act." Though not all the acts were actually sisters biologically speaking. The "Gum Sisters" had this billing, the youngest "Gumm Sister" Frances went on to Hollywood and became known as Judy Garland
The Third Act:
This was a one act play and could be anything from comedy to drama. The most famous people of this set were Sarah Bernhardt, Ethel Barrymore and Helen Hayes
The Fourth Act:
This was a novelty act.
The Fifth Act:
This was reserved for stars who the theatre manager determined to be up and coming or those on the decline but still profitable
An intermission took place between the fifth and sixth act.
The Sixth Act:
This was reserved for orchestras, choirs or acts involving use of a big set.
The Seventh Act:
This was the headliner act; this is the spot all vaudevillians wanted to have. "Burns And Allen" held this spot longer than any other comedy vaudevillians while Kate Smith held the spot longer than any other singer in vaudeville. This was the spot for Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor as well as Jack Benny.
The Eighth Act:
The act was called "the chaser" because it was so bad it literally "chased" the audience from the theatre so it could be cleaned and readied for the next audience.
The opening and closing acts were paid poorly, if at all, and it was considered a humiliation, but some vaudevillians like George Burns said it was a great place to get an education.
As vaudeville progressed a "master of ceremonies" (abbreviated to MC and later spelled out as "emcee") was brought in to coordinate between the acts. He was generally a comic with great wit; Frank Fay was the best known emcee.
Did vaudeville always produce great shows? Hardly, most acts were below mediocrity especially in smaller towns. The success rested that for your money you got eight acts and chances are you found something to like in those eight acts.
Also the fact that anyone could perform allowed people with minimum talent to have a chance. Quite often as these people failed more talented people would take the best elements of the "failed performer" and put it into their routines with success.
Oddly enough during the Roaring Twenties the black and white dividing line was being erased (It later was reestablished in the 30s) and vaudeville often had black and white, gay and straight, and virtually all other minorities represented. In fact it was the Jews that received the brunt of hostility even though the biggest names in vaudeville were Jewish.
However the racial realities were that the South still didn't integrate their theaters nor did the smaller northern cities. In the large cities, like Chicago, New York City and Philadelphia, there were integrated theatres. But even that must be qualified, because even though blacks, Asian and whites could be in theatres together up north, the best seats were reserved for whites.
But for the time vaudeville was vastly more integrated than American society was, because even though managers and performers had prejudices in vaudeville the only thing that mattered was, not the color of your skin, but the color of your money. As long as you could bring in that "green" to the theatres you were by in large accepted.
The TOBA Circuit (Theatre Owners Booking Agency)
This circuit was the only circuit south of the Ohio River and the Mason Dixon line, which allowed blacks to both perform in, and to watch vaudeville. The circuit of theatres came to be known as "Tough On Black Asses." Whites were occasionally allowed to be seated in the balconies of these theatres.
The nice thing was these theatres charged only a fraction of what a white audience would have had to pay to see acts. It was usually around 25¢. And the talent was hardly limited by lack of white performers. TOBA featured such names as Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, Bert Williams, and Bill "Mr Bo Jangles" Robinson. Other name African American performers who starred in "White" theatres often performed for little compensation or for free for TOBA circuit.
Another thing to come out of the circuit was because the standards were lower for black audience they were allowed to get away with suggestive humour that shows played to white audience would not have. Even homosexual overtones such as these popular number in the TOBA circuit "You Got the Right Key But the Wrong Keyhole" and "Kitchen Man"
The decline and end of vaudeville:
Vaudeville didn't end at once, but declined gradually from around 1915. Theatres begin wiring for sound and for movies. In 1926 Hollywood established talking films that each year got more sophisticated. It was much easier for a theatre owner to pay a small fee to show a film than pay a large performer. Some fees were only 10% of what a vaudeville show cost, and then you knew your product and didn't have the hassles of if acts got sick or quit abruptly to have a better deal.
In 1932 the biggest vaudeville theatre in the nation, The Palace Theatre in New York City stopped vaudeville and switched to cinema offerings.
Most vaudevillians never made the change from theatre to the next the next thing Radio. To be sure a few acts like Jack Benny and Burns And Allen, which were basically "talking acts," were made for radio and grew even bigger. But the stage acting was quite different from the formal acting of a Hollywood film, or the "legitimate theatre" of Broadway. Some like Buster Keaton went on but most dissolved into obscurity. Visual acts like contortionists and jugglers basically vanished.
Below are the vaudevillians that were able to make the transition from vaudeville to other forms of entertainment (radio and films, later TV)
- Abbott and Costello (Films)
- Don Ameche (Radio and TV)
- Adele & Fred Astaire (Films)
- Edgar Bergen (Radio and TV)
- Milton Berle (Radio and TV)
- Jack Benny (Radio and TV)
- Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy(radio)
- Sarah Bernhardt (Films and Broadway)
- Ray Bolger (Films)
- Fanny Brice (Radio)
- George Burns & Gracie Allen (Radio and TV)
- Eddie Cantor (Radio and Records)
- Charlie Chaplin (Films)
- Jimmy Durante (Films)
- WC Fields (Films)
- Judy Garland (Films and Records)
- Bob Hope (Films)
- Al Jolson (Films, Radio and Records)
- Buster Keaton (Films)
- Bert Lahr (Films)
- Stan Laurel [as part of Laurel and Hardy] (Films)
- The Marx Brothers (Films) -- Groucho in TV
- Ethel Merman (Films and Broadway)
- Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (Films)
- Will Rogers (Films)
- Rose Marie (Radio and TV)
- Red Skelton (Radio and TV)
- Bessie Smith (Records)
- Kate Smith (Records)
- The Three Stooges (Films)
- Sophie Tucker (Films, Radio and Records)
- Rudolph Valentino (Films)
- Ethel Waters (Records)
- Senor Wences (Night Clubs)
- Mae West (Films)
- Paul Winchell (Night Clubs)
- Ed Wynn (Films)
- Henny Youngman (Night Clubs)