A History of the Musical


by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996-2003)

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)


A variety theatre from the mid-1800'sA raucous variety performance from the mid-1800s

Variety was a popular form of American stage entertainment in the mid-1800s. First conceived as saloon shows, these revues were anything but refined. Circus acts, singers, dancers, chorus girls and bawdy comics were presented in whatever proportion each manager preferred. Well, at least they called themselves "managers" – we would call most of them bar owners.

In Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, New York, 1991, p. 92), historian Luc Sante claims that variety was born in Manhattan's Bowery saloons during the 1840s. This format was soon copied all across the United States. Douglas Gilbert (American Vaudeville: Its Life and Times, Whittlesey House, NY 1940 - paperback: Dover, NY 1960) points out that any abandoned church, barn or warehouse could be converted for variety use. The resulting spaces were often shabby but almost always profitable. Owners called them "palaces," "museums," "free and easies" and "wine halls," but performers referred to them as "slabs," "dumps" and "honky-tonks." By any name, they were still saloons.

America's most prestigious variety house was Koster and Bial's on West 23rd Street in New York City. This elegant auditorium was the most desired booking in pre-vaudeville show business, but it was few women went along when their husbands caught a show there. Every town in the USA had something that passed as a variety house, including the raunchiest settlements in the Wild West. Neither the shows nor their fans were known for their sophistication.

"The audiences (all male) were none too bright, a mental condition hardly improved by alcoholic befuddlement. Jokes had to be sledge-hammered home. The days of personalities, subtlety, wit, expert dancing, and superb technique were to come."
- Douglas Gilbert, American Vaudeville: Its Life and Times, p. 26.

"From the 1850s to 1900, men, frequently primed with alcohol, hissed and jeered the villain, shouted encouragement to the put-upon hero, guffawed and stamped at the clowning of the low comedian when it approved and stopped the show when it didn't."
- Lewis A. Erenberg, Steppin' Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture 1890-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 18.

The promoters of variety were not looking to attract a family audience. So long as respectable women would not be caught dead in such establishments, husbands and sons could carouse without interference. Heckling, fist fights, even gunfire were not uncommon in these smoke-filled halls. Performers put up with the rowdiness to get an average salary of $15 a week – an excellent income in the mid-19th Century.

In many variety halls, "waiter girls" seemed to offer a great deal more than overpriced liquor, but it was almost always a tease. After singing in the opening number, these underdressed ladies went into the audience to sit with the men, getting a commission on every drink their customers ordered. Curtained alcoves or private rooms were available so waitresses could invite customers to become more intimate. The girls encouraged customers to keep drinking, tossing their own drinks aside or sipping water. When a guest was drunk enough, the ladies would pick his pockets and have him thrown out of the bar – without providing any sexual favors. If savvy customers insisted, waitresses referred them to friends plying the oldest profession either right upstairs or down the block. Of course, these referrals brought the waiter girls another commission.

Blue Acts

With so much going on in the audience, variety acts had to fight for attention. Nudity and verbal obscenity were forbidden, but "blue" acts and songs depicting sexual situations were common. The widely performed "Haymakers" sketch began with a girl stepping behind a haystack. A long succession of men then took turns joining her behind the hay, each walking off more disheveled than the last – and this was back in the Nineteenth Century.

Such acts were presented late in the evening, when any undercover policemen would (it was hoped) be too drunk to care. Here's a bit of a variety song that caused more than a few raised eyebrows in the 1880s, "Such A Delicate Duck" –

I took her out
One night for a walk,
We indulged in all sorts of
Pleasantry and talk.
We came to a potato patch,
She wouldn’t go across;
The potatoes had eyes
And she didn’t wear no drawers!

- as quoted in Gilbert's American Vaudeville

(Author's note: "across" and "drawers" – a rhyme requiring the singer to mispronounce both words! Even the translators of Les Miserables didn't stoop that low.)

The Museum Movement

When preachers, journalists and political leaders condemned the low tone of popular entertainment, some variety managers tried to put on respectable airs by dubbing their theatres "museums." The most famous was P.T. Barnum's multi-storied American Museum in New York, with a 3,000 seat "lecture hall" used for everything from variety bills to full length melodramas -- but smaller versions popped up all across the country. Customers strolled through an "educational" display of freaks and garish curiosities, followed by variety acts and one act "instructive" dramas in an adjoining auditorium. To reassure family audiences, blue material was banned.

Whether museums or honky-tonks, these houses required performers to give ten or more grueling performances a day, earning as little as three dollars a week. Small as the figure sounds today, it was more than many common laborers settled for in the 1800s. While no substantial records survive, there is no question that thousands performed in variety.

In the 1880s, when variety spawned the cleaner, more sophisticated revue format known as vaudeville, the best variety acts eased right into it. The Four Cohan's (including young George M. Cohan) spent years in old-time variety, but went on to earn $4,000 a week in vaudeville by 1900. From the mid-1800s on, a popular alternative to variety was minstrelsy, which often embraced graduates of the variety stage. Although minstrel shows were more handsome than variety, today's theatergoers would find the material far more disturbing. After all, how often has blatant racism been touted as entertainment?

Next: Minstrel Shows