the early 1880s to the end of the 1920s vaudeville was the
most popular form of live entertainment in the United States.
A vaudeville show was a succession of seven to ten live stage
acts, the "bill," which built to a climax with the performance
of its top star, the "headliner." A vaudeville bill always
included comedians and musicians, but might have included
dancers, acrobats, trained animals, magicians, and novelty
performers as well. Its form and content had been shaped by
a wide range of 19th century diversions, including
minstrel shows, the circus, medicine shows, traveling repertoire
companies, curio museums, wild west shows, chautauquas, and
British Music Hall.
The growth of vaudeville
in the late 19th century reflected the rise of
urbanization and industrialization in America. Vaudeville's
audiences, as well as many of its stars, were drawn from the
newly immigrated working classes. Just as goods in the late
19th century could be manufactured in a central
location and shipped throughout the country, successful vaudeville
routines and tours were first established in New York and
other large cities and would then be booked on a tour lasting
for months. The act would change little as it was performed
throughout the United States. In this sense, vaudeville was
a precursor of mass media -- a means of creating and sharing
a national culture. While its popularity declined after the
1920s, vaudeville's influence on most popular entertainment
forms of the 20th century -- musical comedy, motion
pictures, music, radio, television -- was pervasive.
Houdini at the Orpheum Poster.