As far as the development and demise of vaudeville, there is much to be said. But to truly understand its rise and fall, first one must understand what vaudeville is. Vaudeville was a theatrical genre of entertainment that was popular in the United States from the early 1880s until the mid 1930s. Each performance consisted of a series of unrelated acts grouped together on a common bill. Types of acts included classical musicians, dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, impersonators, acrobats, illustrated songs, jugglers, scenes from plays, athletes, lecturing celebrities, and movies.
Vaudeville developed from many sources, including the concert saloon, freak shows, dime museums, and literary burlesque. Deemed “the heart of American show business,” vaudeville was one of the most popular types of entertainment in America for several decades. Vaudeville, more than any other mass entertainment, grew out of the culture of incorporation that defined American life post Civil War days. The development of vaudeville marked the beginning of popular entertainment as big business, spending power, and changing tastes of an urban middle class audience became a front and center demand.
In the years before the war, entertainment was only available on a different scale. Of course, variety theatre did exist before 1860. However, it was the Europeans who enjoyed types of variety performances years before anyone even had conceived of the United States. In America, as early as the beginning of the nineteenth century, theatre patrons could enjoy a performance of Shakespeare, acrobats, singers, dancers and comedy all in the same sitting . As the years passed by, seekers of different amusement styles found an increasing number to choose from.
A handful of circuses toured the country, but this did not satisfy the demand of variety. While, music-halls, saloons and burlesque houses catered to those with a taste for the exotic, vaudeville appeared to those interested in the arts as well. Vaudeville incorporated these various amusements into a single, entertaining form that defined America post war. Although vaudeville seemed to be a long standing staple in our society, like all good things, it must come to an end. the decline and death of vaudeville appears certain, clear and inevitable.
From the performers point of view, there was no perspective other than the “here and now” of their lives. Each day seemed to differ little from the previous, and speculation about the future was, as ever, informed by hear say and past experience. As an array of specialty acts, vaudeville was an enterprise without name that, over many years, could be found in the marketplaces of Asia and Europe. It eventually spread around the world to the farthest corners of Australia and Africa. Performers worked when and where they could, quite often in undesired locations.
A certain cliche attached to performing in bed and breakfast’s, saloons and public houses after their owners added stages and audience pits set apart from the tavern. It soon became quite taxing for performers to not only live the same shows everyday, but to move on and find other work after they were no longer needed in vaudeville shows. Still, this was not the only reason for the demise of vaudeville, although it played a large part. The largest contributing factor was the invention of the motion picture in the 1930’s. There was no longer a need for people to be entertained by a comical, musical, circus style side show.
Now they found a more intimate and fascinating way of enjoying a performance. The first silent pictures proved to wow audiences by “putting people onto film to see over and over again. ” This cancelled the need for people to even go out to see such a thing as a scheduled vaudeville show, because they could watch the same style of performance any time they wished. This all came full circle when even the performers in the vaudeville shows began to seek roles in these new “motion pictures” instead of exhausting their selves night after night with “in the flesh” performances.
In my opinion, vaudeville was a large contributor to vernacular dance. Vernacular dance in itself means dance styles that evolved outside of dance studios and are not labeled by a certain cultural stamp. Well, what could show this more than vaudeville? Nearly all of the “mini shows” in these nightly performances (circus style sideshows, comedy stand up, actors role playing) had no real roots tied to any one genre, and were all pulled from separate walks of life. Vaudeville encompassed the spirit of variety and entertainment, much like the very definition of vernacular dance.