Putting It Over: Vaudeville and Variety in American History

Endorsed by the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE) and the Business History Conference (BHC)

Friday, April 16, 2021, 6:15 PM - 6:45 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Business and Economy; Popular Culture; Visual and Performing Arts


Cheap, widely-accessible, and locally-focused, Vaudeville became the people’s entertainment, a self-consciously democratic institution, supposedly offering equal access to anyone who could afford a ticket. In doing so, it reflected both the promises and flaws of turn-of-the-century American politics. Immersed in blackface songs and acts, and with most theaters racially segregated, Vaudeville also provided a platform for many of the nation’s top African-American performers, giving them huge paydays and widespread exposure. Offering generations of immigrants direct access to the heart of American culture, Vaudeville houses intentionally adopted a reformist, middle-class discipline, pushing both audiences and performers towards conformity with racially- and religiously-charged ideals of respectability.

Papers Presented

Before the “Big Time”: Triumph and Tragedy in 1920s Black Vaudeville

In 1923, black pianist Sadie Goodson stumbled into a fortunate accident when the “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith, landed in Pensacola, Florida as the headliner of a T.O.B.A revue. After Smith’s personal pianist fell ill at the Belmont Theater, an adolescent Goodson at age “old enough to know how to play the blues” won an audition and the job of accompanist by playing Smith’s signature “Gulf Coast Blues.” Although Goodson trained to play sacred hymns like “Nearer My God to the Thee,” she was secretly just as eager to vamp to the lyrics “I’ve been blue all day, my man’s gone away/He has left his mama cold, for another gal I’m told” in “Gulf Coast Blues.” So commenced Goodson’s T.O.B.A. stint and the beginning of her tumultuous jazz pianist career. For Goodson, Cab Calloway, Hattie McDaniel, Peg Leg Bates, and many others, T.O.B.A. was a gateway to entertainment stardom. To live on the segregated “Toby Time” circuit could mean economic advancement and artistic training for entertainers who journeyed through to the big time of mainstream vaudeville, Broadway, or Hollywood. But it also meant that black entertainers endured glaring racial and gender discrimination or respectability politics woes for even daring to participate in the world of the 1920s traveling stage. This paper explores the complexities of black vaudevillian life as detailed in my work Living on Toby Time: Black Vaudeville and The Theater Owner’s Booking Association in Jazz Age America.

Presented By
Michelle R. Scott, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

What if It Is All Variety? Re-examining the History of Vofaudeville.

The history of American vaudeville is considered to have followed a linear development, with variety being superseded by vaudeville before the end of the nineteenth century. In older versions of this history, B. F. Keith claimed to have invented vaudeville, while Tony Pastor was seen as an important reformer in variety entertainment. While B. F. Keith's claims to have invented vaudeville are no longer accepted at face value, the historical narrative still relies heavily on materials from the Keith-Albee organization, especially in documenting developments during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. But, in this same period, Tony Pastor continued to manage his variety hall in New York City, and he clung to the term variety until he retired from performance. Many of the elements we now associate with vaudeville were already present in "high-class" variety in the 1870s. Tony Pastor had found ways to integrate women into his audience by the end of the 1860s. Other managers had implemented cooperative booking practices in order to bring entertainment to remote parts of the United States. I will suggest a less linear approach to the history of variety that views it as an expanding and fracturing form that came to encompass much of the musical theater world by the end of the nineteenth century. This shift in view gives vaudeville a richer context, and also allow us to better understand the myriad popular entertainments represented in the theatrical columns of daily newspapers from the 1880s into the early twentieth century.

