A Timeline of Vaudeville

10-1915

My friend is opening a play with a vaudeville setting in a couple of weeks. She asked me to make a little vaudeville timeline for her program, and it turned out to be a kind of fun, instructive exercise, and a possibly useful one, so I thought I would share it here:

TIMELINE OF VAUDEVILLE

1860s: M.B. Leavitt produces touring variety shows. He later claimed to have been the first to regularly apply the term “vaudeville” to American entertainment, although others claim that it was John W. Ransone 

1865: Tony Pastor, the “Godfather of Vaudeville” begins to manage his first Bowery variety saloon

1870: Koster & Bial open their first variety saloon

1880: F.F. Proctor opens his first theatre in Albany. By the end of the decade, he’ll have a circuit of 25

1881: Tony Pastor opens his famous vaudeville house at Tammany Hall

1883: B.F. Keith opens his first theatre in Boston

1885: Edward Albee begins to work for Keith; they produce the first continuous vaudeville

1886: The Orpheum Theatre opens in San Francisco

1889: Weber and Fields start their first touring vaudeville company

1893: Keith and Albee expand to Providence, Philadelphia and New York, starting their chain

1895: Oscar Hammerstein I opens the Olympia Theatre in what would become Times Square

1897: Sylvester Poli builds his New England circuit

1898: Oscar Hammerstein I opens the Victoria Theatre in Times Square

1899: Martin Beck starts working for Orpheum, expanding it into a major circuit

1901: The Vaudeville Managers Association, a cartel, is formed. The vaudeville performers union The White Rats go on strike. This is not a coincidence.

1901: Percy Williams opens his first theatre in Brooklyn

1904: Alexander Pantages opens his second Seattle Theatre, thus launching his chain

1904: Marcus Loew opens the People’s Vaudeville Company

1906: The United Box Office organization is formed, further consolidating the power of the managers. B.F. Keith merges with F.F. Proctor

1907: Shubert Vaudeville’s first ill-fated attempt at opposition

1912: Percy Williams sells his theatres to the cartel

1913: The Palace Theater opens in Times Square

1914: Victoria booker Willie Hammerstein dies, sealing the fate of that theatre. B.F. Keith dies the same year, leaving his chain in the hands of Albee

1915: The Birth of a Nation is a smash hit at the box office, boosting the popularity of feature-length films, the first of many ominous portents for the future of vaudeville

1916: The second ill-fated White Rats strike

1920: Shubert Vaudeville’s second ill-fated attempt at opposition

1921: Loew’s State opens in Times Square

1926: Network radio becomes a reality, further eating into vaudeville’s box office

1927: The Jazz Singer debuts. Hollywood begins to convert to sound, causing further damage to vaudeville

1928: Joseph P. Kennedy wrests control of Albee’s circuit away from him and converts it to a cinema chain, merging it into a new entity with his film studio FBO (Film Booking Offices of America), and playing them both under the auspices of RCA, also the parent company of radio network NBC. Initially called “Keith-Albee-Orpheum”, within months it becomes “Radio-Keith-Orpheum”, or RKO. 

1929: The stock market crash is catastrophic to live theatre

1932: The last two-a-day at the Palace, considered by many to be the symbolic death of vaudeville.

For more on vaudeville history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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