The Two-Sided History of Vaudeville
by Bryce Blair
Vaudeville came from humble beginnings and originally wasn’t a popular form of entertainment. American theatres in the early 1800s hosted Shakespeare plays, comedies and singing. Variety entertainment was largely marketed toward men at the time. These shows toured the taverns of settlements within the American frontier and consisted of more risqué acts.
It wasn’t until ballad singer turned theatre manager Tony Paster reinvented variety entertainment that pushed vaudeville into popularity. In his New York theatre, he featured his “polite” variety programs. The shows were welcoming to families of all kinds and eliminated indecent material. The unexpected success and appeal of Paster’s shows soon lead other theatre managers to follow his example.
The origin of the word “vaudeville” is still uncertain. The term may have been adopted from the works of 15th century poet Olivier Basseiln and his lyrical poems, “Vaux de Vire.” But my favorite theory is that the term comes from the French phrase – “voix de ville” – which, when translated into English, means “voice of the city.” This interpretation fits the essence of vaudeville perfectly – it gave a voice to those who did not have one in 1880s America.
Vaudeville was part of the community. It brought performers together and created families. It lived and breathed within the buildings and streets of the late 1800s. At the time, America saw an influx of immigrants. Vaudeville was a symbol of our society’s cultural diversity. It brought people from a variety of cultural backgrounds together in front of the same stage. Performers and audiences did not even speak the same language, but they could get lost together within the magic that was vaudeville. The stage was a way to ease the transition for immigrants – acrobatic families, singing siblings, performing animals. It crossed racial and ethnic boundaries. Performers brought their skills and heritage onto the stage. Families learned about the lives of the immigrants living just next door to them.
Unfortunately, vaudeville does have its darker parts. After the wave of Irish immigrants settled in urban areas and became native English speakers, they wished to assert their racial hierarchy. The stage was a means of expression and understanding, but with growing tension between racial groups, the stage perpetuated racial stereotypes. New immigrant groups saw their ethnic heritage distorted and mocked on stage. Conflicts between Irish and African Americans influenced the use of blackface on vaudeville stages.
What started off as the beauty of vaudeville became twisted by racial tensions. We still see many issues of that time today. Racial and ethnic stereotypes being perpetuated is still a major issue in modern America. It is important that we, as a society, look back and open a dialogue. We need to stop whitewashing our history and open our eyes to the struggles of minority groups. What can we learn from the mistakes of our past? How can we move forward?
Here at Benson Theatre, we want to start that dialogue and give the disenfranchised a voice in this city. We are not afraid to use our stage to talk about the darker parts of our country’s history. Our theatre is a home to everyone in this community. Everyone and anyone can use their voices to express themselves and tell their stories. We are a welcoming and safe space for everyone.
Bryce Blair, the Benson Theatre Project’s marketing intern, is pursuing a degree in creative writing from Metropolitan Community College. He’ll be blogging about a variety of Benson Theatre topics in the coming weeks.