October 8th, 1999
Vaudeville
About Vaudeville

“Everything I know I learned in vaudeville.”
-James Cagney

At the turn of the century in America, the Wright Brothers made their first successful flight, Jack London wrote Call of the Wild, Henry Ford started his motor company, and thousands of people escaped small apartments in big cities to see the amazing acts of vaudeville. Vaudeville was made of comedians, singers, plate-spinners, ventriloquists, dancers, musicians, acrobats, animal trainers, and anyone who could keep an audience’s interest for more than three minutes. Beginning in the 1880s and through the 1920s, vaudeville was home to more than 25,000 performers, and was the most popular form of entertainment in America. From the local small-town stage to New York’s Palace Theater, vaudeville was an essential part of every community.

Throughout the 1850s and 60s, variety entertainment became popular among the frontier settlements and urban centers. These shows, intended for all-male audiences, were often obscenely comical. In 1881 Tony Pastor, a ballad and minstrel singer, created a variety show for families. Other managers recognized that a wider audience meant more money and followed his lead. With an influx of recent immigrants and quickly growing urban populations, vaudeville soon became a central point for American cultural life.

There was usually a dozen or more acts in every vaudeville performance. Starting and ending with the weakest, the shows went on for hours. The performances ranged from the truly talented to the simply quirky. There were musicians, such as the piano player Eubie Blake, and the child star, Baby Rose Marie. There were great acts of physical talent; everything from contortionists, to tumblers to dancers such as the Nicholas Brothers. Actors performed plays, magicians put on shows, jugglers juggled, but the real focus of vaudeville was comedy. Great comic acts such as Witt and Berg and Burns and Allen brought in the biggest crowds.

Vaudeville’s attraction was more than simply a series of entertaining sketches. It was symbolic of the cultural diversity of early twentieth century America. Vaudeville was a fusion of centuries-old cultural traditions, including the English Music Hall, minstrel shows of antebellum America, and Yiddish theater. Though certainly not free from the prejudice of the times, vaudeville was the earliest entertainment form to cross racial and class boundaries. For many, vaudeville was the first exposure to the cultures of people living right down the street.

Some of the most famous vaudeville performers began at an early age. Like the Yiddish theater and the circus, vaudeville was a family affair — singing sisters, dancing brothers, and flying families. For many of these families, the traveling lifestyle was simply a continuation of the adventures that brought them to America. Their acts were a form of assimilation, in which they could become active parts of popular culture through representations of their heritage. Many made acts from the confusions of being a foreigner, while others displayed skills they had learned back in the old country.

Once an act worked, performers repeated it in front of audience after audience. Many performers became known simply by their signature act. With the advent of the radio, however, America found a free and easy way to tap into that variety of entertainment they had looked for in vaudeville. With such specialized skills, the performers continued to perform to smaller and smaller crowds. In time, theaters began to show films, and the few vaudevillians left took what work they could get performing between reels.

Ironically, it is through the movie and TV industry that vaudeville eventually left its greatest mark. Nearly every actor in the beginning of the century either performed or visited vaudeville. The silent movies, with former vaudevillians such as Burt Williams, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, incorporated the animated physical comedy of the vaudeville stage. Many of the big names in vaudeville went on to be movie and TV stars, such as Will Rogers, Bob Hope, Burns &Allen, and Fanny Brice. Even today, shows such as Late Night with David Letterman and Saturday Night Live continue the traditions of popular variety entertainment.

  • Brian Sheehan

    I am an elementary school teacher. I would love for my second and third graders to do a production of vaudeville acts. Any suggestions? Thank you!

  • Justin Kray

    Thanks! i have to a National History Day project on this and it was really helpful!

  • fumes

    musical comedies with a simple story line and song/dance numbers in between.

    juggling

    singing

    duo comedy acts with a feed and a comic

  • Lauren

    Read The Song and Dance Man by Karen Ackerman. It’s a wonderful children’s book that talks about the vaudeville stage!

