The precursor of vaudeville was the first attempt to take common music hall entertainment out of the saloons and remove it from the alcoholic and bawdy atmosphere that spawned it.
Although performers were handsomely paid, virtually all of them had to book their acts through Keith agencies.
To appreciate the significant difference between the American and European traditions in novelty entertainment, it's necessary to return to 1620. As if settling on the moon, the early pioneers in the New World brought with them only what was functional and, in those Calvinistic times, only what was spiritually pure. They left behind a long and rich history of the European circus.
Not until 1793, when John Bill Ricketts presented America's first circus, did the new country begin to establish the roots of its own variety arts traditions. Until then, cutting out a new life in the forest and dealing with the natives of this strange world were tasks far too overwhelming to accommodate more than a Saturday night square dance.
With a growing population and wealthier settlements, however, itinerant entertainers made their appearance. By the close of the 18th century, demand had risen to the extent that traveling bands and even small circuses could support themselves in the "frontiers" of the larger cities.
The single performer gave way to tent shows more or less in the European tradition. But even as early as 1830 the wild and wooly nature of America was stamping a new character on circuses. The pioneers demanded more daredevil and menagerie acts, and less technical skill in subtle arts like juggling. Artistry bowed to commercialism.
With the Gold Rush and the blossoming of America in the mid-19th century, commercialism gave way to crudeness. Simultaneously with England, crude popular entertainment entered the saloons and taverns. While medicine shows and small circuses played to the country folk, innkeepers in town presented traveling variety acts for male-only audiences.
With the the Industrial Revolution after the Civil War, a greater number of workers found themselves with more pocket money, more leisure time and a more refined taste. The traveling productions cleaned up their act enough to entertain a mixed audience of men and women and poor and middle class audiences in refurbished saloons called music halls. There was a move to elevate popular entertainment to a respectable level.
Communities sponsored events that mixed education with entertainment. The most notable of these was the Chautauqua assembly, begun in 1874 on the shore of Lake Chautauqua, New York, and still functioning. The popularity of these summer cultural events spread to communities across the country. Later, coincident with the rise of vaudeville, Keith Vawter of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, capitalized on the popularity by establishing circuits of traveling Chautauqua troupes that presented a mixture of lectures, theater and novelty entertainment.
American popular entertainment was becoming civilized and big-time, but the best was just beginning. In 1881 Tony Pastor, a veteran of variety and beer hall show business for 15 years, opened "Tony Pastor's Fourteenth Street Theater" in New York City.
The precursor of vaudeville was the first attempt to take common music hall entertainment out of the saloons and, in the spirit of Chautauqua, remove it from the alcoholic and bawdy atmosphere that spawned it.
The final step toward vaudeville began in 1883 when a circus and tent show performer, Benjamin Franklin Keith, opened a "dime museum" in Boston. This was a form of live and exhibited entertainment appealing to families. Keith's first innovation was to present his shows continuously. Its popularity was so great that, in March of 1894 he opened his first B.F. Keith's Theater and coined the word "vaudeville."
He presented his six- and eight-act shows continuously throughout the afternoon and evening. The importance of "continuous performance" is lost on modern generations unless you recognize the contemporary parallel: the fast food franchise.
America of the Gay Nineties was on the go. A medium of entertainment that catered to the public's scheduling, rather than forcing the public to attend at specified times, was perfect for the times. Although his more prestigious theaters went to a two-a-day schedule when the upper classes began attending, the continuous performance was ultimately the hallmark of all vaudeville.
Keith's other innovations included quality entertainment, better treatment of performers, and a strictly family atmosphere. Coarseness was censored from all acts with a police-like rigidity. Keith took special care to keep his theaters clean and well-maintained. He placed female attendants in prominent positions in the lobby to draw in women who would not otherwise bring themselves or their children into ill-reputed variety halls. To the usual variety bill he added short dramatic plays, silent movies, operettas and lectures.
