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Era: 1880s - 1890s - 1900s - 1910s - 1920s

Related: entertainment - variety

A poster of the Vaudeville team, Joseph Hart and Carrie DeMar from 1899
image sourced here.


Vaudeville is a style of theater, also known as variety, which flourished in North America from the 1880s through the 1920s. Its popularity rose in step with the rise of industry and the growth of North American cities during this period, and declined with the introduction of sound motion pictures and radio. The origin of the term is obscure, but a plausible etymology is that it is a corruption of the French Vau de Vire, a valley in Normandy noted for style of songs with topical themes.

The first vaudeville theater opened on February 28, 1883 in Boston, Massachusetts. Vaudeville theaters featured performers of various types: music, comedy, magic, animal acts, novelty, acrobatics and gymnastics, and celebrity lecture tours. Many early film and radio performers, such as W. C. Fields, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Edgar Bergen and The Three Stooges, started in vaudeville.

There was no sharp end to vaudeville. The advent of radio and the talking picture in the late 1920s started the decline, furthered by in the early 1930s by the Great Depression. The closing of the prestigious Palace Theater in New York City in 1932 is regarded as an important marker in Vaudeville's fading. The dificulties in civilian transportation during World War II and the subsequent rise of television helped end what was left of the old Vaudeville circuts.

The television variety show format owed much to Vaudeville, and many Vaudeville performers made the transition to television. An equivalent form of theater in the UK at the same time was referred to as Music Hall, and in the UK the term Vaudeville was used to refer to what in the US would have been called burlesque. e.g. a more low-brow form with emphasis on stripping and erotic dance.

Vaudeville in the US also marked the introduction of big business into the world of popular entertainment. Several circuits of theaters were built by Keith & Albee, Sullivan & Consodine, Alexander Pantages, Marcus Loew, and others. These businessmen hired full-time travelling performers, set strict rules about the kinds of shows allowed in their theaters, and competed fiercely among themselves for the best acts. Keith & Albee in particular tried to maintain high standards for their shows, and did not allow anything bawdy or even suggestive on their stages. Even "legitimate" theater actors like Sarah Bernhardt sometimes supplemented their income with appearances in these shows. --http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaudeville [2004]

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