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What was Vaudeville?
And why study
its history?

Some 75 years after the passing of Vaudeville, for most people today the term conjures up nothing but vague notions of mediocre baggy-pants comedians, or worse, a misidentification with the "girly shows" of burlesque or the demeaning racism of a minstrel show. Some even try to find "Vaudeville" by using their GPS locator.

So if the idea of Vaudeville is so distorted, if the old acts are so out of fashion, and if the people of Vaudeville are all-but-forgotten --- then why dredge up Vaudeville as a topic of study?

The answer? Once your presenter sweeps away misconceptions and defines the Vaudeville "industry" in the context of its time, it becomes evident that the topic serves as an illuminating prism through which all the issues facing American society in the late 19th- and early 20th century come into view. Let's begin sweeping away misconceptions now!

What was Vaudeville, anyway? Our understanding of history is riddled with myths and misconceptions, and the study of early 20th-century popular culture is no different. The astute TV buff will note that many early 1950s stars like Milton Berle and Bob Hope "started out in Vaudeville" --- as if it were something to escape from. Although Berle and Hope did become TV icons, they do not fully define the Vaudeville genre. It was so much more than the stereotypical comic desperate for a laugh.

Taking a fresh look back, Vaudeville was a simple concept: a respectable general audience variety show consisting of a dozen "acts" unconnected by plot. Yet it grew into a dominant form of leisure, a giant coast-to-coast industry that flourished for 50 years. Today it is difficult for us to fathom just how enormous the institution of Vaudeville was on the cultural landscape of the early 20th century. At its peak there were over 2000 Vaudeville theatres in the U.S., plus 2000 miscellaneous venues, with 50,000 performers --- plus thousands working in support businesses. Some larger cities had a dozen well-appointed theatres, while rural folk got their Vaudeville at the Grange hall, chautauqua meeting, or showboat.

The story of Vaudeville is the story of America at the time, a story that weaves in the topics of race, gender, class, immigration, big business, technology, transportation, communication, population shift, and urbanization. On a more intimate scale, human stories range from those of performing artists of singular genius, to stories of the most callous and tyrannical magnates. And there are more than a few surprise endings. It may not be immediately apparent, but the long-lasting impact of Vaudeville is still with us today in popular culture, music, and entertainment.

Therefore the study of Vaudeville is neither a descent into nostalgia, nor a wistful love-fest for dusty legends, but rather an enriching exploration of connections we often overlook or take for granted. The study of Vaudeville --- and the program, "A Vaudeville Retrospective" --- can serve as a textbook example of the intertwined relationship of the arts, sciences, and commerce throughout the grand parade of human history.

--- R.W. Bacon

Presentations & Exhibition

Programs on American Vaudeville 1880-1930

Variety Arts Enterprises presents five different programs relating to the performing art, big business, and cultural phenomenon of American Vaudeville from 1880 to 1930. This introductory page --- and the more in-depth pages listed in the menu at left --- aim to inform potential host venue curators about the programs, their structure & content, and the fascinating subject of Vaudeville in general.

Created by a veteran variety performer and museum professional whose mentors included troupers from the last generation of vaudevillians, the programs are designed specifically for museums, historical societies, libraries, and college theatre departments. The presentations are a combination of illustrated lecture, performance, and exhibition. Program content includes (in addition to the context-rich lecture ...) digitally-projected graphics, video clips, audio samples, and of course, live performance segments by presenter R.W. Bacon as "The Last Living Vaudevillian."

A presentation for your museum. Program content complements virtually any late 19th- or early 20th-century topic, and programs can be customized to dovetail with relevant programs or exhibitions. For the next decade at least, presentations in conjunction with "centennial" exhibitions are welcome --- and will be most relevant. "A Vaudeville Retrospective" is ideal as a member event, staff event, fund-raiser, educational session --- or simply as a literate, informative, & fun public program.

Primary Programs:

Related Programs:

"A Vaudeville Retrospective" ------ A context-rich presentation

Program Brochure ...
& A Curator's Primer on American Vaudeville