Vaudeville represents the almost universal longing for laughter,
for melody, for colour, for action, for wonder-provoking things. Needing no intellectual activity on the part of those who
gather to enjoy it; in its essence it is an escape, from all the little ills of life. It is joy and frankly absurd fun no
more no less, Vaudeville brings home to us the fun that we miss when we were children, so read on and capture the fun of those
Vaudeville days American Vaudeville, more so than any other mass entertainment, grew out of the culture of incorporation that
defined American life after the Civil War. The development of vaudeville marked the beginning of popular entertainment as
big business, dependent on the organizational efforts of a growing number of white-collar workers and the increased leisure
time, spending power, and changing tastes of an urban middle class audience. Business savy showmen utilized improved transportation
and communication technologies, creating and controlling vast networks of theatre circuits standardizing, professionalizing,
and institutionalizing American popular entertainment.
William S. Gilbert was
born in London in 1836, the son of a retired naval surgeon. Except for a kidnapping by Italian brigands in Italy at age two,
and a ransomed release, he appears to have had a very normal upbringing. Beyond normal schooling, he took training as an artillery
officer and studied military science in preparation for the Crimean War. However, the war ended before Gilbert graduated so
he joined the militia and was a member for twenty years. For a short period of time, he practiced law. However, William Gilbert
was not meant to spend his life in a courtroom. He had shown a talent for wit and sarcasm from an early age and his flair
for language would prove to be his greatest asset. Beginning in 1861, Gilbert wrote dramatic criticism and humorous verse
for the popular British magazine FUN. The cartoons and sketches that accompanied some of his work were signed “Bab.”
Many of the characters in the Gilbert & Sullivan operas were modeled after some of Gilbert’s “Bab” characters.
He was knighted by Edward VII in 1907 and died in 1911 at the age of 74 while attempting to save a drowning woman. Arthur
S. Sullivan was born in Lambeth, London in 1842 to a gifted musical family. His father was a bandmaster at the Royal Military
College and before the age of 10, Sullivan had mastered all of the wind instruments in his father’s band. He composed
his own anthem when he was eight years old, and at the ago of 14 became the first winner of the Mendelssohn Scholarship. At
the age of 10, Sullivan wrote music to accompany Shakespeare’s Tempest and became a recognizable public figure.
Until around the age of thirty, he was a professor of music, a teacher, and an organist. Throughout his career, he also composed
several major choral works including, The Light of the World (1873), The Marty of Antioch (1880), The Golden Legend (1886),
and his lone grand opera, Ivanhoe (1891). Queen Victoria knighted Sullivan in 1883. From 1872 until his death at the age of
58 in 1900, he suffered from extremely painful kidney stones, and ironically, it is said that his most beautiful music was
composed while he endured great pain.
The term “burlesque” has no meaning as a contemporary
phenomenon to most Americans. The historical associations the term provokes -if any-are likely to be of a slightly naughty
(but ultimately innocuous) theatrical pastime occurring in a vaguely situated past: somewhere between the 1890s and World
War 11. Always at the center of this memory is the burlesque performer: the stripper, and all that term connotes of the
exotic, displayed, sexual, female body. But whatever its associations with illicit sexuality, burlesque has been almost thoroughly
recuperated within the mainstream of American popular culture. In the late 1970s, Sugar Babies, a Broadway revue with Mickey
Rooney and Ann Miller, paid homage to the baggy pants comics, slap-stick, double entendres and strip tease of burlesque
as it existed in its last moments as a viable entertainment form-the 1930s and 1940s.
Ziegfeld was the original impresario and showman.
He is most famous for the Ziegfeld Follies which were famous theatrical productions on Broadway with the best stars of its
day. Famous performers such as Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice and Barbara Stanwyck appeared in the shows. Costumes were designed
by famous names such as Lucille and Erte. The first revue took place in what is now the Winter Garden theater in Broadway,
mid-town Manhattan in 1907.
He was a showman from the beginning. In 1893, when his father opened a nightclub called
the Trocadero. it was rescued by his son. Young Ziegfeld shifted the main focus of the show from music and variety acts to
a strongman, Eugene Sandow. Ziegfeld organized a huge publicity campaign to broadcast his star, and the show was a spectacular
success. Ziegfeld toured the United States with his star and it was then that he decided to turn his attention to Broadway.
He wanted to find a new star and he did. It was Anna Held, a singer and all-round entertainer. She was working for the Folies
Bergeres in Europe but Ziegfeld offered her an unheard of sum of money to become his new star. Held arrived in the United
States in a blaze of publicity and over the next twelve year, Ziegfeld produced many Broadway musicals designed to showcase
his new protegee.
Ziegfeld married Held but they later separated. However it was Held who gave Ziegfeld the idea
of the 'Ziegfeld Follies' of which FLorenz Ziegfeld is most famous. Ziegfeld was the producer of these shows which
ran from 1907 through 1931.
