Vaudeville is a kind of composite form, mixing together elements of all previous and concurrent variety forms. But most consider the strongest candidate for vaudeville’s immediate ancestor to be the institution called simply “variety” that flourished in concert saloons starting in around the 1850s. Because it took place in saloons — surrounded by liquor, tobacco, gambling, crimes of various sorts, and “loose women”, the audience was necessarily almost exclusively male. It’s a scenario not too far afield from what you see in the saloon scene in your average western. Areas like New York’s Bowery and the Barbary Coast in San Francisco had the largest concentrations, but they were located all over the country.
Depending on the resources of the establishment the show could range from a single broken down honky-tonk piano player to a full-on production. The show would usually start with an opening chorus by the ladies in the company (whom, if the audience is lucky, might oblige them with a can-can) There would then follow 12-15 acts of a distinctively 19th-century sort: blackface minstrels,** jig dancers, banjo players, harmonizing quartets, acrobats, and so forth. Distinctive types of acts that have not survived the era include: the sand jig—something like tap dancing, but the dancer would pour sand on the floor and make shuffling and sliding noises; playing the bones, as in minstrelsy; the egg dance – wildly dancing around several eggs on the stage without breaking any; “tidy tearing”—rapidly ripping and folding pieces of paper into recognizable shapes; and (with the Civil War fresh in everyone’s minds) military acts, such as gun spinners, and drill companies.
The olio, or variety portion was generally followed by an afterpiece, a drama, or full-length sketch, frequently a parody of some other popular show, and improvised around a set framework as in commedia dell’arte.
In New York City, a series of laws began to clamp down on concert saloons in the 1860s and 1870s. Certain of the most successful operators (Tony Pastor, Koster & Bial, et al) began to look at ways to clean up their operations. The result of their efforts laid the foundations for the creation of vaudeville in the 1880s and 90s.
To learn more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever books are sold.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.