(The images below are
thumbnails click on them to see larger versions.)
Meeting a Need
The program cover for Keith's Palace Theater
in New York City, the most desired booking in all vaudeville.
By the 1880’s, the Industrial Revolution had changed the once rural
face of America. Half of the population was now concentrated in
towns and cities, working at regulated jobs that left most of them with two things
they never had back on the farm a little spare cash and weekly leisure time.
These people wanted affordable entertainment on a regular basis. Most variety shows
were too coarse for women or children to attend, and minstrel shows were already
declining in popularity. In a world where phonographs, film, radio and television
did not yet exist, something new was needed to fill the gap.
Vaudeville also tried to bridge a social gap that had divided
American audiences ever since the upper and lower classes clashed in a deadly
After the Astor Place Riot of 1849
entertainment in New York City was divided along class lines: opera was
chiefly for the upper middle and upper classes, minstrel shows and
melodramas for the middle class, variety shows in concert saloons for
men of the working class and the slumming middle class. Vaudeville was
developed by entrepreneurs seeking higher profits from a wider audience.
- Robert W. Snyder in The Encyclopedia of New York
City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), Kenneth T. Jackson,
editor, p. 1226.
Tony Pastor was the first manager to
present commercially successful "clean" variety. He earned fame as a
variety vocalist, songwriter and manager on New York's Bowery. But his ambitions
reached far beyond the bawdy standards that marked Bowery entertainments. A devout
Catholic and attentive father, Pastor wanted to provide family-friendly
entertainment. When he started presenting a clean variety show at New York's
Fourteenth Street Theatre on Oct. 24, 1881, the location said a great deal about his
As an early center for public transportation, Manhattan's Union Square
district included most of New York City's top theatres, restaurants and shops. Respectable
theatergoers had no objection to attending performances there. Each week Pastor offered a
different line-up of quality acts, with reserved seats going for fifty cents. He often
appeared in the star spot himself, singing such sentimental favorites as "The Band
Casey would waltz
With the strawberry blonde
And the band played on.
He’d waltz round the floor
With the girl he adored
And the band played on.
But his brain was so loaded
He nearly exploded,
The poor girl would shake with alarm.
He married the girl
With the strawberry curl
And the band played on.
Pastor's "clean" variety show was an instant success, drawing an enthusiastic
audience from all age groups and classes including some of the most
influential people in New York.
Calling it Vaudeville
Other producers soon picked up on this
innovation. Beginning in Boston in 1883,
Benjamin Franklin Keith and
Edward F. Albee used
the fortune they made staging unauthorized productions of Gilbert and Sullivan
operettas to started build a chain of ornate theatres across the northeastern
United States. Stealing Pastor's format, they instituted a policy of
continuous multiple daily performances, which they called
The origins of the term vaudeville
are unclear. Some sources claim the word was
a bastardization of "voix de ville," French slang for "songs of the
town" others say it came from "vaux de Vire," fifteenth century
satiric songs written by Olivier Basselin, a native of the Vire valley in Normandy.
We get yet another explanation from vaudevillian
Sophie Tucker in
her autobiography Some of These Days (1945, pp.
155-156). Her agent, the now-legendary William Morris, claimed that a red windmill in
the Vire valley started serving wine and cheese to farmers waiting to have their
wheat milled. Traveling entertainers took advantage of this readymade audience by
performing for the crowd and passing the hat. This arrangement proved so popular that
others soon copied it. Morris insisted this place not only gave birth to the term
"vaudeville" it also inspired the name of the popular Parisian
nightclub Le Moulin Rouge ("The Red Mill").