The first show opened in 1907 at a rundown theater called "The Jardin de Paris"
in New York. The Folies were a mix of burlesque and pure entertainment. They were lavish and spectacular revues, a mix between
Broadway shows and the elaborate Vaudeville shows. Ziegfeld aimed to hire the best entertainers of the day. The top entertainers
of the day including Ann Pennington, Will Rogers, W.C. Fields appeared in the shows. For the 1910 Follies, Ziegfeld brought
in two comic stars who became key figures in the series. They were Bert Williams, the first black man to co-star on Broadway
with white performers and Fanny Brice, who would star in more Folie shows than any other. The shows too were famous for their
elaborate costumes designed by famous names such as Erte, Lucille and Ali Ben Hagan.
who work in vaudeville alone are comparatively few, for the "serious-chronic," as she came to be called, has passed
on. But there are novelties. There is Augusta Glose, who calls herself a "pianologist," and who is the daughter
of a successful piano teacher. Hers is a dainty, humorous parlor performance, in which unusual technical skill and clever
imitations are interwoven. Lillian Shaw, Marie Norman, and two or three others, are among the few who have the courage and
ability to succeed as monologists. Heloise Titcomb, an American girl, who can hardly speak English, and who out-Frenches the
Parisians among whom she was reared, is among the successful ones. The colored brother on the vaudeville stage really deserves
a chapter by himself, for his success has been extraordinary. Williams and Walker, best of them all, are now established stars;
but Cole and Johnson, who have written more popular melodies than any other writers of words and music in this country; Johnson
and Dean, who have made something of a sensation in Europe; Irving Jones, Ernest Hogen, and ever so many more, are as firmly
established as any of the vaudeville performer
As the 1920's roared on, Ziegfeld Follies roared on too. The
shows moved to a new theater but they still kept to the successful formula of stunning and spectacular visuals, topical comedy
and beautiful girls. Ziegfeld produced other shows and musicals. Another important production was the musical, Show Boat.
The show, with its dramatic storyline, was another success. The Wall Street Crash came in 1932 and Ziegfeld lost much of his
money. However he produced a revival of Show Boat which was another a financial success. However, later that year 1932, Ziegfeld
died from a lung infection related to pleurisy.
The founder of the Pantages "empire" was born Pericles
Pantages, but having great admiration for Alexander the Great, he changed his first name, not without some evidence of foresight!
His first theatre was built in 1914 in Winnipeg, Manitoba for the showcasing of vaudeville acts, and Alexander Pantages the
Greek entrepreneur began his Vaudeville Circuit.
Before he stopped building, there were 500 Pantages 'playhouses'
on the circuit, ranging from Canada to the whole of the United States west of the Mississippi River. Most have fallen into
neglect and decay, but a few shining examples carry on the Pantages name. In Minneapolis in 1916 the Pantages was the first
public building in the city to be 'air conditioned', with ice as the coolant. For future reference, this one cost
about $15,000 to build! Among the few that have survived in splendor through the economic swings of the intervening years
are the theatres in Toronto, Canada and in Tacoma, Washington.
The last theatre ever built by Alexander Pantages
is the one which still occupies its favored site at the intersection of Hollywood and Vine in Hollywood, U.S.A. Like all the
other theatres, this one was designed to house Pantages Vaudeville acts, but by then the shows offered were a mixture of live
acts and the then-emerging "talkies" or moving pictures with sound. Due to the Great Depression, cutbacks had to
be made, and the theatre cut back on live shows to offer mostly first run movies.
A widely publicized trial in
1929 led to the downfall of the 'Pantages Empire'. He sold everything at rock- bottom -dollar and died soon after.
In 1949 it became the RKO Pantages when Howard Hughes bought it and made it part of his corporation. The theatre took on added
glamour in the 1950's as it hosted the Academy Award Ceremonies for 10 years. It was also host to such grand openings
as Judy Garland's A Star Is Born, and many other glittering events. When it closed as a movie theatre in 1977 and re-opened
with the stage show Bubbling Brown Sugar, its course was pretty well charted.
The Los Angeles Pantages Theatre
is a world-famous example of Art Deco architecture, and it is capable of hosting theatrical extravaganzas as well as rock
concerts and, of course, the star-studded Academy Awards. The interior d'cor alone is enough to elicit awe-struck admiration.
Since its operation was taken over by the Nederlander Organization, more than $10 million has been invested in re-creating
and improving the original grandeur and comfort of this Hollywood landmark.
Since the Los Angeles Pantages was
built in 1929 for a 'mere' $1.25 million, it has paid for itself a few times! The Lion King alone, in its more than
two-year run from 2000 to 2003, brought in over $142 million. Tickets to the Pantages in L.A. offer more than just the show
on stage, too. Visitors can just sit back in luxurious comfort and marvel at the glorious display of architecture and stunning
decor - gold leaf included!
The theatre has been host to many of the most spectacular and thrilling performances,
both theatrical and musical, that the world has ever seen on stage. It is a favorite location for the filming of movie scenes,
and has even hosted rock concerts. It also has the prestige of having been the site of five of the highest-grossing weeks
in all of L.A.'s entertainment history.
The Los Angeles Pantages continues to make history to this day. It
is currently offering Phantom of the Opera, incidentally the longest-running play in the history of theatrical productions.
In coming months, fortunate theatregoers will be able to procure tickets to such gems as Grease, Rain, Mamma Mia! and Rent.
Anyone who appreciates the mix of art and glamour embodied in the Los Angeles Pantages (or incidentally is hoping
to gain office space in this epicenter of entertainment) will be thrilled with the latest news. The theatre was originally
intended to have 12 stories, with office space on the upper floors. Construction was halted, like many other projects, by
the onset of the Great Depression, but plans are under way to complete the design as it was meant to be. Something to look
forward to, indeed!
By Matt Ryan
Born Mary Ellen Harrison, probably in Indiana, she first played
vaudeville and movie theatres in Chicago around 1914. She was spotted by dancer Vernon Castle, who enabled her entrance into
the New York theatre scene where she debuted in a 1915 Irving Berlin revue titled Stop! Look! Listen!. In 1916 she began recording
for Victor Records, singing a variety of songs such as "Everybody's Crazy 'Bout the Doggone Blues, But I'm
Happy", "After You've Gone", "When I Hear that Jazz Band Play", her biggest success "I Ain't
Got Nobody", and "A Good Man Is Hard to Find", later recorded by Bessie Smith.
