Vaudeville Becomes Less Vulgar

By | Oct 24, 2017

Vaudeville was a style of entertainment popular in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries that took the form of a series of separate, unrelated acts. The performance could include all or some of the following; musicians, dancers, comedians, animal acts, magicians, impersonators, acrobats, one-act plays or scenes from plays, athletes, lecturing celebrities, minstrels, or later short films.

Prior to 1880 Vaudeville was thought to be vulgar. Tony Pastor cleaned it of its obscenity to make it more wholesome to the general public. On October 24, 1881 he staged the self-proclaimed “clean” vaudeville in New York City. It was an effort to lure more women into the male dominated saloon and variety halls.

Vaudeville popularity increased when B.F. Keith built a chain of Vaudeville stages in various east coast cities. This was the beginning of the Vaudeville Circuit, a single booking system contracting acts for regional and national engagement that could grow from a few weeks to two years.

It was common for the performers to term a theatre by how much they were paid to perform at them. The three most common were the “small time”, the “medium time,” and the “Big Time”. When a performer reached the “Big Time” they were considered the best and most famous. The Big Time found its home in 1913 at New York City’s Palace. The Palace featured the best and brightest on its bill and many would consider playing there to be the apotheosis of their careers.

While Vaudeville never really died it just seemed to fade away as cinemas and radio gain popularity. In fact many of the early radio and cinemas stars, such as Marx Brothers, Three Stooges, Bob Hope, Edgar Bergen and Abbott and Costello began on the Vaudeville circuits

Even though vaudeville as entertainment is dead, it lives on in popular culture and entertainment. Many of the ‘entertainment slang’ came from vaudeville, such as “a flop” (an act that does badly) and “the limelight” (from the lime-green color of phosphorus lights). It’s not unusual to see common techniques and gags of vaudeville on television and in films today.


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