FANNY BRICE, COMEDIAN
“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 1860s, 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 were 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.
A promotional poster for the Sandow Trocadero Vaudevilles (1894), showing dancers, clowns, trapeze artists and costumed dogs
Vaudeville is a theatrical genre of variety entertainment. It was especially popular in the United States and Canada from the early 1880s until the early 1930s. A typical vaudeville performance is made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill. Types of acts have included popular and classical musicians, singers, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, female and male impersonators, acrobats, illustrated songs, jugglers, one-act plays or scenes from plays, athletes, lecturing celebrities, minstrels, and movies. A vaudeville performer is often referred to as a “vaudevillian”.
Vaudeville developed from many sources, including the concert saloon, minstrelsy, freak shows, dime museums, and literary American burlesque. Called “the heart of American show business,” vaudeville was one of the most popular types of entertainment in North America for several decades.
The continued growth of the lower-priced cinema in the early 1910s dealt the heaviest blow to vaudeville. This was similar to the advent of free broadcast television‘s diminishing the cultural and economic strength of the cinema. Cinema was first regularly commercially presented in the US in vaudeville halls. The first public showing of movies projected on a screen took place at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in 1896. Lured by greater salaries and less arduous working conditions, many performers and personalities, such as Al Jolson, W. C. Fields, Mae West, Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, Jimmy Durante, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Edgar Bergen, Fanny Brice, Burns and Allen, and Eddie Cantor, used the prominence gained in live variety performance to vault into the new medium of cinema.
In so doing, such performers often exhausted in a few moments of screen time the novelty of an act that might have kept them on tour for several years. Other performers who entered in vaudeville’s later years, including Jack Benny, Abbott and Costello, Kate Smith, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Judy Garland, Rose Marie, Sammy Davis, Jr., Red Skelton, and The Three Stooges, used vaudeville only as a launching pad for later careers. They left live performance before achieving the national celebrity of earlier vaudeville stars, and found fame in new venues.
The line between live and filmed performances was blurred by the number of vaudeville entrepreneurs who made more or less successful forays into the movie business. For example, Alexander Pantages quickly realized the importance of motion pictures as a form of entertainment. He incorporated them in his shows as early as 1902. Later, he entered into partnership with the Famous Players-Lasky, a major Hollywood production company and an affiliate of Paramount Pictures.
By the late 1920s, most vaudeville shows included a healthy selection of cinema. Earlier in the century, many vaudevillians, cognizant of the threat represented by cinema, held out hope that the silent nature of the “flickering shadow sweethearts” would preclude their usurpation of the paramount place in the public’s affection. With the introduction of talking pictures in 1926, the burgeoning film studios removed what had remained the chief difference in favor of live theatrical performance: spoken dialogue. Historian John Kenrick wrote:
“Top vaudeville stars filmed their acts for one-time pay-offs, inadvertently helping to speed the death of vaudeville. After all, when “small time” theatres could offer “big time” performers on screen at a nickel a seat, who could ask audiences to pay higher amounts for less impressive live talent? The newly-formed RKO studios took over the famed Orpheum vaudeville circuit and swiftly turned it into a chain of full-time movie theaters. The half-century tradition of vaudeville was effectively wiped out within less than four years.”
Inevitably, managers further trimmed costs by eliminating the last of the live performances. Vaudeville also suffered due to the rise of broadcast radio following the greater availability of inexpensive receiver sets later in the decade. Even the hardiest in the vaudeville industry realized the form was in decline; the perceptive understood the condition to be terminal. The standardized film distribution and talking pictures of the 1930s confirmed the end of vaudeville. By 1930, the vast majority of formerly live theatres had been wired for sound, and none of the major studios was producing silent pictures. For a time, the most luxurious theatres continued to offer live entertainment, but most theatres were forced by the Great Depression to economize.
Some in the industry blamed cinema’s drain of talent from the vaudeville circuits for the medium’s demise. Others argued that vaudeville had allowed its performances to become too familiar to its famously loyal, now seemingly fickle audiences.
There was no abrupt end to vaudeville, though the form was clearly sagging by the late 1920s. Joseph Kennedy in a hostile buy-out acquired the Keith-Albee-Orpheum Theaters Corporation (KAO), which had more than 700 vaudeville theaters across the United States which had begun showing movies. The shift of New York City’s Palace Theatre, vaudeville’s epicenter, to an exclusively cinema presentation on November 16, 1932 is often considered to have been the death knell of vaudeville. No single event is more reflective of its gradual withering.
Though talk of its resurrection was heard during the 1930s and later, the demise of the supporting apparatus of the circuits and the higher cost of live performance made any large-scale renewal of vaudeville unrealistic. (Wikipedia)