Vaudeville: Definition, History, Acts & Music

Instructor: Colleen Cleveland

Colleen has taught college level Game Development and Graphic Design and has a Master's in Interactive Entertainment and Masters in Media Psychology.

In this lesson, we'll explore the world of vaudeville as a form of entertainment, including how it developed and why it came to an end. We'll also become familiar with some key performers and the acts that made them famous.

What is Vaudeville?

At the turn of the 1900s, before television, before movies, and even before the radio, entertainment took place onstage and was known as vaudeville. As a form of entertainment, vaudeville included musical and magic acts, acrobatic and comedy routines, and even performances by trained animals. If theatrical promoters thought an act might be interesting to an audience, they put it onstage.

History of Vaudeville

Prior to vaudeville, popular entertainment consisted of a piano player in a saloon, a freak show in a circus, or a traveling burlesque show. Once vaudeville got started, owners of variety theaters would extend invitations to traveling acts from all over the country to perform in talent shows.

As a member of an act or individual performer, you had to pay your dues by starting off on a small circuit. A circuit was a chain of variety theaters usually owned by the same person. This allowed vaudevillians to be seen by a variety of people, including people from other circuits. Vaudevillians were traveling performers who worked the circuits.

While vaudeville was targeted and enjoyed by the middle class, members of the Ziegfeld Follies performed for the rich, upper-crust of society, the dream of most vaudevillians. They wanted to play in the big shows for the big pay, the notoriety, and of course, the social status.

End of Vaudeville

By the 1930s, radio had become a popular form of entertainment, and live vaudeville acts found themselves sharing the same theater stage with a film. Eventually, audiences grew smaller, while the price of live entertainment grew too much. Although vaudeville disappeared from the stage, the concept of a variety show can be found in television, such as on the David Letterman show. But, alas, the vaudevillian theater of yesteryear is no more.

Vaudeville poster

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