Presented By
Gillian M. Rodger, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

“We Sell Them Accumulated Information”: Vaudeville Booking and the Transformation of American Entertainment

During the late 19th century, Vaudeville underwent a massive expansion, as entrepreneurs such as B.F. Keith, Martin Beck, and F.F. Proctor helped bring the once-marginalized form into the center of American entertainment. Control over booking was the key to these efforts. Able to connect tens of thousands of mobile performers with hundreds of theaters scattered across a continent, New York-based booking and talent agencies were central to Vaudeville’s continued growth. Operated by the nation’s principle theatrical firms, these agencies allowed a handful of powerful owners to exert near-total control over both performers and managers. Designed by theatrical monopolists for the purpose of reducing wages and quashing opposition, the structure of Vaudeville’s booking agencies also exerted a profound influence on the genre’s evolution. Rationalized bureaucracies that gathered and analyzed information about artists, managers, and audiences, booking offices attempted to transform highly-individualized acts into interchangeable commodities that could be bought, sold, or traded. Managers relied on the internal marketplace developed by these agencies to price and distribute performance culture, creating a remarkable mechanism capable of mediating between local tastes and industry control. Iterated over decades, these dynamics helped to create a new type of “mainstream” entertainment in cities and towns across the United States. Using newspaper accounts, promotional pamphlets, business correspondence, financial records, and congressional testimony, this paper reconstructs this process, exploring how the business practices that defined Vaudeville’s booking agencies shaped the creation of a profoundly influential type of artistic commodity.

Presented By
Samuel Backer, Johns Hopkins University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Marlis E. Schweitzer, Theatre and performance history, material culture, fashion history
Marlis Schweitzer is Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at York University. She is the author of When Broadway Was the Runway: Theater, Fashion, and American Culture (2009) and Transatlantic Broadway: The Infrastructural Politics of Global Performance (2015). She is co-editor of Performance Studies in Canada (with Laura Levin) and Performing Objects and Theatrical Things (with Joanne Zerdy). Marlis is currently the Editor of Theatre Survey.

Presenter: Samuel Backer, Johns Hopkins University
Samuel Backer is PhD candidate in History at Johns Hopkins University. His scholarship examines the interactions between culture, art, and capitalism during the long nineteenth century. His dissertation traces the development of the entertainment industry in the late 19th century United States, exploring how the the leading firms of Vaudeville, and Tin Pan Alley lay the foundation for American mass culture. He is also currently at work on a project exploring the evolving meanings of blackface minstrelsy during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age. A Peabody Award-winning podcast producer with Afropop Worldwide, he is the co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Digital history Workshop, where he focuses on the theoretical and pedagogical potential of the digital humanities.

Presenter: Gillian M. Rodger, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Gillian M. Rodger is Professor of Musicology and Ethnomusicology at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her book Champagne Charlie and Pretty Jemima: Variety Theater in the Nineteenth Century (University of Illinois Press, 2010) examined the emergence of variety as an independent form, tracing its development from saloon entertainments to the 1880s. It shows the economic and historical forces that shape this entertainment form, while also examining the kinds of acts that appeared on the stage; these acts reflect the composition of the variety audience. Rodger's second book, Just One of the Boys: Female-to-Male Cross-Dressing on the American Variety Stage (University of Chicago Press, 2018), shows the shifting class affiliation of the variety audience through the acts of male impersonators active in variety between the late-1860s, and the first decades of the twentieth century. Rodger has also published work on theater law, moral reform, and other aspects of variety entertainment, and she has a small body of work on the 1980s synthpop group, Eurythmics and performance strategies employed by its lead singer, Annie Lennox.

Presenter: Michelle R. Scott, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Dr. Michelle R. Scott is an Associate Professor of History, Africana Studies, and Gender, Women’s
& Sexuality Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). Her research and
teaching interests include 20th-century American history, African American history, women’s
history, black musical culture, and social justice movements. Professor Scott is the recipient of
several awards including a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation Career Enhancement
Fellowship, an MHEC Henry C. Welcome Grant, and a Smithsonian Institution Senior Fellowship.
Interviewed for the website material for HBO’s Bessie, Professor Scott's book, Blues Empress in Black
Chattanooga: Bessie Smith and the Emerging Urban South was published by the University of Illinois Press.
She has presented in several national and international forums and recently completed a study on a
pivotal black vaudeville theater circuit in the 1920s and 30s.