In 1920, after the
Victor label would not allow her to record W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues", she joined Columbia Records where
she recorded the song successfully. Sometimes billed as "The Queen of the Blues", she tended to record blues- or
jazz-flavoured tunes throughout her career. Handy wrote of Harris that "she sang blues so well that people hearing her
records sometimes thought that the singer was colored". She herself said: "..you usually do best what comes naturally
[and] so I just naturally started singing Southern dialect songs and the modern blues songs.."
In 1922 she
moved to the Brunswick label. She also continued to appear in Broadway theatres throughout the 1920s. She regularly played
the Palace Theatre, appeared in Florenz Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic, and toured the country with vaudeville shows. After
a marriage which produced two children, and her subsequent divorce, she returned to the theatre in New York in 1927, and returned
to the Victor label to make more recordings. Also that year, she appeared in an eight minute promotional film, Marion Harris,
Songbird Of Jazz, and made a flop Hollywood movie, the early musical Devil-May-Care with Ramon Navarro. She then temporarily
withdrew from performance, because of an undisclosed illness."
The Golden Age of Theatre in England is generally regarded as
being that period from around 1870 through until approximately 1920 (the years suggested being only very approximate and subject
to some interpretation). That is not to suggest that theatre in England was unknown before 1870, far from it, theatre as an
essential element of English culture dates back much, much further. Nor should it be intimated that English theatre died after
1920, no indeed, it is still very much alive today and hopefully will continue to thrive for the foreseeable future. But those
rough dates do set boundaries to an approximate period when English Theatre flourished to an extent never seen before and
never likely to be seen again. The beginning of this period coincided with the end of the Industrial Revolution, which had
created a new middle class, raised living standards, and moved the bulk of the population from the countryside into the towns.
People needed entertainment, most (to varying extent) had money to pay for it, and in the absence of Television and Cinema
live performance was the only form of mass entertainment available. This led to a great proliferation of Music Halls providing
general musical entertainment to the working classes, as well as grander establishments such as theatres and opera houses
catering for the more genteel elements of society. Whilst the productions of the former were largely boisterous and unsophiscated,
the presentations of the latter ranged from the ever-popular light musical comedies to thought provoking drama and high opera.
The proliferation of theatre also led to and/or took advantage of various technological developments, such as the widespread
availability of gas and later electric lighting, more realistic sets, and stage machinery capable of quick scene changes and/or
reproducing special effects etc. So not only was theatre blossoming, its very nature was changing as was the way in which
theatrical productions were presented. Of course so many theatres needed lots of performers. And this provided the openings
for so many fine singers, dancers and actors to earn a living and in many cases to find fame and fortune. Many of these performers,
the most talented or in some cases simply the most beautiful, would become the celebrity superstars of their day. This was
due in no small part to another technological innovation which had nothing directly to do with theatre. That was the technology
to mass produce photographic images. In the absence of a widespread telephone network, people commonly exchanged postcards
as a means of keeping in touch. The advent of photographic postcards provided the sender with both an excuse for writing and
a subject matter to comment upon, leading to their increasing popularity. In time some of these cards came to be pre-printed
with very short birthday or christmas wishes making them the forerunners of the greetings cards with which we ara all so familiar
today. The stars of the stage were an obvious choice of subject matter (among others) for the producers of these cards, and
they were so popular and produced in such vast numbers that a bewildering number and variety of them survive to this day.
Thus even now, images of the stars of a hundred years ago are not uncommon and it was my interest in these that led to the
creation of these pages. As theatre boomed the nations capital
became a focus and a clear division arose between the types of theatrical entertainments commonly on offer in London's
East and West Ends. East End establishments catered for a more earthy class of clientele and this was refelected in the nature
of the entertainments on offer. Music Hall was popular (offering a brash and lively hotch-potch of song, dance and comedy)
whilst taste in plays tended towards moralistic, sentimental and patriotric fare. West End productions, catering for the middle
and upper classes, were by comparison more sophisticated and also more inclined to push the boundaries of public morality.
In 1892, Edward Pigott (Examiner of Plays for the Select Committee on Patriotic Licences) concluded that "the further
East you go the more moral your audience is" whilst "the immoral and indecent plays are intended for West End audiences".
Productions ranged in format from Burlesque to High Opera, with musical comedies being especially popular The Decline .........
Whilst in the heady days at the turn of the century it may have
seemed that Theatre would rule forever, the end of the golden age of theatre was already ordained by the arrival of another
new invention, moving pictures. Although early cinema lacked sound and colour and early productions were very short, it's
novelty value ensured that it quickly caught on. Furthermore, it had the compensating advantage of not being confined to a
small stage. Outdoor locations allowed for large scale sets and action sequences that could not possibly be reproduced indoors.
In addition, whilst initial production costs could be extremely high (for the more ambitious productions), repeat performance
costs were negligible, as the same reel of film could be shown over and over again to different audiences at minimal extra
cost. This enabled vast profits to be made whilst keeping admission prices to a minimum. This led to ever more lavish and
spectacular productions which easily outstripped the more limited resources of stage productions. It is perhaps not unrelated
either that the same period saw the rise of professional sport as a spectator activity, providing another means of sating
the publics craving for entertainment as well as another draw upon their purse-strings.