  • stuart mcdowell

    On your vaudeville page, it should be BERT WILLIAMS, not Burt…
    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/vaudeville/about-vaudeville/721/

  • roberta carsten

    I’ve always been told by maternal grandfather was a vaudeville comedian using the name of Jack Lamone…his real name was Francis Percival Alchin…does anyone know anything about this subject?

  • John-Paul

    This is great! Thanks!

  • Jacquelyn Harper Christy

    My mother said her dad was always away from home because he was off playing vaudeville. The piano was his love but played other musical instruments like the accordion, harmonica, guitar, ukelele. She said that he taught Nick Lucas – made famous by the original recording of “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” to play ukelele by marching around the barn in time. Nick Lucas was still alive and playing gigs at a hotel in San Francisco in the 1960’s, but I missed him when I was there in 1966. My granfather’s name was Joseph Wayne Simons from Tennessee. He was also an inventor. Until he died In his 90’s ( I believe) he was still tuning pianos. He had a son, my mother’s half brother, named Joseph Wayne Simons, Junior, also known as “Bubba”. He was also an entertainer (sang at the Cotton Carnival) and was engaged to Miss America, Jacque Mercer, but they did not marry. Later on he made his living at the dog tracks in and around Florida breeding and racing greyhounds. My mother was Lurline Simons Harper, born 1907. She died in San Diego 1988 at 81 years. I am 71, born August 10, 1938 in Memphis. My Mother had a beauty shop there at 902 Vance Avenue, between Robilio’s deli/market and Toscano’s Bakery. Our whole family, except dead father WWll vet Guy Jack Harper left Memphis for Arizona in 1947. Anyone have any info on these people?

  • David Negaard

    I’m a drama teacher with limited background in vaudeville. I would love to buy this episode on DVD, but have not found it available. Any suggestions?

  • Jacque Christy

    In reply to drama teacher David Negaard. Go to Amazon.com and search: All depts… then type “Vaudeville” in 2nd search box. There’s tons of stuff about Vaudeville you should be able to use. Good Luck and You are welcome…
    (:=) J. Christy

  • Jacque Christy

    In reply to Brian Sheehan… My suggestion is find something not as racy as Vaudeville for your second and third graders. There was a lot of Burlesque in Vaudeville that would need to be censored out for your youngsters. Thanks.

  • Carol Bradshaw

    AMERICAN VAUDEVILLE WAS NEVER RACY…. BURLESQUE, WHICH BY TODAY’S STANDARDS WOULD HARDLY TURN A HEAD, WAS THE PHASE OF ENTERTAINMENT WHICH MIGHT BE CONSIDER RISQUE.
    VAUDEVILLE WAS A SET OF CERTAIN ACTS WHICH DELIGHTED AUDIENCES AROUND THE COUNTRY FOR AN AFFORDABLE PRICE, AND BROUGHT THE MANY IMMIGRANTS OF THIS NATION TOGETHER OUT OF THEIR NEIGHBORHOODS OR GHETTOS WHICH BROUGHT PEOPLE TO EXPLORE THE COMIC OR MUSICAL TRADITIONS OF EACH OTHERS NATIONALITY.

  • Laura Atnip

    My great grandparents were performers on Vaudeville. Their names were Walter Washburn and Nellie (Keeley) Washburn. Nellie also performed with her sister as “The Keeley Sisters”. I would love to learn more about them and find pictures also. If anyone has any information about them, please get in touch. Thanks!

  • megan

    Forgot the great Cary Grant started out in vaudeville traveling troupes and ran into May West during that time before doing movies with her.

