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What Was a Vaudeville Act?
autographed photo of vaudeville legend Sophie Tucker, one of the few whose
stardom outlasted the art form.
An act could be darn near anything that was inoffensive and entertaining.
A performer's gender, race and appearance were no barrier to success, and
nothing was too eccentric if it gave an audience ten to fifteen minutes of
diversion. While singers and dancers were part of every bill, the specialty acts set vaudeville apart
Acrobats, ice and roller skaters, cyclists and other non-talkers were
known as "dumb acts." A few of these went on to stardom when they
added humorous repartee to their routines, including juggler W.C. Fields
and rope trickster Will Rogers. A few unique acts defied definition. Think-a-Drink
Hoffman came onstage with an empty cocktail shaker and somehow made
it pour forth any alcoholic concoction audience members called for.
Celebrities from other fields were also popular.
Helen Keller, Carrie Nation, Babe Ruth, movie star Douglas Fairbanks and
the scandalous beauty Evelyn Nesbitt all received thousands of dollars a week for
personal appearance tours in vaudeville. Limited talents like Ms. Nesbitt started
in the big time and worked their way down the reverse of the path taken by those
who achieved lasting stardom.
Vaudeville audiences were not passive observers. They were vocal and
sometimes physical participants in performances. Their cheers, jeers or
painful silences would make or break an act. At New York's Palace, the
reaction of the show biz pros attending a Monday matinee affected an act's
bookings and pay for months to come. But a bad reaction in any vaudeville
theatre could ruin an act's reputation. If a local manager decided to fire an
act due to audience displeasure or disinterest, a damning report was sent back
to the United Booking Office. So it is no exaggeration to say that from
Broadway to Boise, audiences had tremendous influence in shaping vaudeville.
Who's On the Bill?
period advertisement depicts songwriter Jack Norworth and extremely popular
vocalist Nora Bayes, the co-creators of "Shine On Harvest Moon." She sang while he
sat onstage admiring her, and audiences ate it up. In time, Norworth tired of Bayes' tantrums
and divorced her. Despite her temper, she remained a top vaudeville star until her death at
To cut down on squabbles among performers, theater owners
came up with the idea of advertising acts in order of appearance, rather than
order of importance. This is how all handbill ads for vaudeville houses were
printed -- and the lineup came to be known as a vaudeville bill. A bill
consisted of approximately eight acts, but could be longer or shorter in certain
theatres. Most bills followed this basic format
- The "Opening" was a "silent act"
that would not be ruined by the bustle of an audience settling in.
Acrobats or animal acts were ideal. For
any other kind of act, getting booked in this spot was the ultimate insult.
- Usually a "singing sister" or "dancing brother" act
in which the performers were not necessarily relatives. The youngest of the singing
Gumm Sisters went on to fame after changing her name to
Judy Garland, and the tap dancing
Nicholas Brothers played
this spot before becoming headliners
- A comedy sketch or one-act play. These could be old melodramas with unknown casts
or new works featuring top Broadway stars. Sarah Bernhart, Ethel Barrymore, Walter
Hampden, Nazimova and Helen Hayes toured in vaudeville. Alfred Lunt
got his first big break touring with the infamous actress Lillie Langtry in a
vaude one-act. Some of the finest professional writers provided sketches and one-act
plays for vaudeville use, including J.M. Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle, David Belasco,
Jack London, George M. Cohan and
- A novelty act or eccentric dance act was thrown into the fourth spot
to liven things up.
- This spot was reserved for rising stars or falling ones, to close out the first
half of the program with a solid crowd pleaser.
- After intermission came a "big" act involving a large set
choirs, novelty orchestras and top animal acts were typical choices
for this slot.
- "Next to closing" was the star spot reserved for the
headliner usually a vocalist or comedian. Jack Benny,
Sophie Tucker, George Burns and Gracie Allen,
Marie Dressler, Al Jolson and
Eddie Cantor were among the few headliners
whose fame outlived vaudeville. Singer Kate Smith (best remembered for
introducing Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" on radio) was held over
at the Palace by popular demand for eight weeks
making her the longest-running headliner that house ever had.