Keith's success spread throughout the East. He opened one theater after another, some costing as much as a million dollars. His Boston theater alone catered to 25,000 people a week. His Boston-New York-Philadelphia-Providence circuit entertained over five million people a year. His continuous performance system could shuffle 12,000 people through one theater on a single holiday.
He paid such attractive salaries to his contract performers that many legitimate actors crossed over into vaudeville, at least during their off-seasons. Some took the money reluctantly, as if soiling themselves, while others (notably Ethel Barrymore) enjoyed the money and the experience, forsaking the legitimate stage for long vaudeville tours. Despite charging less admission than theaters and paying performers more, all of vaudeville reportedly made $30-million in 1906.
Keith spread his empire all the way to the Mississippi River, where the Orpheum circuit took over. Far from being rivals, these two conglomerates divided the country in half in the best tradition of American trusts. By monopolizing the industry, they called all the shots. Although performers were handsomely paid, virtually all of them had to book their acts through Keith agencies. Thus, although $10-million was going out to the performers, five percent found its way back home to Keith.
In all this, the Keith-Orpheum interlocking directorate, the ownership of theaters in every major population center, control of performers, the unprecedented amount of money involved, the lavish, opulent theaters of stadium size, and the vast popularity of vaudeville, we have another modern American parallel - the professional sports industry. Although Keith pedaled a "soft" product, his aggressive financial wizardry was in keeping with the times of burgeoning American industry.
Keith's vaudeville dynamo ran on a finely tuned gears. The bill itself, whether consisting of seven, eight or nine acts, followed a precise formula. It opened and closed with a "dumb" act - jugglers, acrobats, wire walkers, magicians or animal acts. These acts used no speech in their performance and would therefore not be bothered by people entering and leaving during the continuous show. Also, these were visual acts, requiring the audience's full attention, thereby helping to quiet the house.
A song and dance duo always followed in second place. The third act - "the three spot" - was usually a full stage production or "flash act" such as an all-girl dance revue. Either this stage production or a jazz band would close the bill for the intermission. If there was no intermission, the band would precede a musical soloist. Then there might follow another large dance act. Next to closing was the premier spot for an entertainer, usually a comedy single to leave 'em laughing. This permitted the audience to walk out during the juggler's silent closing act.
Just as the bill was scientifically formulated, each new theater was constructed with an eye to acoustics, lighting and audience psychology.
Edward Albee, who succeeded as head of the Keith-Orpheum conglomerate upon Keith's death in 1914, claimed that theaters were designed to be suave, cheerful and restful; that lamps were concealed in alcoves to avoid eye strain, cross rays and glare; that seating was designed with a view to the laws of optics; and that the pitch of the aisles, the height and angle of stairs, ventilation and the comfort of "retiring rooms" were all carefully considered.
The content of acts was also tightly monitored. Certain topics and words, such as liar, slob, son-of-a-gun, devil, sucker and damn, were forbidden. Tight censorship and an unerring aim for material acceptable to middle-class family audiences drew the only real criticism of vaudeville. One writer called vaudeville fare "bilge water in champagne glasses."
Other than a few dramatic playlets, seriousness was discouraged. There was, in fact, such an emphasis on maintaining a continuous rhythm of laughter that the quality of the acts was questioned. It was called "lunch counter art." In its strenuous efforts to avoid the exceptional and present the palatable, vaudeville presents another parallel with modern America - television. With their devotion to the silly sitcom, the melodramatic moral play (soap operas), and watered-down artistry, both reflect a lowest common denominator approach to entertainment.
Nevertheless, the general population was happy. It was a cheap, efficient way of removing oneself from the care-worn worries of the daily grind. Performers, too, were happy with the unprecedented opportunity. At any one time, 6,000 people might be employed on the boards.
And because of the rigors of several performances a day and several theatres in a long travel of circuits, the turnover rate was as high as 70 percent - a revolving door of opportunity for the beginning performer. A talented person, such as Houdini, might go from $50 a week in variety to $1,500 a week in vaudeville virtually overnight.
