Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



The American variety circuit, the equivalent of British music hall. From a valley in Calvados, France, famous for its satirical songs in the 15th Century, chanson du vau de Vire had been corrupted to 'vau de ville', for any light entertainment; there was a Vaudeville Theatre in San Antonio TX in 1882 and John W. Ransone, whose speciality was comedy in Dutch dialect, may have been first to use the word generically. By that time minstrelsy was running out of steam and the railways made it possible for the talent to travel anywhere, and a variety circuit began to develop all over the USA. Tony Pastor (born Antonio Pastore, 1837--1908) preferred the term variety; he had worked in minstrelsy and became one of the fathers of vaudeville, opening his first 'Opera House' in the Bowery in 1865. He hired the most popular entertainers, but also kept an eye out for talented newcomers (the stars of the future, but cheaper to hire). At first he offered prizes -- a half-barrel of flour, half a ton of coal, dress patterns -- to get respectable women to come to the variety theatre, which then had a racy reputation; he insisted that his acts keep their material wholesome, so that families could attend without fear of being offended. A former free-and- easy (a tavern with entertainment) was converted by women's haberdashers Koster and Bial into a glorified concert saloon, and suddenly by 1887 New York was full of variety theatres. In early 1893 F. F. Proctor put on continuous vaudeville in a converted church, using the slogan 'After breakfast go to Proctor's; after Proctor's go to bed'. Pastor resisted all-day programming for years, but they were all overtaken by a pair of New Englanders.

B. F. (Benjamin Franklin) Keith, like Pastor, was a censor, keeping the acts suitable for families, with the help of his wife. Performers were not allowed to use such phrases as 'by heck' or 'son of a gun'. Keith began in the circus; during the seasonal lull one year he operated a dime-show featuring freaks, and business was so good he never went back to the tents, opening a theatre in Boston. He hired a 17-year-old circus animal keeper as a boy of all work; E. F. (Edward Franklin Albee soon proposed a pirated production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado, which was so successful it went on the road and paid for Boston's Bijou Theatre, a 'Temple of the Arts', first of about 700 Keith/Albee theatres. In 1885 they were first with continuous vaudeville, from ten in the morning until almost midnight.

Keith died in 1914, several years after handing over operations to Albee, who had began by stealing Gilbert and Sullivan and never stopped stealing. The restrictive practices and blacklisting he perfected included a covert agreement with Martin Beck's Orpheum circuit, from Chicago to the Pacific, and made him the most hated man in show business. Beck had moved his Orpheum headquarters to New York in 1905, and built the Palace Theatre there, with Albee's permission, which became the one place every vaudevillian wanted to play. But Albee secretly bought up 51 per cent of the Orpheum circuit and forced Beck to hand over the Palace, whereupon he made it a 'cut house': anyone working in the one place where everybody wanted to work had to take a 25 per cent cut. During a recession there would be several times as many vaudevillians out of work than treading the boards, but Albee never gave up his stranglehold on national variety; the only time he was ever investigated by the federal government he lied his head off and got away with it. The pride and joy of this greedy hypocrite, who was worth $25 million at the end, was the traditional $1,000 death benefit paid by the National Vaudeville Artists union (the corpse had usually paid in twice what it got out).

The established theatrical tradition of burlesque developed into an accommodation of the more racy fare, eventually including strippers. A town's burlesque house might be in a seedier neighbourhood, while the vaudeville palace put on a more respectable face, but was still regarded with a jaundiced eye by respectable citizens, and the local law kept an eye on it all. Despite the success of all-black musical shows on Broadway, black artists were restricted to the bottom of vaudeville; the Theatre Owners' Booking Association, in the South and the Midwest, was formed in 1920 with an investment of $300 from each theatre operator (black or white), a circuit of 30 to 45 theatres paying $1,200 a week for a black vaudeville troupe, which after deductions meant an average weekly pay of about $20 a person. TOBA was also known as Tough On Black Asses.

The most dazzling vaudeville shows were produced by Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. After getting his start at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, he realized that his French-born showgirl wife, Anna Held, and in particular her legs, were an instant public attraction. She was famous for bathing in milk, and sometimes receiving the press while doing so; her songs, such as 'Won't You Come And Play Wiz Me?', were meant to suggest Continental naughtiness. By 1906 Ziegfeld was 'glorifying the American girl', costumes and lighting giving the impression of lots of flesh. The quality of it all was high, though, and from 1907 the annual Ziegfeld Follies set the standard and broke box office records. It was a succession of skits, dancing and songs, often topical; in 1907 Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils was parodied, when singer Mary Garden was titillating audiences with it in Richard Strauss's version at the Metropolitan Opera House.

The New York run of each edition of the Follies was followed by a run on the road, then a summer vacation for Ziegfeld and Held in Paris, then back to New York with new songs and skits. Ziegfeld deserves to be remembered for the stars and songs he presented: Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, Bert Williams, Ruth Etting, Helen Morgan, Marilyn Miller and many more of the best of the era. Ziegfeld was paid the compliment of quality imitators, such as George White's Scandals and Earl Carroll's Vanities; he also produced other shows, among them Jerome Kern's Show Boat; after his death the Schubert brothers bought the name and produced some more Follies, the last in 1940, but the era was over. (A 1936 film, The Great Ziegfeld, was three hours long, described by Graham Green as 'This huge inflated gas-blown object...')

