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America Had Talent

Vaudeville Photographs 1880-1930

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For fifty years, from 1875 to 1925, vaudeville was the most popular form of entertainment in America. More than two thousand theaters, scattered throughout the United States and Canada, played nothing but vaudeville. As an entertainment form, American vaudeville has its origins in the minstrel shows which developed here in the early 1800’s and in British music hall, or variety.

The term 'vaudeville' derives from the French vau-de-vire, meaning a popular satirical song, after the town of Vire, in northwestern France, where such songs were first composed and sung in the fifteenth century. By the late nineteenth century, it had come to mean a series of unrelated acts, which might include singers, dancers, animal performers, acrobats, and jugglers, which followed one another in rapid succession.

The reason for vaudeville's appeal lies in the variety of the acts. An audience could sit through fifteen minutes of a second-rate comedy routine, secure in the knowledge that the next act would probably be a good one. As E. F. Albee wrote in a 1923 edition of Variety: “In vaudeville, ‘there is always something for everybody.’”

The acts varied, but there was always a standard policy as to the order of a vaudeville show. The bill would open with an animal, pantomime or acrobatic act, which would not require any listening or much attention as the audience was generally being seated while it performed.

Next came juvenile acts. A comedy sketch or one-act play would follow. Customarily, these featured names from the legitimate theater, including Sarah Bernhardt, Alfred Lunt, and the Barrymores – Lionel, John, and Ethel. Then came an eccentric novelty act. This might be a magician or mind reader, or a comedy trio like the Three Keatons: mother, father, and Buster.

Celebrities of note, famous or notorious, held fifth place. That brought down the curtain on Part One. Part Two opened with a large set and a lot of people onstage. Choirs, novelty orchestras, and trained lion-and-tiger acts were favorites. The seventh spot – “next to closing” in vaudeville-speak – was for the big names. Like the opening act, the final turn would neither demand nor receive much attention, because the audience would be walking out while it performed.


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