History, Research, Shores of Chaos: Shipwrecked

Come One, Come All to the Story of American Vaudeville!

Above image: Poster from the Sandow Trocadero Vaudevilles , 1894

A fun thing I included in one of the chapters of my novel Shores of Chaos: Shipwrecked is a turn of the century vaudeville show. American Vaudeville was an entertainment form in the United States from the 1880s to the 1930s. Vaudeville shows consisted of 10 to 20 unrelated acts that included singers, dancers, comedians, jugglers, acrobats, magicians, musicians, tap dancers, ventriloquists, and trained animals. Some acts were more eccentric and included yodelers, regurgitators, mind readers, contortionists, slapstick comedians, and spoon players. The cost was as cheap as a nickel a ticket and mainly catered to the working class, but appealed to all members of society.1,3

Vaudeville act poster from 1898

Honestly, I could not find a consensus on where the term “vaudeville” came from or why it was used. Some sources state that it came from the French chansons du vaux-de-vire, which were satirical songs in couplets that began in the 15th century in Normandy and eventually found their way into theaters.1 ,4 On the other hand, showman M. B. Leavitt said it came from “vaux de ville” meaning “worth of the city,” but Albert Mclean suggested it was chosen both for its exotic sound and air of gentility, as anything that sounded French was thought to be classy and fancy.2 ,4 The term “vaudeville” was commonly used in the United States as early as 1871.2 American Vaudeville has its origins in commedia dell’arte, English music halls and pantomimes, and American variety, minstrel, Wild West, and medicine shows of the 1850s and 1860s. Street performers, jesters, and clowns were all precursors to vaudevillians.2,3

Early American variety shows were coarse and meant for male audiences. Tony Pastor, a former circus performer turned theater manager, decided to appeal to middle class sensibilities and cleaned up these variety shows.2 In 1865, Pastor opened his Opera House that showed clean variety acts and catered to repeat customers. By 1875, he opened a theater at 585 Broadway where many stars got their start.5 At his theaters, Pastor removed unsuitable material from his shows, banned the sale of liquor, and offered door prizes, all of which proved successful. Benjamin Franklin Keith also made his name in American Vaudeville after he opened the Bijou Theatre in Boston. He enacted a policy that forbade vulgarity and coarse materials in his acts in order to appeal to women and children and he censured performers who did not meet his standards. By the 1890s, more managers followed Keith’s lead and theater circuits and networks of booking offices sprung up around the country. Keith and his partner Edward F. Albee created a monopoly of the business through the United Booking Artists and later through the Vaudeville Manager’s Association. Keith also came up with the idea of continuous performances which could last up to twelve hours a day and acts would appear two or three times. This catered to audiences that had either much leisure time or who were constrained by shift work and gave the illusion that the theaters were thriving and always ready to delight.2

Tony Pastor, courtesy of the American Vaudeville Museum
Benjamin F. Keith, courtesy of the American Vaudeville Museum

The Vaudeville theaters like Keith’s New Theatre attempted to outdo each other by being bigger and grander, with marble interiors, upholstered furniture, massive paintings, gilded arches, and floral displays. Keith also made sure his patrons knew how to behave, asking women to remove their hats or for men to not smoke in the theaters or stamp their feet or stomp their canes on the floor. Patrons who did not follow ushers’ instructions would be removed.2 These impressive theaters and the clean shows inside them were meant to bring refinement to variety shows and separate vaudeville from more risqué sorts of entertainment like burlesque which was meant for men as the sketches would be broken up by chorus girls and strippers.3 The Palace Theatre in New York City became the premiere vaudeville theater in the country in the early 20th century and everyone wanted to perform there.1

The Palace Theatre in Manhattan, 1913

Vaudeville was powered by the increasing number of white collar workers and increased spending power and leisure time of the middle class.2 New technology like railroads, telegraphs, and telephones as well as the press and bankers helped to make vaudeville a booming business.4 Vaudeville also opened the door for many people of all ethnicities and races to not only enjoy a new type of entertainment, but to become stars themselves.Even families performed together by using, and often exploiting, children as a key feature of their acts. Although the performers might have loved with they did, they also loved the paycheck as they could make more money than the average American could in a week.3 Many famous entertainers got their start in vaudeville such as W.C. Fields, Milton Berle, Bert Lahr, and Will Rogers.1 People who were already famous like Babe Ruth or Helen Keller would sometimes participate and attract audiences based on their fame.3

Acts were arranged strategically for each show. The first act was usually a silent act that didn’t require close attention to make time for late patrons to enter the theater. The second act was usually something boring, the third could be a short play, the fourth act was something engaging to wake the audience up like slapstick comedy, and the fifth was were featured stars were placed before intermission. The sixth act was a big production, the seventh and eighth followed in more or less the same trend, and the ninth act, or second to last, was saved for the best act of the night and was where every performer wanted to be placed. The last act was a bad act meant to get the first audience out of the theater to make way for the new one. Audiences were picky and could love or hate the performance. Entertainers also had to be considerate about the audience they performed in front of. For example, performers wouldn’t make fun of the Irish in a theater full of Irish patrons. Likewise, black audiences could be thrilled with getting any sort of entertainment due to segregation or could be harsh critics if they were used to better acts.3

An animal act

An interesting feature of vaudeville acts were the ethnic and racial stereotypes that they often relied upon. As waves of immigrants came to the United States, many were able to escape the poor tenements and harsh working conditions they were resigned to by society by making it big in vaudeville. Surprisingly, instead of using the caricatures and stereotypes of their own cultures, they would pretend to be other ethnicities and races. Although Jews brought over there Yiddish theater traditions from Europe, they could be found impersonating Italians and Germans. Similarly, the Irish would impersonate the Chinese and New Englanders would play the role of the Southern “rube.” While we may look down on this today, these acts allowed the audience to see other cultures’ abilities to a degree and gave the audience a chance to see how “the other” lived in a “safe” setting, even if it wasn’t altogether accurate. Another darker side to vaudeville was the use of black caricatures and blackface, which came from minstrel shows. Both blacks and whites would wear blackface and exploit the stereotype of the “ignorant black.” Even black performers had to perform in a racial context, wearing stereotypical clothing and playing racist characters like Sambo or Zip Coon. Due to segregation laws, blacks were only allowed to do one act per show and had to stay at separate hotels.2,3

A chair balancing act

Vaudeville was on the decline when motion pictures came about, especially when they gained sound in the late 1920s. This decline was furthered by radio in the 1930s as well as the stock market crash of 1929 as it was cheaper to buy movie tickets or listen to the radio. Vaudeville also became more predictable and uniformed as the years went on and people found it stale.4 Vaudeville became permanently displaced after the invention of television and all but disappeared after World War II.1 Although vaudeville performances still exist today in smaller, niche markets, it is long past its heyday. Still, the mark it left on the entertainment world is immeasurable and has shaped the entertainment we all enjoy today.


  1. “Vaudeville” from Britannica by the Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
  2. “Vaudeville: A Dazzling Display of Heterogeneous Splendor” and other pages by Rick Easton for the University of Virginia, 2002.
  3. “Vaudeville” PBS American Masters documentary, 1997.
  4. “A Brief History of Vaudeville” by Vermont Vaudeville.
  5. “Tony Pastor: The Clean Vaudeville Entrepreneur” by Victoria Moses for the American Vaudeville Museum and UA Collection.

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