Researching Vaudeville Performers
by John Kenrick
Musicals101 has received countless e-mails from scholars and amateur genealogists trying to track down information on vaudeville performers. If you have entered their ranks, three cheers! Vaudeville research is still in its infancy, and you are one of the pioneers. Exciting as that may sound, it also means you are going to be laboring in an academic wilderness -- which can be frustrating.
No one (and I mean NO ONE) who worked in vaudeville was concerned with making history, let alone preserving it. They were out to make a living -- period. Few performers kept extensive files, and the various theatre managers and circuit owners only held on to files as long as their day to day business required. The overwhelming majority of this documentation was either lost or destroyed decades ago. As vaudeville was dying in the 1920s and 30s, few if any American libraries were looking to preserve materials related to popular entertainment.
As of this writing, there is no central source for vaudeville-related research -- no single library or archive has anything like a comprehensive vaudeville collection to dig into. However, with academic interest in vaudeville growing, the picture is beginning to improve. While there may not be much to fall back on, there is far more than the near-nothing of a decade or so ago.
The Library of Congress site offers an extensive online collection of theatre and vaudeville programs, scripts, recordings, and film clips at American Variety Stage: 1870-1920 -- a great place to start a serious vaudeville research project.
Also, read through two related features here on Musicals101 --
- Musical Theatre Research Guide - offers an extensive list of useful sources
- Variety: Links & Suggested Reading - includes a list of vaudeville-related websites
The Keith-Albee Archive
There is one major vaudeville business file that has partially survived. The University of Iowa Library preserves some management files from the Keith-Albee Circuit. If you can't get to Iowa to access their files, student researchers can be hired to assist you at reasonable hourly rates. But be advised that these files are far from comprehensive. A visit to the Univ. of Iowa Library website may give you some idea if the years and locations covered by their files relate to your research.
Variety & Billboard
Your most promising source for learning about specific vaudevillians is through newspaper archives. If there is a major performing arts library near you, it may have the show business newspaper Variety on microfilm. This is a rich source of vaudeville information -- so are early editions of Billboard, which concentrated on vaudeville in the years before it became a pop music publication.
Another rich source of vaudeville info -- local newspapers in cities and towns that once had vaudeville theatres. For example, lets say you are trying to research an act that you know played the major East Coast vaudeville circuits between 1914 and 1922.
Select a city or town with a sizeable public library -- New York, Philadelphia and Boston are obvious examples, but any municipality that had one or more big time vaudeville houses will do. See which (if any) newspapers are archived in that town's library files, and determine which of those newspapers reviewed local vaudeville. Then start digging. (Hey, no one said historical research was easy!) In most cases, new vaudeville bills premiered on Mondays, so reviews usually appeared on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Hint -- When a performer played her or his hometown, it was an opportunity for added publicity. Press agents often arranged for interviews and other special coverage in local papers. If you can identify your subject's place of birth, make that locale a focus of your archival research.
Vaudeville research may not be easy, but stick to it -- patience pays off . . . well, most of the time. The information you are looking for may still be out there. The trick is digging away deeply enough to uncover it.