Vaudeville:  “Always Something for Everybody” - By Paula T. Alekson

Vaudeville Variety

all-girl bands
animal acts
fast-change artists
“freak” acts (including “midget” acts, strongmen, etc.)
male and female impersonators
singing sister or dancing brother acts
solo song and dance men and women
sports heroes
vocalists (of opera, popular song, etc.)

Well-Known Vaudevillians

Al Jolson
Bert Williams
W. C. Fields
Harry Houdini
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello
Will Rogers
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson
Fanny Brice
George M. Cohan
Mae West
W.C. Fields
Will Rogers
Buster Keaton
Charlie Chaplin
The Marx Brothers
Milton Berle
Bob Hope
Fred Astaire
James Cagney
Jack Benny
George Burns and Gracie Allen
Sophie Tucker
Cary Grant (Archibald Leech)

American vaudeville was a live, popular theatrical entertainment phenomenon of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.   Born out of the Industrial Revolution and subsequently stifled by the rising ascendancy of motion pictures, vaudeville is synonymous with “variety,” which describes not only the entertainment genre’s nature, but also its mongrel ancestry.  Variety-type entertainments provided by itinerant performers who trouped from town to town had been around for millennia.  In nineteenth-century England, variety or music-hall found a venue and an organizing principle of successive acts, first in taverns and later in theaters built expressly for the entertainment enterprise. Variety acts emerged in North America as early as colonial times, and, following the British model, eventually evolved from bawdy saloon entertainments into the more polished and refined vaudeville (probably derived from the French Vaux-de-Vire which refers to popular satirical songs from the fifth century).

Featuring an amalgamation of performance modes borrowed from music-hall, American minstrelsy, the burlesque stage, medicine and freak shows, and dime museums, vaudeville became big business as family entertainment.  Although originally targeted at an audience made up of the urban and largely immigrant working class in search of escapist and easily consumable entertainment, vaudeville’s audience grew to include both the middle and upper classes. 

In the heyday of the form (i.e., 1900-1920) a vaudeville bill, or slate of acts, was typically organized thusly:  An animal or acrobatic act opened the program, and was followed by a “singing sister,” “dancing brother,” or some other sort of singing and/or dancing act.  A comedy sketch or one-act play was then performed.  Next came a novelty act (such as a magician, mind reader, high diver, regurgitator, etc.), followed by an up-and-coming star turn which was buttoned by intermission.  The second half of the program began with a performance by a large choir or orchestra, which was followed by the headliner, or main attraction.  The eighth, and final, act was typically a short film, or possibly an annoying act meant to chase lingerers out of the auditorium being readied for a second show.

Vaudeville performers came from all branches of theater and the performing arts, including musical comedy, the “legitimate” dramatic stage, opera, and concert hall.  The essential vaudevillian—a performer who spent all of his or her time playing the vaudeville circuits or part-time on the “legit” stage and the rest of the time on the “vaude” stage—need not only be talented, but also fortified with uncommon energy, enthusiasm, stamina, determination, and great powers of self-promotion.  Many vaudevillians rose from working-class status to make it big as headliners, and many utilized the vaudeville stage as a springboard, easily transitioning success “on the boards” into highly lucrative radio, film, and, eventually, television careers.

“My mother thanks you, my father thanks you…and I thank you”:  Children on the Vaudeville Stage

- By Paula T. Alekson

Famed “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and vaudeville child star George M. Cohan closed every Cohan Family act with the above exit line.  Cohan and his sister Josie got their start in vaudeville at the ages of eight and seven, respectively, with Josie as a contortionist and George a violinist.  They were only two of a few hundred child performers who sang, danced, played, juggled, joked, contorted, and entertained audiences across the country, “two-a-day,” six days a week.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) monitored the vaudeville circuit and sought to put a stop to the exploitation of child performers, many of whom were the only source of income for their poor or working-class families.  Ironically, as Trav S.D. notes in his history of vaudeville, No Applause—Just Throw Money, the SPCC “chose to crack down on the handful of underage entertainers—while allowing thousands of urchins to work lathes and assembly lines (227).”  This double standard, no doubt, was a product of the long history of antitheatrical prejudice which judged theater and show-business folk and their environment as immoral.

Some stage parents did better for their children than others by shielding their youngsters from adult situations backstage, hiring private tutors or “home-schooling” their kids on the road, and taking advantage of all the educational opportunities that the road had to offer, for example touring the vast nation and visiting places of significant historical or social importance.  Still, many former vaudeville child stars felt that their childhoods were cut short by work, responsibility, and the pressure to stay young, cute, and employable.