Vaudeville (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)

Vaudeville (Jazz Age Jazz Series) Many jazzmen and even more blueswomen first became popular on the vaudeville circuits. But vaudeville was considered a racially disrespectful venue, a thorny fact to handle

Jazz Age Jazz - Vaudeville

JAZZ AGE JAZZ - Vaudeville #AtoZChallenge Between the minstrel shows and the new #jazz Click To Tweet

V - Vaudeville (AtoZ Challenge 2016)

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.
Bert Williams

Bert Williams

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) – A bried history of blues music
Madame Pickwick – Vaudeville: American culture is performance
YouTube – Blacks and Vaudeville (PBS documentary)


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I was born, raised and I still live near Verona (Italy), though I worked for a time in Dublin. I started writing fantasy stories as a kid. Today I’m a bookseller who reads fantasy, history, mythology, anthropology and lots of speculative fiction. Somehow, all of this has found its way into my own dieselpunk stories.

24 Comments on "Vaudeville (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)"

  1. Interesting. Good luck with the rest of the AtoZchallenge.

  2. It’s a shame that there was a stigma of being a lesser art form associated with Jazz because of its popular associations.
    Sophie’s Thoughts & Fumbles | Wittegen Press | FB3X
    Sophie Duncan recently posted…Murder Most Foul! – V is for Violation – Cozy Mystery #AtoZChallenge 2016My Profile

  3. We had the Black and White Minstrel Show on TV when I was young – white men with blacked up faces. I can barely believe this when I look back. Appalling!
    Anabel recently posted…Toronto: an island walkMy Profile

    • I was actually surprised to discover that African Americans actors also wore blackface. I mean, I knew African Americans had their own form of minstrel show, many blueswomen and jazzmen started off on those circuits, but for some reason, I didn’t imagin these actors would also wear blackface.

  4. I remember taking a class in college–I forget what now–in which they talked a lot about vaudeville and minstrel shows. Hard to believe now that they were so popular but guys like Al Jolson were all the rage. I would like to say we have progressed but I’m not sure I believe that–at least we are less overt.

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    Kathleen Valentine recently posted…V is for Viv & Veronica: Blogging the #AtoZchallengeMy Profile

    • The research I did for this post amount to all I know about vaudeville and everything associated with it, but in scratching the surface, I understand there is a lot more underneath.
      History is always more complex than we think, so I believe that behind the popularity of blackface shaws there is a lot more than we can imagin from just looking at it.

  5. Wow, I had no idea this was the history of vaudeville! That’s horrifying. Thanks for educating me.

  6. *Cringe*
    I know it was a different time, but… *cringe* *cringe* *cringe*
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  7. The history of vaudeville is fascinating, though. I am learning so much from your posts 🙂
    Tarkabarka recently posted…V is for Violence against womenMy Profile

    • I didn’t imagine there was so much history behind vaudeville. But then again, there is history everywhere. Sometimes we are just too superficial to bother and scratch the surface.

  8. While I’ve heard of vaudeville – and seen modern day interpretations of “vaudevillian” acts – I never knew its history. I guess I always associated vaudeville with a variety show…
    Molly recently posted…A-Z Challenge: V is for VedettesMy Profile

    • Well, it is a variety show. I just think that some forms of entertainment are so light in feeling that we instinctively imagine there is a light history behind them too… and that’s not the case 😉

  9. Sarah: Another fine job on vaudeville. Have been following your posts and jazz needs all the PR it can get. To fully understand jazz you have to know it’s history and you’ve been doing a great job bringing it to your audience. Keep up the good work.

    • Bill, I’m so happy to see you here. I’m enjoying your challenge too. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. April has been a crazy month… and the challenge has been only the mildest part of that craziness.
      Thanks again for stopping by. Your appreciation means a lot to me.

  10. I remember seeing the Black and White Minstrel show in the 70s – just the very idea makes me shudder these days. The evolution of Vaudeville from Minstrel shows is most interesting – I suppose its an example of the public gets what the public wants.
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  11. It’s amazing the things that used to just be commonplace. I’m glad this sort of thing would never fly today.
    Megan Morgan recently posted…W – Winding Up the ClimaxMy Profile

  12. I had no idea about minstrelsy, or about how Vaudeville got its start! In fact all I knew of minstrels before reading your post is that they’re a brand of chocolates in the UK… which now seems in rather poor taste.

    It’s fascinating to learn about this and also saddening to see the kind of attitudes back then. We’ve come a long way!
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    • I though you were going to say that everythign you knew about minstresly came from back in the Middle Ages. It was certainly the case for me 😉
      Oh, yeah, the chocolate brand… That’s really poor taste.

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