The history of vaudeville proves that the performance style is a huge link in the chain between Shakespeare and Hollywood. Before radio, television or the movies, audiences gathered together in theatres to be entertained by singers, dancers and comedy acts, the likes of which had never before been seen. Although the word vaudeville comes from the French, referring to the valleys in France where entertainers would perform, the theatrical approach really is all-American.
After the Civil War, the idea of entertainment began to take on a new definition in the US. Theater had existed for many years, but it wasn't necessarily reaching mass audiences. Vaudeville was a business initiative designed to bridge that gap. With a prosperous economy, many businessmen began incorporating theatres across the country. With these growing entertainment enterprises, there came a need for a variety of entertainment and a way to make sure large numbers of theatres had ongoing acts booked for audiences. Vaudeville grew out of a collaboration of theatre, circus acts, medicine shows and burlesque acts from the saloons across the country. Vaudeville became a unique collaboration of all of these types of entertainment, striving to provide something for the entire family.
In the early days, vaudeville was quite racy and raunchy. As it became clear the country wanted a family-friendly form of entertainment, Tony Pastor stepped out to eliminate the controversial acts and then opened the first vaudeville theatre in New York City in the mid-1800s. By the turn of the century, vaudeville had become the most popular form of variety entertainment around, bringing in more than $30 million a year. Stars came from every nationality and social class, with male and female stars alike. Vaudeville was a beloved form of entertainment that filled the bill of diversity.
By the mid-1920s, the height of vaudeville, there were over 20,000 acts across the country. Each day, more than two million people enjoyed the entertainment provided by the phenomenon known as vaudeville. The popularity continued to increase until about 1932, at which point many vaudeville performers were transitioning to the burgeoning industry of radio. With the onset of the Great Depression, radio allowed people to continue to enjoy their favorite performers even though their finances would have prevented them from continuing to take in the great performances of vaudeville. As radio and talking movies increased in popularity, the lights faded on the vaudeville stage.