Vaudeville is a form of entertainment that flourished in the United States from the 1880s to the 1930s, though its roots go further back, into one of the first forms of musical in America, the minstrel show.
Beginning in 1828, Thomas D. Rice, a white man, presented a show where only black characters were featured, the most popular of which was Jim Crow, the caricature of a lame black man who would sing and dance. These shows relied heavily on racial and ethnic stereotypes to produce what was then perceived as a comic show.
Although all characters were black, very few African Americans ever performed in minstrel shows before the end of the Civil War. Performers were white men in blackface, which they achieved by rubbing burn cork on their faces. No woman ever performed in minstrel shows, all female characters were performed by men.
Minstrel show had a three parts structure:
- First section: included comic patter among the actors, songs and comic skits.
- Olio: The second section consisted of specialty acts: songs, dances and comic speeches and dialogue. Because this part was less schematic and leaned more heavily on the actual ability of the performers, olios of different companies could vary greatly in regard to quality.
- Afterpiece: the third act was a short, farsical play on antebellum plantation life, usually featuring the popular characters Jim Crow and/or Zip Coon.
Because the olio was the part of the show that allowed more artistic freedom and variety, by the end of the Civil War, this was the part of the show most popular with the audience, so it had kept growing in length, eating away time on the other two sections.
At a certain point in the last part of the 1800s, the olio took up a life of its own. That’s how vaudeville was born.
By the turn of the century, minstrelsy had all but died out and vaudeville had become the most popular American entertainment.
But another source had a defining influence on the vaudeville show: burlesque.
Burlesque had began with a series of sketches parodying current social and artistic trends. Soon it turned into a show where scantily clad women who were required little skill in dancing and singing would parody the soubrettes of ‘higher’ form of theatre.
Vaudeville consisted of songs, dances and comic routines each of about three minutes in length, and like minstrelsy, it was a touring art form. Theatres were organised in circuits specialised in white or black entertainment, and ‘big time’ or ‘small time’ entertainment. Producers were normally centred in New York City and owned the entire circuit on which they would send headliners and supporting entertainers.
The tradition of minstrelsy and vaudeville would cling to jazz all though the 1920s… and it wasn’t a good one. Many jazzmen and especially blueswomen, formed and found their fame on these circuits. Because of the reliance of both vaudeville and especially minstrelsy on racial stereotypes, black intellectuals didn’t see these performing arts very favourably, while white critics considered them to belong to a lower kind of art. During the 1920s, jazz and blues never shed this stigma off of them.
Virginia Edu – Vaudeville
American Masters – About Vaudeville
Musicals 101 – Vaudeville (part IV)
Geneseo Edu – Musical Theatre (part I)
Scaruffi.com – A bried history of blues music
Madame Pickwick – Vaudeville: American culture is performance
YouTube – Blacks and Vaudeville (PBS documentary)