For reasons that may ultimately defy analysis, the biggest stars in vaudeville — and consequently, the highest paid ones — were the female singing singles, or singing comediennes. In the early 20th century, female vaudeville stars were the richest independent women in the country. Vaudeville deserves a special shout-out for that.
Ironically, though they were without power politically during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, women were looked upon as a sort of human ideal, one step down from angels, several steps up from men, who (as was even then already being acknowledged at least by religious authorities) cause 95% of the misery in this world. I have to say I concur completely with this outlook. (Although I also identify fully with the heroine in this new play A Doll’s House by this fellow “Ibsen“).
At any rate, this idealization of women I think fed into their being the biggest stage stars. They sang, they danced, they were funny, they could do impressions. Women in the audience could relate to them and men could look at them. That’s 100% of your audience right there. (Interestingly, I was told recently that Hollywood has now flipped it. They make action movies because men like them and women will bite the bullet and go to them, whereas the reverse is not true of movies with female heroes. Like I said, men cause 95% of the misery!)
Joe Laurie, Jr., the Homer of Vaudeville, in his book called (oddly enough) Vaudeville, listed what he called the Golden Dozen of female singing singles: Maggie Cline, Bonnie Thornton, Lillian Russell, Eva Tanguay, Nora Bayes, Vesta Victoria, Alice Lloyd, Irene Franklin, Florence Moore, Helen Morgan, Fanny Brice, and Irene Bordoni. What his rationale is for choosing this bunch I dunno, because there are plenty of gals on his list of runners-up I’d sooner include: Sophie Tucker, Mae West, Kate Smith, Bea Lillie, Fritzi Scheff, Ethel Merman, Ethel Waters, Trixie Friganza, Louise Dresser, Ruth Etting, etc etc etc. And I’d certainly want to include Blossom Seeley. And these are of course just the tip of the iceberg.
Now, mind, these are just the singing singles. There were females foremost among just about every vaudeville discipline: acrobats, dancers, magicians, musicians etc etc etc: you’ll encounter them all if you browse their section of Travalanche. And click on links above for biographries of those specific performers.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.