Vaudeville came into being with industrialization and the accompanying social changes. The middle and lower-middle classes needed entertainment venues. And that led to investments and new business ideas.
In England in the 18th century, audiences in need of amusement went to pubs, taverns or hotel halls because many people couldn’t afford admission to the large theaters and concert halls. And this is how the first pub and saloon theaters, song-and-supper rooms, tavern-concert rooms, and tea gardens came into being. At first, the stage was only a podium, or performances even took place in the stalls. Entrance was free. It was primarily about eating and drinking and socializing. Silence and attention were not expected. Of course, a good cigar could not be left out. That’s why they were popularly called consumption or smoking theaters.
There were acrobats, magicians, ballet dancers, singers, comedians, animal trainers. There were even grotesque clowns, fight scenes, satire, mimics, impersonators, and foul jokes. There were also cripples, giants and dwarfs* on stage, showing off. And because every audience wants to laugh, humor was the first priority. This became the hallmark of English vaudeville, which is still alive today.
Around 1850, the first music halls appeared, making the stage action the main attraction. Suddenly, silence and attention were required. By 1870, there were 40 music halls in London and 290 in the rest of England.
In France, after the Revolution (1789–1799), there were café-chantants and café-concerts, called caf’ conc’. However, these were not cafés but inns with entertainment programs. Singing dominated. Mainly chansons, songs of the street and gutter were sung. In addition, there were comic acts, artists and acrobats, and a strong tendency towards lascivious eroticism. There were about 200 café-chantants in Paris around 1850.
To make the whole thing a bit more dignified, the music halls then developed: the music hall de varieté, then the revue and the grand spectacle, which is still known today. Nude dancing, cancan and extremely elaborate productions were and still are the hallmarks.
As one British journalist described it, “The dancers wear 80 percent of their clothing above the head and 15 percent on their feet. A full 5 percent is left for propriety.”
Folies Bergère, Moulin Rouge and Paradis Latin are still active today. Legends were invited and made there such as Loïe Fuller, Mata Hari, Josephine Baker, and Maurice Chevaliere. In the revue theaters, for example, La Goulue became a legend. She is the woman who Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec elevated to cancan queen. Her real name was Louise Weber, she was a vivacious red blonde with a voluptuous form, black-painted eyes and such a good appetite that she was called “glutton,” which is what La Goulue means.
In Austria, vaudeville had operetta-like features from the very beginning. Operetta stars, singers, comedians, and bandmasters appeared in vaudeville as a matter of course. In the middle of the vaudeville number program, suddenly a short farce, a burlesque or a short operetta was performed. Of course, with food continually being served. From this the Viennese revue developed: pageantry, color, nudity, jokes, tempo, clowning, obscenities, irony. It was the most popular form of entertainment in Vienna in the 1920s.
Even today, the names of the first Austrian vaudeville houses are well-known: the “Leicht’sche Pratervarieté” and the Ronacher. Many of the world’s hottest artists and performers of the time made guest appearances there. One of the Ronacher’s greatest discoveries is Marika Rökk, who was already a vaudeville star at the age of 20 and through this received her first film role offers.
The precursors for German vaudeville were polka bars and circuses. Then there were specialty performances in so-called singspiel halls and theaters that brought acrobatics, magic, clowning, dressage, and other specialties to the stage. These performances were so successful that they led to the first vaudeville theaters. From 1880 onwards, large vaudeville presences were built as food-and-drink and smoking theaters. In 1900, there were already nine vaudeville houses in Hanover, and as many as 80 in Berlin! Many of these houses had well over 1,000 seats. In Germany, there was a tendency toward the numbered program. That is, one simply bought performances of the most different artists and had them appear one after the other. All those who seemed promising were engaged.
At the Berlin Wintergarten on November 1, 1895, there was the vaudeville act “The Bioscope – The Most Interesting Invention of Modern Times.” In it, the Skladanowsky brothers screened their first moving pictures. Later it turned out to have been the first public film screening.
A contemporary described the Wintergarten as follows: “In the hall, one could comfortably drink a pint of beer and smoke a cigar, while lending one’s eyes and ears to the performances on stage.”
In the United States, there were already four formats similar to vaudeville: vaudeville shows, minstrel shows, extravaganza, and the burlesque show. All of these had a great influence on American vaudeville.
With the waves of immigration from 1860 to 1890, the vaudeville idea came to the US. New York soon became the center of entertainment. Variety had its heyday there from 1890 to 1930. Oscar Hammerstein I, a German immigrant, worked his way up from cigar handyman to millionaire. He opened the Olympia Theatre and the Victoria Theatre in a dreary New York neighborhood that soon became Broadway.
Then there were the Ziegfeld revues, which Americanized French vaudeville and set standards for all of America. Fred Astaire and Gypsy Rose Lee became stars in them. The Shubert Brothers Americanized German vaudeville. By 1914, there were 65 vaudeville houses in New York. The Hippodrome had about 5,200 seats and was considered “the largest playhouse in the world.” The stage was 61 meters [approx. 200 feet] wide and 33 meters [approx. 110 feet] deep! In the Palace Theatre (about 1,800 seats), Anna Pavlova danced, Helen Traubel sang, and Pietro Mascagni conducted. Soon they were playing four shows a day, with the most expensive ticket costing a dollar. Jazz was integrated, elephants came on stage, Lilliputian shows were popular.
Between 1922 and 1929, the vaudeville business was considered very profitable on the stock market. And so the theater trusts came into being. In his heyday, E.F. Albee had 350 vaudeville theaters in the United States, more than 20,000 performers per year, and had them tour his establishments for up to 78 weeks.
The two world wars, the emergence of film, a striptease boom and television brought the great vaudeville era to an end. In the beginning, the renowned houses kept alternating between cinema and vaudeville programs. So did Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan – “The Showplace of the Nation.” It was considered a movie theater, had 6,200 seats in club chairs and presented both vaudeville and film shows on its stage, which measured 40 meters [approx. 130 feet] wide and 20 meters [approx. 65 feet] high.
The last vaudeville boom at the Palace Theatre was in 1967 with movie star Judy Garland, who herself came from a vaudeville family. The Palace Theatre hired her for 14 days at a daily fee of USD 4,500, but because the show was such a great success, it was extended, and the program was sold out for six months.
A few vaudeville houses are still maintained, and many have since reopened. The variety show is once again enjoying great popularity, with many of the good old things being revived and new things being discovered as well.
Take a look in your area. In the meantime, it’s only the cigar that you should plan to smoke afterwards.
* In this article, to illustrate the vaudeville scene of the time, the terms used in those days (such as “dwarf,” “midget,” etc.) have been employed, which today are outdated and perceived as discriminatory.
Text: Andreas Gebhardt
Originally posted on June 20, 2023 @ 12:17 am