Imagine, if you will, the possibilities for the average juggler of the time. There were countless vaudeville houses in every town in the country. And rather than practice on a half-hour or hour routine necessary to break into the birthday or club jobs today, he could spend all his time on a a single seven or 12 minute act and present it for a decade.
No single factor injured the golden goose of vaudeville more than any other. The passage of time, technology and changing social habits killed it by 1935.
The advent of talking movies in 1927 was the beginning of the end. While silent films shared vaudeville stages with other dumb acts, movies were different. Movie producers could present celebrities all over the country at the same time with one film distribution. As movie companies increased their wealth and power, they engineered their own string of theaters. They began luring vaudeville talent away from the limelights to the spotlights of Hollywood. They packaged shows combining both live and filmed entertainment.
Radio, too, became popular overnight, drawing talent from the circuits and satisfying an audience that could now stay in the comfort of the living room while listening to singers and comedians. The legitimate theater, smarting under the blow vaudeville had given it, fought back with more musical comedies.
One of the most curious factors in the death of vaudeville was Joe Kennedy, father of former president John F. Kennedy. Having been successful in the motion picture industry, Kennedy bought his way onto the Keith-Albee-Orpheum board of directors as chairman by purchasing 200,000 shares of stock. After the acquisition, he usurped Albee's authority and then sold the whole kit and caboodle to RCA.
Overnight, vaudeville passed from the hands of men to whom it was a dream to a man who owned it only for investment, and then to a corporation whose interests - radio and films - was opposed to vaudeville. It was doomed.
Other minor factors contributing to the decline of vaudeville included the refusal to change a formula that had been successful for nearly 40 years. World War I had brought an end to American innocence and simplicity, but vaudeville retained the slapstick gaiety of the nineties. The Depression, with 25 percent of Americans unemployed, was another factor. Although Americans were turning to entertainment to forget, vaudeville was no longer the entertainment they wanted. Movies were cheaper and swept an impoverished America off to exotic places with celebrities larger than life, and a lower price.
The rise of unions also contributed. The larger acts could no longer handle their own props and staging. Travel expenses and theater maintenance costs rose. And American had begun moving to the suburbs. Nine-act productions were not able to follow where movies and radio signals could go with ease. By 1935 vaudeville was dead.
It was a tribute to the impact of vaudeville that throughout the 40s and 50s performers continued to look for its revival. The "Bulletin" and IJA "Newsletter" often revealed a writer discovering some sign of vaudeville's imminent return. More realistic, however, were the real oldtimers who had not only seen vaudeville come and go, but had seen the passing of variety and medicine shows. It was the oldtimers who looked ahead.
The death of vaudeville was not hard on some performers. The legends of comedy and song who had their start in vaudeville became the first superstars of radio and film. But for the "dumb acts" like juggling, tough times lay ahead. You can't juggle on the radio and, but for background scenery, there was no place for juggling in the movies.
Instead, jugglers turned to new outlets such as Chautauqua, Lyceum, school assembly circuits and touring "unit" shows sponsored by major companies like International Harvester and Ford. There were still tent shows, and carnivals were coming into their own and rivaling circuses. Night clubs became a popular evening's entertainment after World War II.
And finally, after a long, dry spell, juggling found television. With hours of live broadcast time to fill and not knowing its direction, the new medium gobbled up jugglers and other visual novelty acts at a heartwarming rate. The "variety show" was back, with the likes of Ed Sullivan, Red Skelton and Jimmy Durante.
The memory of vaudeville has lived in the hearts of all jugglers long enough to see a renaissance in the popularity of novelty acts in New Vaudeville. Although different from true vaudeville in measurable ways, New Vaudeville is hope stirring eternal, as if vaudeville never left.
(With acknowledgement to Reg Bacon and "American Vaudeville As Seen By Its Contemporaries" by Charles W. Stein.)