  • Richard Mendonca

    Like one of the others above I had a grandfather that was an acrobatic performer in vaudville. He was performing in 1916 when my mother was born in Lincoln Nebraska. On her birth certificate it showed his address as being in Los Angeles. His given name was Isaac Barnett Benjamin and I don’t know what name he performed under. My grandmother came from Wisconsin so I believe that was where they met and were probably headed for CA. when my mother was born. If anyone has any information about him or can give me any leads as to where to find out more, I would really appreciate it. They separated after my mothers birth and I don’t know any more about him except they say he was with Pantageous.
    Thanks for anything anyone can get to me.
    Rich

  • Mark Lohr

    Brian,
    I am a Modern Day Vaudeville style Baggy Pants Comic and I am a Teaching artist as well. I have a residency program where i come in teach about Vaudeville, teach juggling, plate spinning and slapstick comedy. After acout a week the class then puts on their own show. If you would like to know more check out my website @ http://www.marklohr.com

  • Katie

    My great aunt was the silent movie star, Mignon Anderson who was married to J. Morris Foster, also a silent screen actor. They were with Thanhouser Studios for most of their careers. Mignon’s parents, my great grandparents were J. Frank Anderson & Hallie Howard, both of whom were stage performers (singers/actors). It is our understanding that they were known for singing “Light Opera” and Gilbert & Sullivan. I have been searching for anything about them, but the only mention is in association with my Aunt Mignon. If anyone has information, photos, articles, etc., about either of them, please contact me. Your help is greatly appreciated!

  • michael g

    i’m just learning and you gave me my first glimpse into a different, historical universe. thank you

  • Kiffie G.

    My grandfather appeared on the stage as Cellmont Barkland. He shared the stage with George Fox, extensively billed as “the blazing light of laughter”. Both of them appeared in a show “The Man Behind”. If anybody has any information, or suggestions where to look for photos, playbills, etc., please let me know. Thanks!

  • Gretchen B

    My grandmother was a singer in vaudeville. I’m trying to find information about her ‘act’–it was probably operatic arias and show tunes. does anyone know of a good site for research? even a general site for information would be helpful. her name was Lela Cadman.

  • kiffie bjorklund

    Hi, Gretchen B,

    Try looking at old clippings of the New York Dramatic Mirror. It was a newspaper dedicated to vaudeville and theatre, much like Variety is today. I was able to find articles about my grandfather who was in stock companies that played around the country. Good luck!

  • Jacquelyn Harper Christy

    I tried once before to correct this error – see above comments from me – the name I mistakenly printed as my grandfather, the vaudevillian. I said his name was Joseph Wayne Simons, but it was JOSEPH NEELY SIMONS. Joseph Wayne Simons was his son, my mother’s half-brother.

    I keep finding this misinformation on other websites. Please; to whomever is managing this website page –
    try to correct this in the name of authentic information.

    Thanks… Jacque

  • Lisa Nishimura

    @ Laura Atnip: I have pictures!!! The Kelley Sisters, Nellie and Hazel, were actually cousins, I believe. Hazel was my great-great grandmother. Hazel and my great-great grandfather, Arthur (DeLang) Stuart later performed as Stuart and Keeley.

    I have some pictures of Nellie and Hazel. I hope that you read this comment, because I would be happy to scan pictures and send them to you.

  • Cale Cole

    My great-grandfather was Herb Williams of the Williams and Wolfus Team. His real name was Herbert Billerbeck and his nephew Frank Billerbeck who went by the name Billy Beck was a famous character actor. He was in tons of movies,commercials and tv. He actually just died back in June.

  • kate merrin

    my grandfather was a vaudeville performer James Rafferty. i have one picture but don’t have any other information like a time or name of shows. is there a place to search for names of performers?
    thank you

  • Regan Keemer

    I had tears in my eyes! Thanks for providing us the link and opening your heart to such a great opportunity to help a family!

  • Demetrius

    I bet somebody already said it but Ed Sullivan Show was a Vaudville big hit.

  • CATHY

    My great grand parents were Dan and Lora Valadon….High wire act on Vaudeville…Does anyone know where to look for maybe pictures or information from back then

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