What is certain is that
as these other forms of entertainment grew in popularity, so live theatre waned, and whilst it did not (and hopefully never
will) die entirely, increasing competition for dwindling audiences led to the gradual closure of many theatres and the disbandment
of many repertory companies. This was exacerbated by the arrival of talking pictures in 1927 which took away the last major
advantage live performance still held over cinema. As cinema gradually took over from theatre as the leading form of mass
entertainment, some performers successfully made the transition from stage to silver screen with their careers intact or even
strengthened by the new medium. Others were not so lucky, or were too purist even to try. Thus many of the brightest lights
of the stage era faded with its passing, to be replaced by new stars born of cinema.
The great appeal of vaudeville
was that it was entertainment for everyone. You didn’t have to be rich to buy a ticket, like the symphony. You didn’t
have to understand Italian to follow the story or get the jokes, as in opera. All you needed for a vaudeville show was the
desire to laugh and have fun. Vaudeville performers were not picky about who their audiences were, and in turn vaudeville
audiences were not picky about who their stars were. It was on the Vaudeville stage (not theatre, opera, symphony, radio,
or movies) that the first African-American star was born. His name was Bert Williams. It was the vaudeville stage that opened
it’s arms to the numerous immigrants of all nationalities at the time of North America’s greatest waves of immigration.
Chinese, Irish, German, French, Russian, Scottish immigrants and more all found places to perform on the vaudeville stage.
The reasonably priced, fun-filled ticket attracted equally diverse audiences. Women found their highest paying jobs
on the vaudeville stage, often making 100 times more than what they’d make in the sweatshop job market of the late 1800’s.
Economic issues played a role in vaudeville’s decline.
Why would the audience go out and spend from one to three dollars to see the same stars they could stay at home and listen
to on the radio for free? Not only could the audience hear the stars on radio for free, but very often the radio show would
be broadcast right from the vaudeville theatre, and just skip the acts that didn’t work well on the radio, like the
jugglers. This was helped along by the new policy of the Palace Theatre which dictated that all of the performers who
were able to do the radio shows broadcast from the theatre must do so. The Palace Theatre was the biggest vaudeville theatre,
and by 1920 it was the seat of power for the newly combined Keith/Albee/Orpheum circuit, 3 vaudeville circuits all rolled
into one. In 1928 the business tycoon Joe Kennedy (future president John F. Kennedy’s father) bought 200,000 shares
of stock in the Keith/Albee/Orpheum circuit, then run by E.F. Albee (grandfather to the playwright Edward Albee). But Joe
Kennedy pulled a fast one and ran Mr. Albee out of the business by taking over the controlling interest--one of the earliest
economic hostile take-overs. It was Mr. Kennedy’s policy that all the vaudevillians who could do their acts on radio
would have to do so. Although this policy created a great many radio stars, it was the first serious sickness for the aging
art of vaudeville. The stock market crashed in 1929 and America went through 10 years of the worst economic crisis in history.
People were jobless, homeless and without food. This was before unemployment benefits or welfare. People could no longer afford
the basic necessities of life, never mind the little luxuries like going to a vaudeville show. For the theatres it became
cheaper to show a movie than to hire real live vaudeville acts. The audience also wanted big stars, and big stars were expensive.
It was easier to get a big star into your theatre by showing the movie they were in rather than by hiring the stars themselves.
A movie in the 1930’s might cost only 50 cents whereas a vaudeville show might be one, two, or even three dollars.
A descendant of variety, (c. 1860s–1881),
vaudeville was distinguished from the earlier form by its mixed-gender audience, usually alcohol-free halls, and often slavish
devotion to inculcating favor among members of the middle class. The form gradually evolved from the concert saloon and variety
hall into its mature form throughout the 1870s and 1880s. This more genteel form was known as "Polite Vaudeville."
In the years before the American Civil War, entertainment existed on a different scale. Certainly, variety theatre
existed before 1860 in Europe and elsewhere. In the United States, as early as the first decades of the nineteenth century,
theatregoers could enjoy a performance consisting of Shakespeare plays, acrobatics, singing, dancing, and comedy. As the years
progressed, people seeking diversified amusement found an increasing number of ways to be entertained. A handful of circuses
regularly toured the country; dime museums appealed to the curious; amusement parks, riverboats, and town halls often featured
"cleaner" presentations of variety entertainment; and saloons, music halls, and burlesque houses catered to those
with a taste for the risqué. In the 1840s, minstrel shows, another type of variety performance, and "the first
emanation of a pervasive and purely American mass culture," grew to enormous popularity and formed what Nick Tosches
called "the heart of nineteenth-century show business." Medicine shows traveled the countryside offering programs
of comedy, music, jugglers and other novelties along with displays of tonics, salves, and miracle elixirs, while "Wild
West" shows provided romantic vistas of the disappearing frontier, complete with trick riding, music, and drama. Vaudeville
incorporated these various itinerant amusements into a stable, institutionalized form centered in America's growing urban
In the early 1880s, impresario Tony Pastor, a circus ringmaster turned theatre manager, capitalized on middle
class sensibilities and spending power when he began to feature "polite" variety programs in several of his New
York City theatres. The usual date given for the "birth" of vaudeville is October 24, 1881, when Pastor famously
staged the first bill of self-proclaimed "clean" vaudeville in New York City. Hoping to draw a potential audience
from female and family-based shopping traffic uptown, Pastor barred the sale of liquor in his theatres, eliminated bawdy material
from his shows, and offered gifts of coal and hams to attendees. Pastor's experiment proved successful, and other managers
soon followed suit.
