QUESTION: From which phrase did the word 'vaudeville' emerge?
A) voix de ville (French for 'City of Voice')
B) Voix de Vire (the name of a song written by Oliver Basselin)
C) Vau de Vire (a river valley in France known for bawdy entertainment)
D) A loose translation of the word 'variety' in French
The American Treasure Tour blog explores the backgrounds of items in the collections. You don't have to look back far to see that we celebrate the actors and actresses from the Silent Film era. Their images are prominent in our Music Room, and we want to help preserve their legacy. Many of them performed before the invention of modern cinema (thank you Thomas Edison and your invention factory!). In fact, many of the earliest film actors began on vaudeville - including Buster Keaton, the Marx Brothers, and the Three Stooges. So we've decided to dedicate today's blog to vaudeville itself.
There has always been a need for distraction for the working people of the world. Theater has existed in the United States since its time as a collection of colonies. Quaker Pennsylvania frowned on the arts, as did numerous other colonies, but it persisted. Comedies and dramas were most conventional. The first circus appeared shortly after independence from England with John Bill Ricketts' feats in a one-ring circus right next to the Pennsylvania State House (today's Independence Hall). Minstrel shows, dime shows with unusual acts, burlesques and other entertainers traveled around the country to cash in on the need for distraction by the common people. By the time of the Civil War, variety shows had developed that often incorporated bawdy and provocative performances.
The man accredited with creating the vaudeville genre of theater was New York City's Tony Pastor, who opened his own theater in 1881, the Fourteenth Street Theater. Intended for a more gentile audience, he advertised family friendly shows rich with comedy, music and stunts. It worked, and imitators took it all to the next level when vaudeville expanded initially into New England, notably by a man named B.F. Keith, and then to the rest of the country. Keith's self-censorship verged on comical when he forbade the use of such controversial phrases as 'slob,' 'son of a gun,' and 'hully gee' by his performers, the penalty for disobeying being forbidden from ever returning to one of his venues. Sorry, we hope we didn't offend you.
The vaudeville circuit spanned the United States by the turn of the twentieth century, with some theaters going so far as to cater to specific groups - there were Yiddish-speaking performances, ones open only to African-American audiences, and ones to which families might be discouraged. They were very popular, though, even after the advent of motion pictures. Short films would be added as breaks between live performances. But, ultimately, film did cause the demise of vaudeville, while many of its most talented performers defected to the new medium, including many of the men and women we talk about here.
ANSWER: All of the above. Yes, this was a cheap shot. No one really knows for sure where it came from.