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Vaudeville

Vaudeville

In 1865 the popularity of both melodramas and minstrel shows were at their peak, extravaganzas and spectacles were novel entertainment and visual feasts for audiences. Burlesque was developing as a low-brow comedic production with songs and relatively decent female costuming that appealed to the more open-minded portions of the public.

The broad range of popular theatrical productions was about to find place for a new upstart: the variety show or vaudeville. The essence of vaudeville (a term borrowed from France) or the variety show (preferred in the mid-19th century) was an evening of entertainment comprised of a wide variety of specialty acts. Variety shows first began in concert saloons – where a drinking bar and tables offered strong refreshments to accompany the sentimental or humorous songs, comedy, juggling, acrobatics, and dance routines on stage. Following in the English music hall model, the stage entertainment was designed to bring in patrons to drink rather than existing for its own purpose. By the mid-1860s the concert saloon with its objectionable material, liquor, tobacco smoking, and frequent audience roughhousing, was considered disreputable by the mainstream American public. Yet, in content, the fare of the concert saloons was not too dissimilar to the first act of the minstrel show or the interludes between melodrama acts or the burlesque show: a wide variety of unrelated specialty performances.

Tony Pastor

Enter ex-minstrel show performer Tony Pastor, who decided in 1865 that he was going to clean up the image of the variety or vaudeville show by taking out the drinking bars, sanitizing the songs, monologues and comic routines and make the variety show (he preferred the term to vaudeville) clean enough to bring the whole family. His performers were forbidden from smoking, drinking or swearing while in the theatre under penalty of fines or firing. All material, songs and acts would need to pass strict guidelines to assure that there would be no objectionable material allowed onstage. Together with B. F. Keith, a variety producer with similar convictions, Pastor rescued the variety or vaudeville show from the path that would eventually doom burlesque.

Each show, or bill, would contain between 8 and 15 acts: comedy teams with ethnic humor or sketches, legitimate actors and actresses with dramatic or sentimental monologues, popular or opera singers, song-and-dance teams, magicians, trained animal acts, jugglers, ventriloquists, and a wide range of other “variety” acts. Every performer would have to agree to a strict decency standard. Keith posted his backstage for all vaudeville performers to see:

“NOTICE TO PERFORMERS You are hereby warned that your act must be free from all vulgarity and suggestiveness in words, action, and costume, while playing in any of Mr. Keith’s houses, and all vulgar, double-meaning an profane words and songs must be cut out of your act before the first performance. If you are in doubt as to what is right or wrong, submit it to the resident manager at rehearsal.

Such words as Liar, Slob, Son-of-a-Gun, Devil, Sucker, Damn, and all other words unfit for the ears of ladies and children, also any reference to questionable streets, resorts, localities, and barrooms, are prohibited under fire of instant discharge.”

In addition to the variety acts and occasional sketches, vaudeville often found a special spot for a celebrity appearance; Babe Ruth, Helen Keller and temperance crusader Carrie Nation all made appearances in vaudeville shows. Aviator Charles Lindbergh turned down an offer of $100,000 a week to appear in a vaudeville show.

Vaudeville Theatre, c. 1900

The formula of sanitized variety shows with a constantly changing performance bill appealed to the American public. Vaudeville ‘circuits’ stretched across the country connecting hundreds of theatres and providing “the best entertainment money can buy.” Thousands of vaudeville acts played the circuit, bringing inoffensive family entertainment to millions of theatre goers. Smaller theatre circuits were developed to appeal to African-American, Italian and Yiddish vaudeville audiences. Most of the major entertainment stars at the beginning of the 20th century had been part of vaudeville in its later years including Bob Hope, Judy Garland, the Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, the magician, Houdini, and a young George M. Cohan, who would be the most dynamic force in American musical theatre at the beginning of the 20th century. In the early 1900s, Tin Pan Alley composers like Irving Berlin were composing popular songs to be “plugged” or promoted in vaudeville shows.

Fred Astaire, who would become one of the finest dancers in America in the early 20th century, with his sister Adele, performing in a vaudeville act in 1906

The beginning of the decline of vaudeville might have been signaled in 1902 when one vaudeville theatre owner began incorporating silent movies into the show bill. As the movie industry grew, more first run movie offerings found their way onto the vaudeville program. By the mid-‘20s vaudeville theatres were showing full-length movies with a few opening variety acts and by the arrival of “talkies” – movies with sound – in the late ‘20s, vaudeville was rapidly dying. Vaudeville theatres and their circuits which had developed over fifty years were now movie theaters and circuits within four years. The better acts had found their way to Hollywood, Broadway or radio, the lesser acts either retired or played small, ethnic theatres such as those in the Yiddish “Borscht Belt” in upstate New York.

The elements which made vaudeville successful – a variety show of high-quality, family entertainment – became the essential touchstone for the burgeoning movie industry and the distribution structure of theatres and circuits assured the widespread availability of the new entertainment form. Unfortunately, the growth of one entertainment medium brought about the end of another.

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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

Study Units also have “Playdecks”which contain hundreds of chronologically organized audio examples of music in the study units, and “Study Q??s” for unit chapters.