Some of the most prominent
vaudevillians continued the migration to cinema, though others found that the gifts that had so delighted live audiences did
not translate well into different media. Some performers such as Bert Lahr fashioned careers out of combining live performance,
radio and film roles. Many others later appeared in the Catskill resorts that constituted the "Borscht Belt". Many
simply retired from performance and entered the workaday world of the middle class, the group that vaudeville, more than anything
else, had helped to articulate and entertain.
Yet vaudeville, both in its methods and ruling aesthetic, influenced
the succeeding media of film, radio and television. The screwball comedies of the 1930s, those reflections of the brief moment
of cinematic equipoise between dialogue and physicality, reflect the more madcap comedic elements of some vaudeville acts
(e.g., The Three Keatons). In form, the television variety show owed much to vaudeville. The multi-act format had renewed
success in shows such as Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar and, of course, The Ed Sullivan Show. Today, performers such as
Bill Irwin, a MacArthur Fellow and Tony Award-winning actor, are frequently lauded as being "New Vaudevillians."
References to vaudeville and the use of its distinctive argot continue throughout Western popular culture. Terms such
as "a flop" (an act that does badly), for example, have entered the American idiom. Many of the most common performance
techniques and "gags" of vaudeville entertainers are still seen on television and on film. Vaudeville, like its
dime museum and variety theatre forebears, also continued and solidified a strong American absorption with foreign entertainers.
Vaudeville, more so than any other mass entertainment, grew out of the culture of incorporation that defined American life
after the Civil War. The development of vaudeville marked the beginning of popular entertainment as big business, dependent
on the organizational efforts of a growing number of white-collar workers and the increased leisure time, spending power,
and changing tastes of an urban middle class audience. Business savvy showmen utilized improved transportation and communication
technologies, creating and controlling vast networks of theatre circuits standardizing, professionalizing, and institutionalizing
American popular entertainment.
An historical overview of the development of Burlesque.
This essay is an attempt to provide a brief overview of
the main names and events in the history of this misunderstood craft, as it changed from Ancient Athens to modern day…
I will be updating it as I uncover more information. There are so many heroes, stars and writers of the burlesque genre I
shall have to list them all in another document as this is already rather lengthy but significant people are named.Where
to start? What is Burlesque? The term ‘Burlesque’
literally means “to imitate, parody or send up”. In essence, burlesque is best described as ‘provocative
performance art’ and as an entertainment form it has existed as poetry, verse, theatre and more recently adult entertainment
and cabaret too. It has been subject to much cultural reinterpretation across centuries and continents
Theatre in England reached its zenith during the
Edwardian era. By then, from humble beginnings, it had blossomed into a wonderful diversity of forms. Described below are
the principal of these as they were known and understood in Edwardian times. Note that the division between these forms was
often blurred, and that whilst many of them still exist today they may have undergone some shift in style and/or interpretation
since that era. Burlesque A form of satiric play often parodying the theatrical conventions
of the day and making fun of a more serious work. The British burlesque differed greatly from the American entertainment of
the same name which was a variety entertainment based upon an unsubtle mix of sex and comedy intended for a male audience. Burletta A form of musical entertainment similar to burlesque but designed to be performed
at the minor theatres or as a sidebill, which arose to exploit a loophole in the licensing laws. Technically, any play in
three acts and containing at least five musical numbers was a burletta. Comedy Any play
having a humerous content and a happy ending. The most effective comedy is usually that which is based on matters of local
or topical interest. This means that comedy in general does not age or travel well. Many comedies have been written which,
although they were a success on their release have since been lost and forgotten. Some comedies, however do stand the tests
of time and geography and thus stand as a shining example to the genius of their creators. The best known of playwrights from
the Edwardian era to have produced such timeless masterpieces is Oscar Wilde. Comic Opera A characteristically British form of operetta made popular by the works of Gilbert and Sullivan and others. Drama
A theatrical work of a highly emotional content, typically involving the representation of a situation wherein conflict
exists and is resolved through the interaction of the characters. Put more simply, it refers to a group of actors playing
out a situation of a serious rather than a comic or tragic nature. NB: In its widest sense, 'drama' describes
the whole body of work written created for the theatre generally or within a given context, ie. English Drama, Elizabethan
Drama etc. Extravaganza Almost indistinguishable from burlesque, many productions indeed
being described as both. The only real difference was that the extravaganza had no single satiric subject being intended solely
for entertainment and often produced on a grander scale. Farce An extreme form of comedy
extracting maximum from exagerrated or 'over the top' storylines. The Edwardian farce was a full-length play characterised
by absurd situations and characterisations. Very often, the plot-line dealt with extra-marital affairs (bedroom farce) and
the comical attempts made by the parties involved to hide these indescretions. Melodrama A play with music. Prior to 1843, only three theatres in London were licensed to perform 'straight' plays (ie. plays
with only spoken dialogue). These were the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Theatre Royal Covent Garden, and the Haymarket. Other
theatres were forced to use music or mime to tell their story. For a play with dialogue to be legal, it was required that
there be at least five songs in each act, thus giving rise to melodrama. By the Edwardian era, melodrama more specifically
refered to a type of drama employing music to heighten or underscore the emotional content, with plots being typically founded
upon situations in which virtue is ultimately rewarded. Musical Comedy The musical comedies
of the Edwardian era drew from light opera the tradition of a sketchy plot and the songs which could be derived from it, with
concerted finales at the closing of each each. Music Hall A traditional British musical
variety entertainment (similar to the American Vaudeville) and/or the venue in which it is housed. Opera
A form of theatrical drama which relying heavily upon vocal and instrumental music to portray events and convey the
story. Major elements of the dialogue are sung in a distinctive style and are connected by passages in 'recitative'
style (ie. melodiously spoken or midway between song and speech), or in prose or verse. Operetta
A short opera with a comic theme often of a farcical or satiric nature. Gave birth to the characteristically British
English form commonly known as 'comic opera'.
