In the last half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, vaudeville ruled American and Canadian stages. Vaudeville performances usually consisted of a variety of different, unrelated acts grouped together on one bill. Typically, this included comedians, musicians, dancers, magicians, actors, acrobats, and, in the more risqué houses, burlesque. Vaudeville was an extension of the travelling medicine shows, sideshows, circuses, burlesque shows and dime museums that had entertained working class audiences around the country in the early half of the 19th century. It basically took the crowd-pleasing elements of these travelling shows and combined them under one roof while, in most cases, toning down the bawdy material, in an attempt to draw in middle class audiences of all ages.
Ironically, despite the attempt to tone down more risqué material, it was in vaudeville that we first started to see America’s fascination with the female form. Many historians believe that it was during the early days of vaudeville that the female body became a “sexual spectacle” in itself. For the first time in American culture the sexualized female form began to permeate popular culture: in the shops, the restaurants, the grocery store and in the newspaper. And as the image of the sexualized female form became more popular with the general public, vaudeville producers began including more female acts where the women would wear revealing attire and tight gowns. Even an innocent sister act would sell better than a comparable male act and many female vaudeville performers were then encouraged to focus less on talent and more on their figure. Eventually, audiences would be surprised when a female possessed actual talent in addition to being good looking.
Eventually, movies would kill vaudeville show. Vaudeville’s prime venue, New York City’s Palace Theater became a movie theater in November of 1932, and many consider this to be the death knell of vaudeville as a whole. Many of Hollywood’s early stars like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, WC Fields and Mae West, were able to use their vaudeville notoriety to catapult their movie careers but by the late 20s it was apparent that vaudeville was on the way out.
However, flash forward 80 years and even just a minor perusal of the Brown Paper Tickets website or your local alt weekly calendar will show you that vaudeville is coming back. Variety shows have been gaining popularity once again but, this time, they often don’t bother to be too family friendly and focus more on the bawdy elements that earlier vaudeville tried so hard to rid itself of. The rise of burlesque and the public’s renewed interest in circus arts are largely responsible for this and today’s vaudeville probably weigh in heavier on burlesque performances than tap dancing and one-man-bands. That said, classic vaudeville entertainment is starting to catch on too. Just check out AMC’s newest reality series Showville. If this isn’t modern-day vaudeville, I don’t know what is!
I’ve compiled a list of some modern-day vaudeville or vaudeville-inspired shows that we’re ticketing. This is a chance to see what it was like for your great-grandparents to go out for a night on the town. Although, I’m betting today’s vaudeville shows are much different than what they saw back in their day. Then again, maybe not. Decide for yourself.
New York, New York
Wednesday, May 29 I Show Business! Glasses Manelli and Liberace Stevens have been in show business for years — literally, years! They’ve been on every casting couch imaginable, have sung everything from vaudeville to Vanilla Ice, and have more famous friends than they can fit in their Rolodex. Come watch them sing and dance together, perform with old friends and rehash memories from the Golden Days of show business.
Thursday, May 30 I Speakeasy Moderne: Cabaret Playing STAGE 72 each month and hosted by “Official Hank” Stampfl, it’s an unforgettable evening featuring an intoxicating blend of Jazz Age Manhattan, vaudeville, cabaret and a touch of burlesque. With songs from the Tin Pan Alley era to the Golden Age of Broadway to today’s pop charts and performances from special guest singers, dancers and burlesque stars, the show puts a modern twist on the illicit speakeasy, where high brow and low brow entertainers and audiences mingle, indulging in drink, song and dance.
Saturday, June 29 I BAWDY! New York’s BIGGEST Little Vaudeville Jesse Luttrell’s WILDLY successful BAWDY runs the LAST SATURDAY of EVERY month and brings together cabaret, drag, and comedy performers of all classifications and orders in a tasteful celebration of adult variety paying homage to vaudeville, burlesque, and the hit television variety shows of the 50’s and 60’s.
Friday, May 31 to Sunday, June 2 I Virginia Burlesque and Sideshow Festival The all-new Virginia Burlesque & Sideshow Festival was created for a two-fold purpose: to offer a fresh way for the public to come to learn to love and show support for the Revival of Vaudeville Arts: Burlesque, Sideshow, and Circus; and to offer driven, motivated artists in these vibrant fields a positive environment in which to network, learn, and expand the bounds of Empowered Creativity.
Friday, June 7 I Mia Malone- Jennings presents : Dr. Farrago’s Burlesque Theater Guest Performers for Dr. Farrago’s upcoming show at Ground Zero Nightclub include: Pouty Petals, Floorplay, Head Over Heels, Barbara Gordon and the legendary Jean Bardot. Farrago’s In-House Cast includes: Jonathon Bryce, Mia Malone, Nikki Malone, Holly Zigfield, Holly Dazzle, Sarah Holliday, Opiumm Haze, Luna Rouge, Fox Smoulder, Adrian Chip and Barney Dale.
Saturday, June 8 I Carnivale Revolver’s Varie-Tease Extravaganza! Just an hour’s drive from Minneapolis in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Carnivale Revolver presents an all new VARIE-TEASE show! Come on out to the only show in St. Cloud where you’ll get to see over 18 different acts in one show including burlesque dancers, cabaret singers, sideshow acts, and more surprises you’ll have to see to believe! Step right up folks! Come one, Come all!
St. Louis, Missouri
Saturday, June 8 to Sunday, June 16 I “The Cherry Sisters Revisited” by Dan O’Brien Based on the true story of The Cherry Sisters – a vaudeville act that gained fame and notoriety for being…awful. Why are the audition portions of American Idol the most watched? What does it say about our society that we are entertained by others’ failures? And if you reached the height of your profession only to realize that you were only there as a joke – would you stay? Starring: Mollie Amburgey, Nicole Angeli, Ellie Schwetye, Rachel Tibbetts, Beth Wickenhauser and B. Weller.
Wednesday, June 12 I Vaudeville Roars! Vaudeville Roars: a modern-day variety show! This performance cabaret, presented in collaboration with Voice of the City, displays nine five-minute long performances in three acts. Featuring original dance, theater, music, spoken word, and circus acts.
Thursday, June 6 I Kabarette with a K! Historical Acts Kabarette with a K! is going vintage! Imagine seeing Groucho Marx, Gypsy Rose Lee, the Amazing Vulcana, Judy Garland, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, and singing cowboys & girls all on one stage. Basically, a tribute to the full century of amazing performance art that grew up in the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s. Expect Kabarette with a K!’s unique combination of circus, freak & geek show, music, burlesque, dance, theater, performance art and more. In true Kabarette with a K! style, they’ll be starting out much more modern with a free community fire spin and street performance jam outside. The still evolving line-up currently includes: Host Blake Midgette – a “Funniest Person in Austin” finalist, Mama Lou- American strong woman, burlesque dancers Fifi Switchblade and Chola Magnolia, Eric Odditorium- sword swallower, Jessica Ryan- original vaudeville character acts and Marisa Pisano Peterson – Lyra.
Main image and some historical information courtesy of Wikipedia.