- The "closing" spot was reserved for short films -- or annoying acts
that might encourage patrons to leave before the next show. A clunky one-man band
or a grating singer were typical closers.
Placement on a bill was a vital issue. Performers considered the opening or closing
slots humiliating, since audiences were too busy settling in or filing out to pay serious
The star system also emphasized the rewards of
success through the pacing of the bills. The top acts played the best houses,
had the longest acts, and, most important, made the most money, a fact that
was apparent from one's place on the eight-act bill and from discussions in
the popular press. Vaudeville encouraged urbanites to enter a redefined race
for success, transforming Horatio Alger into a consumer of material pleasure.
- Lewis A. Erenberg, Steppin' Out: New York Nightlife and the
Transformation of American Culture 1890-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1981), p. 68.
Comedians and Hoofers
Vaudeville was a particular challenge for comedians, who had to find material
that could win laughs
from coast to coast. Milton Berle, who went on to fame in radio and
It took monologists like Jack Benny, Bob Hope,
Benny Rubin, Rank Fay and me eighteen months to two years to get seven solid
minutes to put into an act. You weeded out the crap, deleted and edited
stuff that wouldn't play. Then when you went to Wilkes-Barre, it had to be
changed again. And then another town, and still more changes. Where can you
get that kind of training today?
- as quoted by editor Bill Smith in The Vaudevillians (New
York: Macmillan Publishing,
1976), p. 73.
In later years, comics were brought in to act as master of ceremonies, talking up
the acts and helping a mediocre bill go over like a hit show.
TRANSCRIPT: Weber & Fields
A comedy sketch developed in the 1880s by vaudeville's
most popular comedy team.
Musical accompaniment could be anything from a single piano to a full sized orchestra,
and some small-time houses boasted two to three dozen musicians in the
pit. To give conductors the proper tempo, dancers would beat their feet on the stage before
entering. The resulting sound (like a horse pounding its hoof) led to the still
popular nickname "hoofers."
Were all vaudeville shows wonderful? Far from it they could be
mediocre or even tedious, especially in medium
and small time houses. The popularity of vaudeville rested in the fact that there were
eight or more chances in every show to find something to your taste. If you did not like
a particular act, you only had to wait a few minutes for something
(hopefully) better to come on.
TOBA and Blacks in Vaudevilleost southern
states did not allow blacks and whites to sit in the same theatre, and even
most Northern cities barred blacks from the best seats as late as the 1920s.
Vaudeville did much to to teach audiences of different ethnic and social
backgrounds to get along. Defying the racist norm that dominated American
society, vaudeville had black and white
performers sharing the same stage as early as the 1890s. But managers had to
deal with the legal and social realities of their time. M
The TOBA Circuit ("Theatre Owners Booking Agency," which
performers re-named "Tough On Black Asses") were the only venues below
the Mason-Dixon Line that welcomed "colored" customers in the early
part of the 20th Century, offering all-black bills for all-black audiences. For
midnight performances on Saturdays, some TOBA houses allowed whites to sneak into
Admission was twenty five cents in most TOBA houses, so production budgets
were tight. Many black performers accustomed to top pay in big-time vaudeville
performed this circuit for a fraction of their usual fee.
It was the only way they could reach the appreciative black audiences of the deep
South. Black vaudeville showcased such outstanding performers as
With none of Keith and Albee's restraints, black vaudeville developed
a tradition of sexually suggestive blues numbers peppered with double meanings.
Favorites included "You Got the Right Key But the Wrong Keyhole" and
Aside from the raunchy humor, black audiences saw the same kinds of acts found in
standard vaudeville. Variety made a point of reviewing black vaudeville acts, helping
to increase their level of recognition throughout the industry. Some white performers
were hostile to black colleagues, but the only thing managers cared about was
audience response. In vaudeville, the color of money was the only color that