A British theatrical entertainment, traditionally produced around the Christmas period, which is farcical in nature
and often based on folk tales or childrens stories (eg. 'Peter Pan'). Pantomime developed a unique tradition wherein
the principal boy is played by a female, the Dame by a male, and the audience are actively encouraged to participate vocally
in the performance. Tragedy A form of play dealing with the human condition when beset by trials
and tribulation. The central character often being a person of high standing who loses everything as the result of some catastrophe
or reversal of fortune, and often dying in tragic circumstances near the end of the play. A variation is Romantic Tragedy
which usually deals with a love between two individuals who are irreparably held apart by circumstances beyond their control.
Often the separating factor is duty, so that the lovers sacrifice themselves for the good of others. Vaudeville
A type of theatrical entertainment popular in the USA that combined comedy sketches, song and dance, magic, and other
light entertainment acts. A more wholesome family form of the US Burlesque (ie. without the lewd elements), similar to the
British tradition of Music Hall.
The great demand in vaudeville is for low comedy with plenty
of action. Broad sweeping effects without too much detail are wanted. The artistic "legitimate" actor wastes too
much time in working up to his points, but the skilled vaudevillist strikes them with a single blow and scores. A successful
vaudeville sketch concentrates in one act as many laughs and as much action as are usually distributed over a three-act comedy.
There are players who
have been identified with vaudeville for years, growing gray in it, in fact, whose popularity is unbounded. The loyalty of
their following is not to be lightly measured. They change their sketches every four or five years, but the people are inclined
to prefer the old ones. Mr. and Mrs. William Robyn have been playing "The Long Strike" for eight years and are still
appearing in it. They spent $1,500 in getting up a new act, only to find that the patrons of vaudeville preferred the old
one, which is really not nearly so good.
The "black face" act of McIntyre and Heath comes
as near to being a standard as anything in amusements can be. Some thirty years ago they began playing "The Georgia Minstrels,"
for about $50 a week; they are still playing the sketch most of the time, but their salary has advanced to $500 a week, and
they can work fifty-two weeks in the year if they choose. Very earnestly they have tried to introduce new sketches, but the
public demands "The Georgia Minstrels." There isn't an act on the vaudeville stage so familiar as that of McIntyre
and Heath, and none that is in greater demand.
Since the original construction of the building in 1870, the Vaudeville
Theatre has maintained its Victorian elegance and charm while it has been refurbished from time to time to ensure the comfort
of its patrons. Seating 690 on three levels, it offers an intimate locale for the audience to become immersed in its productions.
As its name indicates, the theatre originally held vaudeville shows and musical revues. Soon, though, the boards of the Vaudeville
became enriched with true acting greatness. Henry Irving had his first meaningful success here in Two Roses, which ran an
extraordinary 300 performances. This offering was followed by the first play to ever exceed 1000 performances, Our Boys by
H.J. Byron, which began at the Vaudeville in 1875. Followed by many dramatic successes in the intervening years, the Vaudeville
was completely renovated beginning in 1889. It reopened in 1891 with Jerome K. Jerome's Woodbarrow Farm.
1892 the Gatti family, restaurateurs who held the lease on the nearby Adelphi Theatre, obtained the lease on the Vaudeville.
After an intervening, short-lived revival of Our Boys, the theatre became the venue for a long run of successful musical comedies.
Sadly, in 1897, the foyer of the Vaudeville was the scene of a heated argument between actor William Terriss and one of his
protégés, Richard Archer Prince. Later, Terriss was found stabbed to death at the stage door of the Adelphi.
In 1898 The French Maid transferred to the Vaudeville after a year at Terry's Theatre. Terriss's daughter, Ellaline,
would go on to star in a series of Christmastime entertainments at the Vaudeville, including Bluebell in Fairyland in 1901.
The theatre was host to many popular musicals through the years leading up to a complete interior renovation in 1925.
Reducing the seating from over 1000 to its current level of 690, the reconstruction converted its original horseshoe shaped
auditorium to its current rectangular configuration. The Vaudeville reopened in February 1926 with the revue R.S.V.P. followed
by William Somerset Maugham's comedy The Bread-Winner. With the end of hostilities after WWII, the theatre presented The
Chiltern Hundreds for 651 performances, followed by the musical Salad Days, which ran for the longest running performance
record of any theatrical production up to that time. It boasted 2,283 showings.
The Vaudeville avoided demolition
at the hands of a proposed redevelopment of Covent Gardens in 1968. The aggressive plan would have also destroyed the Adelphi,
Garrick, Lyceum and Duchess Theatres. A cooperative association of Equity, the Musician's Union and theatre owners led
to the formation of the Save London Theatres Campaign. The group launched a successful offensive which led to the abandonment
of the highly unpopular destruction of historic places.
The modern era has seen some extremely well received dramas,
comedies and musicals at the Vaudeville. Among these have been Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, Simon Gray's Hidden Laughter,
Jean Fergusson's She Knows You Know and Richard Nelson's Madame Melville. Beginning in September 2002, the dance troupe
Stomp performed for exactly five years to the day before closing in 2007. At present, Piaf is running a fourteen week limited
engagement, to be followed by Woman in Mind.