For decades vaudeville presented everything from singing and dancing to juggling and trained dogs. Touring performers had their favourite boarding houses in each town that took in theatrical folk; many a child working in a family hotel eventually trod the boards, having first learned a few turns from the showbiz fraternity. Sophie Tucker's autobiography Some Of These Days (1945) is excellent on the tribulations of the artist: she was responsible for her own transport, lodging, costumes, songs, arrangements and so forth; she collected her wages from the theatre manager, who decided where on the bill she would appear, and she paid a commission to her booking agent. (Under certain circumstances Albee could require an extra stagehand to travel with the star, who had to pay his wages.) It was sheer talent rather than hype or TV exposure that got a performer to the top; the ultimate goal was the 'legitimate' theatre on Broadway, where there were fewer jugglers. It was in vaudeville, too, that 'coon' songs were popular (see Ragtime) and the modern pop song began to evolve, though sentimentality remained a staple: 'In The Shade Of The Old Apple Tree' c1905, a lovely tune, turns out to be about a grave.

The biggest stars of vaudeville included Norah Bayes, whose real name was Dora Goldberg. With the second of five husbands she co-wrote 'Shine On Harvest Moon', which they performed together, introducing it in Ziegfeld's Follies of 1908, and later that year in a Ziegfeld show called Miss Innocence. A plump and not very pretty blackface singer was stealing the show every night with 'Moving Day In Jungle Town', so Bayes had her fired, and that was the end of Sophie Tucker's first Broadway appearance (but she outlasted them all, still performing in the early 1960s). Eva Tanguay, the 'I Don't Care' girl after her hit song of 1905, was a headliner for many years; but the first and greatest female singing star of vaudeville was Lillian Russell, discovered and named by Pastor (her real name was Helen Louise Leonard). She began singing concert ballads and became a comic opera star; according to the New York Mirror she looked like 'Venus after her bath'. She lasted many years, during which she played the dairymaid in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience, and wore the snug-fitting clothes of young boys or sailors on stage. But her speciality was spectacular hats, and in later years as her weight increased she won a court case with a producer when she refused to appear in tights.

A lingering prejudice against British performers was finally overcome, partly by the excellent music hall songs they bought with them: Vesta Victoria, a sort of singing actress, had been the darling of London. Felix McGlennon's hits included 'And Her Golden Hair Was Hanging Down Her Back' (which he had written, but Monroe Rosenfeld copyrighted in the USA), 'Tell Me, Pretty Maiden' and the rest of the score of the long- running show Florodora; Vesta Tilley made an international hit of McGlennon's 'Daughters'; she was a male impersonator, also famous for 'Burlington Bertie' and others (and any sort of cross-dressing was considered somewhat daring). The legendary Marie Lloyd and her sister Alice Lloyd appeared in the USA, but Alice was hampered by the risqu‚ nature of some of her material. Albert Chevalier, a singing Cockney comedian in pearly costume, wrote his own songs including 'The Old Kent Road' and 'My Old Dutch' (about his wife); he was one of the highest-paid British stars to work in the USA, but Harry Lauder, the Scottish dialect singer, was one of the biggest vaudeville stars of all time, making $4,000 a week.

Songwriters and music publishers kept an eye on up-and- coming talent in vaudeville; it soon became apparent that the best way to make a song a hit was to get a good talent to sing it. The apotheosis of this was Al Jolson, the biggest star of vaudeville's golden age, neither the first nor the last to take a songwriting credit (and a piece of the royalties) for singing the song. He was listed as co-writer of dozens of songs but probably wrote almost nothing. The booking agents for the national chains of variety theatres were all in New York, so that by 1900 the centre of song publishing ('Tin Pan Alley', so named by Rosenfeld) was located there too.

The most popular radio and screen comedy acts of the 20th century, such as the Three Stooges, Jack Benny, W. C. Fields (who began as a juggler), Abbott and Costello, George Burns and Gracie Allen and many others served their time on the vaudeville stage; Phil Silvers (TV's Sergeant Bilko), Ed Wynne and many more came from burlesque. Vaudeville began to succumb in the late 1920s to the competition of radio and films, and was finished off by the Depression, said to have died at the palace in 1932 (though the Keith circuit was briefly revived in the early '50s for nostalgia buffs). In 1928 there were only four theatres in the country that still presented live variety only (no films); the greedy Albee did not see the end coming, and was bamboozled out of his empire by a coalition which included Joseph P. Kennedy, a financial genius, father of a future President and just as greedy as Albee. Kennedy made several million dollars out of the deal, which included RCA Photophone, acknowledging that talking pictures were coming, and swallowed the original Keith/Albee circuit into a merger that became RKO pictures. Variety survived on television: the Ed Sullivan show, presented on Sunday evenings in the 1950s and '60s by a Broadway columnist, was nothing more than weekly vaudeville, complete with the occasional dog act.