Keeping It Clean
As vaudeville spread through the United States, major theatre chains or
circuits were built by Sullivan & Consodine,
Alexander Pantages, film mogul Marcus Loew and others. All of
them were tough businessmen, but no one could match Keith and Albee's cutthroat
tactics, or their ruthless insistence that acts keep their material clean at all
times. Warnings were posted backstage in all of Keith & Albee's theatres. Here
is an example
Don't say "slob" or "son of a gun"
or "hully gee*" on the stage unless you want to be canceled
peremptorily. Do not address anyone in the audience in any manner. If you do not
have the ability to entertain Mr. Keith's audience with risk of offending them,
do the best you can. Lack of talent will be less open to censure than would be
an insult to a patron. If you are in doubt as to the character of your act
consult the local manager before you go on stage, for if you are guilty of
uttering anything sacrilegious or even suggestive you will be immediately
closed and will never again be allowed in a theatre where Mr. Keith is in
- as quoted by C. Samuels and L. Samuels in Once Upon a Stage
(New York: Dodd, Mead & Co, 1974), p. 89.
(*Note: Since "Hully gee" was an abbreviation of
"Holy Jesus!," it is easy to see why this now meaningless phrase could be
It was always understood that headliners could bend the rules, but
transgressions by lesser known performers were not tolerated. In Sophie
Tucker's autobiography, she explains that Keith's
theater managers assessed every act during the first performance of the week's
Between the (Monday) matinee and the night show the blue
envelopes began to appear in the performers mailboxes backstage . . . Inside
would be a curt order to cut out a blue line of a song, or piece of business.
Sometimes there was a suggestion of something you could substitute for the
material the manager ordered out . . . There was no arguing about the orders
in the blue envelopes. They were final. You obeyed them or quit. And if you
quit, you got a black mark against your name in the head office and you didn't
work on the Keith Circuit anymore. During my early years on the Keith Circuit,
I took my orders from my blue envelope and no matter what I said or did
backstage (and it was plenty) when I went on for the Monday night show, I
was careful to keep within bounds.
- Some of These Days, pp.148-149.
Thanks to the tint of those dreaded envelopes, anything risqué came to be
known as "blue" material. However, as historian Robert W. Snyder
points out in The Voice of the City (Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 1989, p. 132),
vaudeville's exuberance and irreverence "challenged the Victorian code of sentiment
and gentility sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly," leading to "a
new urban vision of success and happiness based on luxury and consumption."
Keith's authority extended far beyond his own theaters. In 1906, Keith and Albee
organized most of their fellow circuit owners into a Managers Association which coordinated
all bookings. Performers who fell out of personal favor with
Keith or Albee had little hope of finding work in any big time vaudeville house.
Keith’s most infamous quote was, "I never trust a man I can’t buy,"
but he was almost benign compared to Albee.
. . . scarcely anyone mentions E.F. Albee without
intense bitterness. . . Mr. Albee, with his relentless air of holiness, was
totally without humor and grim visage as he wielded his destructive power.
- Marian Spitzer, The Palace (New York: Athaneum, 1969), p.
By 1907, Variety reported that vaudeville was earning $30 million a year.
While enjoying the lion's share of this haul, Keith & Albee were powerful
enough to neutralize anything or anyone who threatened to weaken their control
of vaudeville. They crushed several attempts by performers to unionize. When a
union called "The White Rats" showed signs of succeeding, Albee set up
a puppet union called National Vaudeville Artists, refusing to book performers who
did not join his group. It cost millions, but NVA soon wiped the White Rats out
of existence. Albee kept this so-called union under his firm
control, silencing all opposition to his often abusive treatment of performers.
Working the Circuits
Appearing in vaudeville was no vacation. A successful act toured for forty or more
weeks a year, doing "one nighters," split-weeks or weekly stands depending
on a theatre’s size. The number of performances per day varied from circuit to
circuit. In the musical On Your Toes (1936), lyricist Larry Hart summed it up
It’s two a day for Keith,
And three a day for Loew;
Pantages plays us four a day
Besides the supper show.
Performers put up with these demanding schedules because even those who did
not reach the level of headliner could make good money. In 1919, when the
average factory worker earned less than $1,300, a small time Keith circuit
performer playing a forty-two week season at $75 per week earned $3,150 a year. Women, uneducated immigrants, the poor anyone with determination and a talent
to entertain could earn a solid, respectable living. Few other fields could
claim to offer the disadvantaged such accessible rewards in the early 20th
Low ticket prices helped define the audience for vaudeville. In 1912, when
seats to a Broadway hit went for as much as $2, big-time vaudeville tickets
topped out between $1 and seventy-five cents.