The Vaudeville Theatre is situated in the heart of London's Theatreland
in the city of Westminster. On a par with New York City's Broadway, it is a common activity of tourists to "take
in a play" in Theatreland. The Vaudeville is within a stone's throw of such attractions as Charing Cross, Trafalgar
Square and Covent Garden. Patrick_Sharple
This was the show part
of Show Business. This was the fun part, the part the audience came to know and love. At its peak in the 1920’s there
were 20,000 vaudeville acts in the country, and over 2 million people saw vaudeville shows EVERY DAY! The line - up of the
show, or who was playing in the show that week, was called the vaudeville bill, the vaudeville bill would change every week.
There were usually nine or ten acts in a vaudeville bill, although sometimes there were as many as twenty. The acts were incredibly
varied but they had one thing in common. They were all clean family fun ! The Palace in New York City, the most famous of
all the vaudeville theatres, had a sign backstage to remind the performers that "This Theater caters to Ladies and Gentlemen
and Children. Vulgarity will not be tolerated.".
There were an endless variety of acts: singers and dancers,
jugglers and clowns, magicians and escape artists, comedians and mimes, acrobats and daredevils, animal acts and puppets,
musicians and minstrels, rope spinners and horseback riders. Sometimes a well-known individual who was not a vaudeville act
would appear to share their life experiences with an audience. This was true of Hellen Keller and Babe Ruth when they each
played the Palace Theatre in the 1920’s. There were solo acts, duets, trios, acts with 40 people, and even families
who performed together like the Marx Brothers or the Dolly Sisters. Though their acts were very diverse, vaudevillians all
shared a great love for traveling and performing.
"Ethel Waters (Oct 31, 1896 – Sep 1, 1977) was
an African-American blues and jazz vocalist and actor...Waters was very talented and had many achievements. After her start
in Baltimore, she toured honky tonks in the South. As she described it later, "I used to work from nine until unconscious."
Despite her early success, Waters fell on hard times and joined a carnival which traveled in freight cars to Chicago, Illinois.
She enjoyed her time with the carnival, and recalled, "The roustabouts and the concessionaires were the kind of people
I'd grown up with, rough, tough, full of larceny towards strangers, but sentimental, and loyal to their friends and co-workers."
She did not last long with them, though, and soon headed south to Atlanta, Georgia. There, she worked in the same club with
Bessie Smith. Smith demanded that she not compete in singing the blues opposite her, and Waters conceded to the older woman
and instead sang ballads and popular songs and dance...In 1921 Waters became the fifth black woman to make a record. She later
joined Black Swan Records, where Fletcher Henderson was her accompanist. Waters later commented that Henderson tended to perform
in a more classical style than she would prefer, often lacking "the damn-it-to-hell bass". According to Waters,
she influenced Henderson to practice in a "real jazz" style. She first recorded for Columbia Records in 1925; this
recording was given a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1998. Soon after, Waters started working with Pearl Wright, and together
they toured in the South. In 1924 Waters played at the Plantation Club on Broadway. She also toured with the Black Swan Dance
Masters. With Earl Dancer, she joined what was called the "white time" Keith Circuit. They received rave reviews
in Chicago, and earned the unheard-of salary of US$1,250 in 1928. In 1929, Harry Akst helped Wright and Waters compose a version
of "Am I Blue?", her signature tune."
When the first projected movies started coming out in 1895
they were little more than a curiosity, but soon they found their way into vaudeville. Movies without sound were at first
very short, two or three minutes. These would be shown in the vaudeville theatres with maybe one or two "shorts,"
as they were called, appearing in each vaudeville show. The movies grew in length and they would eventually replace entire
vaudeville acts, so that instead of having nine vaudeville acts, a theatre might have only seven acts and two "shorts".
In 1905 Harry Davis converted a storefront in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to the first theatre in America devoted entirely to
moving pictures. Since the price was five cents, or a nickel, it was called a Nickelodeon. When the Warner brothers, Paramount,
and Fox all started building their own theatres in the mid 1920’s they would show movies and vaudeville acts together.
As with radio, many of the vaudeville stars got involved in this new technology. This time, however, it was the silent stars
who could make the transition from vaudeville to the new medium.
Buster Keaton started out in Vaudeville with his
parents as "The 3 Keatons". Charlie Chaplin also got his start on the vaudeville stage and later directed and starred
in his own silent pictures. Ginger Rogers performed as a singer in vaudeville before dancing in films with Fred Astaire. But
for the vaudeville stars who would spend their entire lives learning one act, like juggling, magic, or acrobatics, you could
only film your act once and then everyone would have seen the movie of the act instead of the act itself. The end of the Vaudeville
era is usually regarded as November 16, 1932. This is when the Palace Theatre started mixing moving pictures into their vaudeville
shows. By 1935 the Palace Theatre, once the leader of a 600-theatre vaudeville circuit, had become a movie house with no live
vaudeville shows at all.
Lou Costello was part
clown, part comedian and a pure professional. His desire to entertain audiences led him to hone his skills, perfecting comedic
timing, character development and pacing. He left a legacy of laughter as well as an example for other comedians to follow.
