Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York
by Robert W. Snyder; Oxford University Press; 220 pages.
By 1880 a new kind of entertainment called vaudeville had emerged in New York City. It drew upon talent from concert saloons, minstrel shows, circuses, dime museums, and German beer gardens. The songs, dances, skits, and novelty acts that made up a typical program brought New Yorkers of all classes and backgrounds together into palatial theatrical arenas. In this manner, Robert W. Snyder argues, American popular culture was born: “Vaudeville took people out of their neighborhoods and moved them into a world of stars and fans … foreshadowing the day when people would relate to television and movie stars as if they were intimate friends.”
The vaudeville stage welcomed a diverse array of talented performers whose only unifying characteristic was that all were “beyond the pale of native-born, middle-class society.” Artists of Jewish, Italian, Irish, and African descent found employment there, as did women, who could forge independent careers and earn uncommonly high salaries. But at the same time, the shows routinely trumpeted ethnic, racial, and sexual stereotypes. These slights might be seen as crude attempts to make sense of a city teeming with new groups, but nonetheless they forced performers into degrading roles. For every ground breaker like Eubie Blake, who insisted on playing piano in a tuxedo rather than the traditional overalls of the black performer, there were many more like Bert Williams, a gifted West Indian comedian who was forced to apply burnt cork to his skin to fit the “darky” image.
Dealing with theater managers presented more problems for the performers. “What Henry the Eighth was to English history and Torquemada was to the Spanish Inquisition, the theatre manager was to vaudeville,” Groucho Marx remembered. The syndicate formed in 1886 by B. F. Keith and Edward F. Albee kept an effective hammerlock on the profits. Those who bucked the system found themselves blackballed, and all attempts at unionization were promptly crushed. Entertainment was big business even then.
Yet Snyder’s portrayal of the bygone vaudeville era is largely a fond one. The immediate quality of the performances has rarely been equaled. “You lived by the reaction of the audience,” George Jessel recalled. And in its own sneaky way vaudeville eased along the nation’s transition from the proprieties of the Victorian era to the more unbuttoned culture of the twentieth century. Prominent citizens and common folk enjoying en masse a stage show featuring everything from jaunty ragtime strolls to slapstick comic blackouts would have been unthinkable in the mid-1800s. But in the half-century between vaudeville’s birth and its supersession by radio and movies in the 1930s, it was the thing to do.