Culture and Recreation


What was vaudeville?

Light, comical theatrical entertainment, vaudeville flourished at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century. Programs combined a variety of music, theater, and comedy to appeal to a wide audience. Script writers attracted immigrant audiences by using ethnic humor, exaggerating dialects, and joking about the difficulties of daily immigrant life in America. (The word vaudeville is derived from an old French term for a satirical song, vaudevire, which is a reference to the Vire valley of France, where the songs originated.)

Vaudeville made its way to the American stage by the 1870s, when acts performed in theaters in New York, Chicago, and other cities. Troupes traveled a circuit of nearly 1,000 theaters around the country. As many as 2 million Americans a day flocked to the shows to see headliners such as comedians Eddie Cantor (1892–1964) and W. C. Fields (1880–1946), singer Eva Tanguay (1878–1947), and French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923).

During the first two decades of the twentieth century, vaudeville was the most popular form of entertainment in the country. In the 1930s, just as New York opened the doors of its famous Radio City Music Hall, which was intended to be a theater for vaudeville, the entertainment form began a quick decline. Motion pictures, radio, and, later, television took its place, with numerous vaudeville performers parlaying their success into these new media. Among those entertainers who had their origins in vaudeville acts were actors Rudolph Valentino, Cary Grant, Mae West, Jack Benny, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Will Rogers, and Al Jolson.


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