When Lou was on stage, his whole mind and body was engaged in entertaining. His portly frame and his face with a thousand
expressions provided the physical elements to his clever words and deadpan delivery. Costello understood the psychology of
laughter and tickled the funny bones of his audience with consummate skill. He began his career in vaudeville, and as was
the custom, he worked with a straight man. Costello was the perfect foil for a straight man whose role was to set up the jokes
and "rein" in the comedian. His fortune took a sharp upward turn in 1931 when his regular straight man became ill
and Lou asked the theater manager to take his place. The manager's name was Bud Abbott and this was the start of one of
the greatest comedy partnerships in the business. Abbot and Costello got their first real break in 1938 when they appeared
on Kate Smith's weekly radio show. This got them noticed by the right people in the industry and in the following year,
they signed a contract with Universal Pictures. Their first movie roles, in "One Night in the Tropics" were small,
but were enlarged during production because of the genuine laughter of the rest of the cast and crew. It was in this movie
that they introduced their classic routines: "Who's on First?" and "A Dollar a Day". After this, the
movie roles kept coming and in 1941, the duo started their weekly radio program, "The Abbot and Costello Show" which
ran until 1946. The years of their initial stardom were also the time of war for this country. The team used their popularity
to raise money for the war effort, traveling across the country on behalf of the War Bond Drive. They raised a record-breaking
89 million dollars in only three days. Personal tragedies struck Costello, yet he always maintained a professional attitude.
After suffering the effects of rheumatic fever for a year, his infant son drowned in a tragic accident. Lou remained a performer
in the face of sorrow and returned to his live radio show that very day. Lou Costello understood the power and the pleasure
of laughter. For him, comedy wasn't just a way of life; it was a way to overcome the pitfalls life offers. He understood
timing and perhaps his skits and sketches are so well loved because they came at a time when the country needed a laugh. His
personal life reveals his strong commitment to comedy and his jokes and his joy will always be remembered and revered. Lou
Costello is a tough act to follow.
B.F. Keith took the next step, starting in Boston, where he built
an empire of theatres and brought vaudeville to the United States and Canada. Later, E.F. Albee, adoptive grandfather of the
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee, managed the chain to its greatest success. Circuits such as those managed
by Keith-Albee provided vaudeville's greatest economic innovation and the principal source of its industrial strength.
They enabled a chain of allied vaudeville houses that remedied the chaos of the single-theatre booking system by contracting
acts for regional and national tours. These could easily be lengthened from a few weeks to two years.
gave national prominence to vaudeville's trumpeting "polite" entertainment, a commitment to entertainment equally
inoffensive to men, women, and children. Acts that violated this ethos (e.g., those that used words such as "hell")
were admonished and threatened with expulsion from the week's remaining performances, or were canceled altogether. In
spite of such threats, performers routinely flouted this censorship, often to the delight of the very audience members whose
sensibilities were supposedly endangered. This 1913 how-to booklet for would-be vaudevillians was recently republished.
By the late 1890s, vaudeville had large circuits, houses (small and large) in almost every sizable location, standardized
booking, broad pools of skilled acts, and a loyal national following. One of the biggest circuits was Martin Beck's Orpheum
Circuit. It incorporated in 1919 and brought together 45 vaudeville theaters in 36 cities throughout the United States and
Canada and a large interest in two vaudeville circuits. Another major circuit was that of Alexander Pantages. At his hey-day
Pantages owned more than 30 vaudeville theaters and controlled, through management contracts, perhaps 60 more, in both the
United States and Canada.
At its height, vaudeville played across multiple strata of economic class and auditorium
size. The three most common levels were the “small time” (lower-paying contracts for more frequent performances
in rougher, often converted theatres), the “medium time” (moderate wages for two performances each day in purpose-built
theatres), and the “big time” (possible remuneration of several thousand dollars per week in large, urban theatres
largely patronized by the middle and upper-middle classes). As performers rose in renown and established regional and national
followings, they worked their way into the less arduous working conditions and better pay of the big time. The capitol of
the big time was New York City's Palace Theatre (or just “The Palace” in the slang of vaudevillians), built
by Martin Beck in 1913 and operated by Keith. Featuring a bill stocked with inventive novelty acts, national celebrities,
and acknowledged masters of vaudeville performance (such as comedian and trick roper Will Rogers), the Palace provided what
many vaudevillians considered the apotheoses of remarkable careers.
While the neighborhood character of vaudeville
attendance had always promoted a tendency to tailor fare to specific audiences, mature vaudeville grew to feature houses and
circuits specifically aimed at certain demographic groups. African-American patrons, often segregated into the rear of the
second gallery in white-oriented theatres, had their own smaller circuits, as did speakers of Italian and Yiddish. (For a
brief discussion of Black vaudeville, see Theater Owners Booking Association.) White-oriented regional circuits, such as New
England's "Peanut Circuit", also provided essential training grounds for new artists while allowing established
acts to experiment with and polish new material. At its height, vaudeville was rivaled only by churches and public schools
among the nation's premiere public gathering places.
In the years before the war, entertainment existed on a different
scale. Certainly, variety theatre existed before 1860. Europeans enjoyed types of variety performances years before anyone
even had conceived of the United States. On American soil, as early as the first decades of the nineteenth century, theatre
goers could enjoy a performance of Shakespeare, acrobats, singers, presentations of dance, and comedy all in the same evening.
As the years progressed, seekers of diversified amusements found an increasing number to choose from. A handful of circuses
regularly toured the country, dime-museums appealed to the curious, amusement parks, riverboats, and town halls often featured
"cleaner" presentations of variety entertainment, while saloons, music-halls, and burlesque houses catered to those
with a taste for the risqué.2In the 1840's, minstrel shows, another type of variety performance, and "the
first emanation of a pervasive and purely American mass culture," grew to enormous popularity and formed as Nick Tosches
writes, "the heart of nineteenth-century show business."3Medicine shows traveled the countryside offering programs
of comedy, music, jugglers and other novelties along with their tonics, salves, and miracle elixirs, while Wild West Shows
provided romantic vistas of the disappearing frontier complete with trick riding, music, and drama. Vaudeville incorporated
these various itinerant amusements into a stable, institutionalized form centered in America's growing urban hubs.
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