The American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870 - 1920

The period 1870 to 1920 was a dynamic time of change in the United States. It was marked by massive European immigration and major population shifts between regions of the country, including migration from rural to urban centers that led to the dramatic growth of cities. During these fifty years, the nation's urban population increased from a total of less than ten million to more than fifty million people. Blue-collar and white-collar working people alike benefited from an increase in personal income and leisure time. Tourism developed as an American pastime, annual vacations became a national habit, and city dwellers began taking half-holidays on Saturday. Public amusements appealed to growing numbers of people from many walks of life.

Popular, live entertainment gained momentum in the late nineteenth century and reached a peak in the first decade of the twentieth. During the fifty-year period covered by this collection, minstrel shows were eclipsed by the unprecedented success of variety theater and an ever-increasing diversity of popular entertainment. Burlesque developed into a full-fledged theatrical form and modern amusement parks attracted huge crowds. In 1909, for example, Coney Island drew over 20 million visitors. (After adjusting for population differentials, this is a greater number than the combined attendance at Disneyland and Disney World in 1989.) World's fairs, the three-ring circus, nightclubs, and the ballpark also flourished. Theatrical road shows traveled into the American hinterlands. The cinema was born.

The American Variety Stage Collection features materials that illustrate the diverse forms of variety theater that dominated the burgeoning entertainment world in the United States. Variety stage, in this era, drew greater audiences than the "legitimate" theater which presented serious literary works. Compared to the legitimate theater, which appealed, for the most part, to elite audiences, the variety stage was democratic and broad in approach. The variety stage strove to attract all classes of people from every cultural background by offering varied programs and relatively low admission fees.

To succeed at show business (as all forms of variety theater were called), entrepreneurs provided public entertainment that transcended the specific tastes of a particular class or ethnicity. It emphasized action and caricature. Nevertheless, however broad or vulgar its humor, it sought an aura of moral respectability. Even burlesque shows attempted to do this by billing themselves as "vaudeville" and "extravaganza" and playing in theaters that had previously been certified as "respectable."

Of all the types of variety entertainment, comedy is the best represented in this collection. The English-language playscripts provide a wealth of information about what audiences found amusing, or at least what writers thought the audience would find funny. One can also learn about such things as comedic techniques used, the structure of comic sketches, subjects used for comedic purposes, and how material was customized for specific entertainers. As well, the collection can help shed light on the ways that vaudevillians tried to deal with contemporary topics and concerns, especially those that now seem inappropriate (such as ethnic stereotypes, gender and race prejudices, etc.), a topic that is especially ripe for study.

Comedians often migrated, along with their jokes and skits, from minstrelsy to vaudeville, from burlesque to recordings, to radio, and even to television. Veteran performers such as Bob Hope, George Burns, and Milton Berle have credited their early days in variety for their subsequent success.

The variety theater, in its most inclusive sense, provided the American public with a range of live entertainment: comedy, musical presentations, novelty and specialty acts, stage magic, and stage spectacles. American musical comedy was also in its formative stages during the fifty-year period covered by this collection. Many early musical comedies of the period were glorified variety shows, more akin to European operettas than to what we now think of as musical comedy. The forms of variety theater represented in this collection draw from several genres, including vaudeville, minstrel show, burlesque, extravaganza, spectacle, musical revue, and musical comedy.

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