“Nobody seems to know how television is going to affect radio, movies, love, housekeeping, or the church, but it has definitely revived vaudeville” (thinkexist. com). Edgar Bergen’s statement concisely describes how vaudeville has returned in the modern era. It is ironic that television, which was partly responsible for the disappearance of vaudeville in its original form, has now played a role in the return of vaudeville. However, many television viewers do not realize this because vaudeville was popular nearly a century ago. Modern viewers may not even be aware that such a thing as vaudeville ever existed.
Nevertheless, vaudeville was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the United States after the Civil War and into the early twentieth century. Despite meeting its downfall as a result of the rise of cinema and radio, vaudeville has returned to modern viewers in the form of sketch-comedy television. The origin of the term “vaudeville” is unknown. Some believe that it is a variation of the term “vaux-de-vire,” a French term for “satirical songs in couplets, sung to popular airs in the 15th century in the Val-de-Vire, Normandy, France” (“vaudeville”).
Another theory is that the term is derived from “vaux de ville,” another French term, meaning “worth of the city, or worthy of the city’s patronage” (Vaudeville, A History). However, as Albert McLean suggests, the term vaudeville was probably chosen “for its vagueness, its faint, but harmless exoticism, and perhaps its connotation of gentility” (qtd by Vaudeville, A History). Although the term vaudeville did not come into common usage in the United States until around 1870, Americans had certainly enjoyed variety type entertainment prior to this date.
In the years prior to the Civil War, as early as the first decade of the nineteenth century, theater audience members could enjoy performances of “Shakespeare, acrobatics, singers, presentations of dance, and comedy, all in the same evening” (Vaudeville, a History). As the years went by, the number of variety shows increased, and the variety of performances increased. In the 1850s and 1860s, variety shows became popular not only in urban centers, but also in frontier settlements (“Vaudeville”). Along the frontier, shows were often held in saloons or burlesque houses, and the shows were geared toward a primarily male audience.
Often the shows included burlesque dancers and other risque performances (“Vaudeville”). Around 1881, a ballad and minstrel singer by the name of Tony Pastor, began organizing shows catered to “middle class sensibilities,” that offered a cleaner form of variety (Vaudeville, a History). An entertainer from the age of six, Pastor worked nearly his entire life in museums, minstrel shows, circuses, and theaters (“Pastor, Tony”). In 1881, Pastor opened his own variety theatre in New York City, called the Fourteenth Street Theatre” and another variety theatre in 1865.
Though at the time variety shows featured coarse humor and were considered unsuitable entertainment for ladies, Pastor advertised his Fourteenth Street Theatre as ‘the first specialty and vaudeville theatre of America, catering to polite tastes, aiming to amuse, and fully up to current times and topics. (“Pastor, Tony”) In an attempt to create a family-friendly atmosphere, Pastor refused the sale of alcohol in his theaters, eliminated all risque acts, and even offered gifts such as coal and hams to those who attended his shows (Vaudeville, a History). Pastor’s new kind of show was readily received by American theater-goers.
Because of his success, a more wholesome, family-oriented form of vaudeville soon replaced the older, more risque type of variety. Although Pastor had a tremendous effect on the progression of vaudeville in the United States, Benjamin Franklin Keith is credited with being the “father of American vaudeville” (Vaudeville, a History). Keith followed in Pastor’s footsteps and “strictly forbade the use of vulgarity and coarse material in his acts ‘so that the house and the entertainment would directly appeal to the support of women and children’” (Vaudeville, a History).
Keith was relentless in his imposition of high standards. He made certain that his theater was suitable for even the most respectable of individuals, and even eventually won himself the support of the Catholic Church due to his cleanliness of show and theater. Keith’s success also stemmed from his ability to make sure that there was “something for everybody” in his shows, definitively bridging the gap between “high” and “low” forms of entertainment, a gap that became larger and largest in the years following the Civil War (Vaudeville, a History). Keith and his partner Edward F.
Albee took their theater format and duplicated their success in cities all over the northeast. Before long, imitators were starting similar shows all over the country (Vaudeville, a History). By the 1890s, theatre circuits spanned the United States. Because of this circuit, performers could take their acts essentially from coast to coast, and many performers became popular on a national scale. Many of these performers would be future television and/or movie stars. Will Rogers started his career as both a comic and a cowboy on the vaudeville circuit.
Other such famous performers include W. C. Fields, Lillian Russell, Charlie Case, and Joe Jackson. Although many stars began in vaudeville theaters, most did not stick to their roots once movies became popular. In 1896, “motion pictures were introduced…as added attractions and to clear the house between shows” (“Vaudeville”). Works Cited “Albee, Edward Franklin. ” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopedia Britannica Online School Edition. 5 November 2009. http://www. school. eb. com/eb/article-9005411. Bergen, Edgar. “Vaudeville. ” Thinkexist. com 2009.
5 November 2009. http://en. thinkexist. com/search/searchQuotation. asp? search=vaudeville. “Pastor, Tony. ” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopedia Britannica Online School Edition. 5 November 2009. http://www. school. eb. com/eb/article-9058682. “Tap dance. ” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopedia Britannica Online School Edition. 5 November 2009. http://www. school. eb. com/eb/article-242810. “Tanguay, Eva. ” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopedia Britannica Online School Edition. 5 November 2009. http://www. school. eb. com/article-9071175.
“Television in the United States. ” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopedia Britannica Online School Edition. 5 November 2009. http://www. school. eb. com/eb/article-283603>. “Vaudeville. ” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopedia Britannica Online School Edition. 5 November 2009. http://www. school. eb. com/eb/article-9074912. “Vaudeville! A Dazzling Display of Heterogeneous Splendor. ” Vaudeville, A History. University of Virginia. 1 September 2009. Web. 5 November 2009. http://xroads. virginia. edu/~MA02/easton/vaudeville/vaudevillemain. html.