That same year, a Sage Foundation survey determined that approximately 700,000
New Yorkers attended 40 low-priced vaudeville theatres each week, and estimated
that the audience was 60 percent working class (versus a mere 2 percent of a
Broadway audience), and 64 percent male.
Many vaudeville theatres were poorly heated in winter and became oversized
ovens in summer. Dressing rooms were small and filthy, with little if any
ventilation. Musical accompaniment could be anything from a full orchestra to a
lone pianist, and the
quality of these musicians varied.
"I worked to all kinds of music from bad to
awful. Some bands were really great. For instance, there was the band at the
RKO Palace in New Orleans. That band was so good it used to stop the show.
Louis Prima was in that band. And when they played an overture wow! On the
other hand, there was the band at the New York Palace. Owen Jones was the
leader. They had some women in the band, and they were so polite they used to
let the women finish first that's how the music sounded. Every act that
went on had to stop in the middle and ask Owen Jones to take the tempo over
again. Everybody out front knew what was happening. This bas***d was giving
every act trouble. He was a musician but he couldn't cut a show."
- Billy Glason as quoted by editor Bill Smith in The Vaudevillians
(New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1976), p. 43.
Small to Big Time
More than 25,000
people performed in vaudeville over it’s 50-plus years of existence, working their way
through the three levels defined by the trade newspaper Variety
Some performers insisted that there was only "big,"
"small" and "small-small" time. However you labeled them,
there were varying levels of vaudeville Years later,
a vaudeville dancer explained how miserable the "small
time" experience could be
In small time we worked on the Death Trail that was
the name for one-nighters in places you never heard of, like Missoula, Montana,
places where nobody would go unless they really needed work and we did. They
weren't theatres, they were kind of stores, with benches instead of seats. When
the show began, the baker, the laundry truck driver and maybe the garbage man
dropped what they were doing and jumped in to play the music. They were the
band. They'd come in and they couldn't play . . . But we got a lot of
experience. The Bert Levy time was really awful. Their houses were often in the
same town we were working in, but theirs weren't even as good as ours . . .
- Mack Lathrop, as quoted in The Vaudevillians, p. 138.
The most celebrated vaudeville house of the early 1900s was New York's Victoria,
located on 42nd Street just West of
Broadway. Opera impresario Oscar Hammerstein I built it on the cheap with
used materials, but his son William managed it so well that it made
millions and became the most coveted booking in the business. Aside from
standard acts, the Victoria booked murderesses, explorers anyone who had
generated enough headlines to provoke audience interest. Oscar
channeled the profits into his ill-fated opera projects. When the Victoria
finally faced serious competition, the disinterested Hammerstein sold it, and
developers turned it into office space.
The Orpheum Circuit had handsomely appointed houses across the western
United States. When joined to the existing Keith houses in the East, it formed
the only "big time" vaudeville circuit to stretch from coast to coast. Martin Beck
built The Palace Theatre to serve as his flagship house, but it was soon taken over
by (who else?) Keith and Albee, who absorbed the entire
Orpheum circuit into their organization. In a matter of months, The Palace quickly
the Victoria as the most sought after vaudeville booking.
Top managers and theatrical professionals packed
Monday matinees at the Palace, so a successful appearance there could lead to good bookings
nationwide. Anxious performers often accepted low pay to get on the bill, and would
ever afterwards boast about "the time we played The Palace."
The Palace became even more important when unemployed performers started
hanging out on the concrete traffic triangle across from it to gossip and seek word of
possible bookings. Since so many unemployed performers "vacationed" on this stretch
of sidewalk, wags referred to it as "the beach." (This triangle now draws larger
crowds than ever as the location of the TKTS discount ticket booth.)
What constituted a vaudeville act? And how was a "bill" organized?
Next: Vaudeville - Part II