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 films and radio. The origin of the term is obscure, but the term is often considered a corruption of the expression "voix de ville", or "voice of the city". Another 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 original of this style of entertainment began in Paris in about 1715.
The first beginnings of a vaudeville type theater was opened by impresario Tony Pastor in Manhattan in 1865. Benjamin Franklin Keith founded the most important circuit of theatres in vaudeville history. 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 cinema in the late 1920s started the decline, furthered 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 difficulties in civilian transportation during World War II and the subsequent rise of television helped end what was left of the old vaudeville circuits.
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 United Kingdom 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.
Vaudeville has all but disappeared from the stage, with the exception of small (but popular) throwback acts like Triple Espresso.
Noted Vaudeville performers
- American Vaudeville Museum (http://www.vaudeville.org/)