American Vaudeville Museum

All material © 1998-2011 American Museum of Vaudeville, Inc.  Page 5

The Rise and Fall

History IV

Like most historical events in retrospect, the decline and death of vaudeville appears clear, certain and inevitable.  For the participants, with no perspective other than the there and then of their lives, each day differed little from the last or next, and speculation about the future was, as ever, informed by gossip, guessing and past experience.

As a motley of specialty acts, vaudeville was an itinerant enterprise without name that, over many centuries, could be found in the marketplaces of Africa, Asia, Europe.  It spread around the world to the last frontiers of the Americas and Australia.  Performers worked where they could and where their acts seemed most suitable: saloons, fairgrounds, circuses.  A certain cachet attached to performing in inns, saloons and public houses after their owners added stages and audience pits separate from the tavern.

In England it was called variety, a designation that followed the performance to the Empire’s colonies in America and Australia.  It was in the United States that variety was christened “vaudeville,” a name of ambiguous lineage that implied something French, hence cultured.  It was selected by hucksters not to define the art form but to obscure its coarse background with a respectable sheen.  Producing relatively wholesome entertainment spared the entrepreneur clashes with the law and attracted the patronage of the entire family rather than the men alone.