The period from the end of the Civil War to 1920 was a dynamic time of change in the United States. It was influenced by massive European immigration and major population shifts amongst the various regions of the country. One of these major shifts was a vast migration from rural farming communities to urban centers. City populations exploded during this time.. In fact, during this fifty year period, the nation’s city dwelling population increased from less than ten million to more than fifty million people – a remarkable 500% increase in population. All manner of working people benefited from an increase in personal income and leisure time that city life offered. Tourism in America suddenly became available to masses of people, annual vacations became the norm, and city dwellers even began reducing their work day – as compared to their rural counterparts. With all this extra free time, inexpensive amusements of all types appealed to growing numbers of people -rich and poor alike.
Live entertainment gained traction in the late nineteenth century and reached a peak of popularity in the first decade of the twentieth. During this fifty-year period, the popularity of minstrel shows declined in popularity due to the growing success success of variety and vaudeville theater. This show format offered an ever-increasing diversity of popular entertainment to the masses. Burlesque shows developed into full fledged theatrical shows and amusement parks of the era drew huge crowds both for the rides and the revolving array of vaudeville theater shows they presented. For example, Coney Island attracted over 20 million visitors in 1909. (To give you an idea how large that number is, when it is adjusted for population growth, it represents more than the total combined attendance of both Disneyland and Disney World in 1989.) Entertainment of all sorts flourished during this renaissance period and the United States was awash in circuses, world’s fairs, nightclubs, ballparks, traveling theatrical road shows and more. And from this explosion, the cinema was born.
Vaudeville featured materials that demonstrate the diverse forms of theater that dominated the growing entertainment world in the United States during this period. In fact variety theater drew larger audiences than the “legitimate” theater which presented classical performances. The appeal of the vaudeville shows was that it worked hard to attract all classes of people from every cultural background rather than performances that were targeted to the cultured upper crust only. They succeeded in this task by offering a wide variety of program in each show as well as low admission prices.
To make the shows successful to the greatest audience possible, the vaudeville theater concentrated on action and caricature entertainment using humor with broad and sometimes vulgar appeal to titillate the audience while at the same time trying to threat the fine line that also kept it respectable entertainment. Even pure burlesque shows tried to thread this knot by billing themselves as “vaudeville” entertainment and using the same theaters that had respectable performances.
Of all the types of vaudeville theatre, comedy was the most popular and most transportable entertainment to more modern venues. In fact, comedians often migrated from minstrel and vaudeville shows direct to radio and eventually television with the same sorts of jokes and skits they used on stage. Some famous transition comedians include Bob Hope, George Burns, and Milton Berle.
The vaudeville theater period of America offered a variety of amusements: comedy, musical skits, novelty acts, stage magic, musical comedy, slapstick and stage spectacles. Variety theater drew from several distinct genres, including vaudeville, burlesque, minstrel shows, spectacles, extravaganzas, musical revue, and musical comedy. It represents a very part of American entertainment history that provided the genesis for many modern entertainment’s.
Vaudeville Theatre is a fascinating art form that is best studied by seeing the shows. Fortunately, with the thanks of people like Thomas Edison and his motion picture company, many vaudeville shows were captures for posterity and can be viewed on the Vintage Variety Stage and Vaudeville Film Collection offered at The Historical Archive.
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