vaudeville (vôdˈvĭl) [key], originally a light song, derived from the drinking and love songs formerly attributed to Olivier Basselin and called Vau, or Vaux, de Vire. Similar to the English music hall, American vaudeville was a live entertainment consisting of unrelated songs, dances, acrobatic and magic acts, and humorous skits and sketches by a variety of performers and acts, each on stage for about five minutes. From humble origins in barrooms and "museums," vaudeville became the dominant attraction in American popular entertainment, playing in hundreds of theaters throughout the United States. It flourished from 1881, when Tony Pastor gave the first "big time" vaudeville show in New York City, until 1932, when its greatest center, New York's Palace Theatre, abandoned live shows and became a movie theater. Such headliners as George M. Cohan, Harry Houdini, Eva Tanguay, W. C. Fields, Fay Templeton, Will Rogers, Ed Wynn, Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante, Irene Franklin, Fred Allen, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen, and the Marx Brothers began their careers playing the vaudeville circuits. Beginning in the 1890s there also was an invigorating influx of performers from England and France who were a major influence on the growing sophistication and high quality of vaudeville. The popularity of radio and motion pictures caused vaudeville's decline, and many established performers moved into the new media. Television, however, brought about a revival of vaudeville-style revues.
See C. W. Stein, ed., American Vaudeville As Seen by Its Contemporaries (1984); S. Staples, Male-Female Comedy Teams in American Vaudeville, 1865–1932 (1984); A. Slide, ed., Selected Vaudeville Criticism (1988); Trav S. D., No Applause—Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous (2005).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.