Rise of Burlesque and Vaudeville

The development of rail and water transportation, corporate management, and a star system combined to allow burlesque and vaudeville to emerge as the most important early forms of mass entertainment, setting the pattern that other American entertainment industries would follow.

Summary of Event

Variety entertainment and burlesque flourished almost everywhere throughout the United States during the early nineteenth century. Variety acts might include singers, comedians, acrobats, or trained animals. Burlesque was not yet associated with female bodies. Instead, a burlesque was a playlet ridiculing some serious drama. If William Shakespeare’s Macbeth
Macbeth (Shakespeare)
Shakespeare, William
[p]Shakespeare, William;in nineteenth century theater[Nineteenth century theater] (pr. 1606) was playing in a serious theater, a mock version might be shown on the same street. Variety acts appeared in concert saloons that offered rowdy entertainment for men. Museums, such as the American Museum opened by showman P. T. Barnum, P. T.
Museums;and P. T. Barnum[Barnum] Barnum in 1841, used variety acts to attract visitors bored with the museum’s permanent exhibits. Theater managers used variety acts to lengthen their programs in an effort to attract a diverse audience. This practice ended with the Astor Place New York City;Astor Place Riots
Astor Place Riots (1849) riots of May, 1849, which left twenty-two persons dead. The riots resulted when British actor William Charles Macready Macready, William Charles was ousted in his attempt to portray Macbeth by violent working-class adherents of American actor Edwin Forest. Vaudeville
[kw]Rise of Burlesque and Vaudeville (1850’s-1880’s)
[kw]Burlesque and Vaudeville, Rise of (1850’s-1880’s)
[kw]Vaudeville, Rise of Burlesque and (1850’s-1880’s)
[g]United States;1850’s-1880’s: Rise of Burlesque and Vaudeville[2700]
[c]Theater;1850’s-1880’s: Rise of Burlesque and Vaudeville[2700]
Pastor, Tony
Albee, Edward
Keith, Benjamin Franklin
Leavitt, Michael Bennett

Poster for a late nineteenth century vaudeville company.

(Library of Congress)

The riots ended temporarily efforts to attract diverse audiences to a single theater. Drama and opera were left to an educated elite. The rapidly growing middle and working classes were lured to variety theater, which became vaudeville when Tony Pastor Pastor, Tony opened his New Fourteenth Street Theater in New York New York City;theater on February 8, 1881. While Pastor separated his entertainment from elite forms, he drew a more respectable audience than did the concert saloons by eliminating alcohol, spitting, and swearing and otherwise controlling audience behavior. Pastor’s initial performance, however, was not variety but burlesque, a short play mocking the fashionable art of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.

Burlesque had been a standard part of minstrel shows Minstrel shows since about 1840. In minstrel shows, white performers acted in blackened faces as African Americans. Their humor, while unquestionably degrading to African Americans, allowed satire of the upper classes and their pretensions in ways that would have been unacceptable in mainstream theater. The minstrel shows were so popular that by 1868, when Lydia Thompson Thompson, Lydia and her English burlesque artists shocked New York with her burlesque Ixion: Or, The Man at the Wheel, even British burlesque had adopted the minstrel show formula. First came an ensemble piece with an interlocutor, followed by olio or variety acts, and, finally, burlesque comedy ridiculing some production of high art or culture.

While vaudeville and burlesque began in eastern cities, advances in railroad and water transportation made it possible for showmen to envision the entire country as a potential market. These advances also led to national publicity, essential for the creation of a star system. A vision of a national market had created steel, rail, and oil industries, as well as such chain stores as Kroger’s and J. C. Penney. Edward Franklin Albee Albee, Edward and Benjamin Franklin Keith Keith, Benjamin Franklin took a similar approach to vaudeville entertainment.

Meeting during the mid-1880’s, the two men shared a common vision of creating and exploiting a mass market by assembling a sufficient variety of acts to appeal to audiences of any type, anywhere. They built theaters that were massive and elegant, designed to give audiences the impression that, for a few hours, they lived in luxury. Their theaters were physically clean as well. At a time when “purity” and “cleanliness” sold merchandise of all types, Keith and Albee attested to the moral rectitude of their shows, but their set of regulations primarily governed performers’ language and behavior. Where the market would tolerate it, largely in urban centers where middle-class women were familiar with the sensational women’s novels of the period, the shows included lively female acts. The most notable of these was Eva Tanguay, the “I Don’t Care” girl, representative of an increasing subversion of Victorian sexual stereotypes.

At first, Keith and Albee’s circuit was only one of several competing circuits, but, by 1900, eastern and western vaudeville circuits were controlled by Keith and Albee working as the Association of Vaudeville Managers of the United States. The association collected a percentage of every performer’s salary; performers had to provide their own costumes, sets, casts, and materials. The 1906 creation of the United Booking Office of America gave Keith Keith, Benjamin Franklin and Albee Albee, Edward virtual control of vaudeville engagements. Attempts at unionization against their management failed, because, despite their controls, aspiring performers were eager to join the circuit. Primarily the children of poverty, performers found in vaudeville the promise of remarkable salaries and futures beyond the dreams of their immigrant parents. Keith and Albee could arrange better schedules than individual performers could negotiate by themselves and could provide steady work for the most successful among them.

Burlesque only briefly offered such a promise. Lydia Thompson’s Ixion was well received at first, when it opened at George Wood’s Museum and Menagerie, sponsored by Barnum. Censors Censorship;American
Censorship;and burlesque[Burlesque] soon attacked, however. In a day when the ideal woman of the middle and upper classes was gentle, modest, self-effacing, slim, and fully clothed, Thompson’s entertainers were large, self-dramatizing, and wore tights; they were heavyset, for heavier women were considered beauties by the undernourished poor. Would-be censors described the appearance of these women on stage as a step toward the collapse of society. Laura Keene Keene, Laura , who opened Seven Sisters in 1870, also shocked the public; women played both male and female parts.

With such productions, “burlesque” lost its original meaning and became associated with the display of female bodies. Michael Bennett Leavitt Leavitt, Michael Bennett , Polish immigrant and minstrel endman, is credited with organizing the first deliberate female burlesque. Minstrel shows no longer drew audiences, so Leavitt turned his minstrels into a female burlesque company. Women made up the chorus in the first part of the show, which was known as Mme Rentz’s Female Minstrel Show (1870).

The Rentz-Santley Novelty and Burlesque Show
Rentz-Santley Novelty and Burlesque Show[Rentz Santley Novelty and Burlesque Show] began a ten-year run in 1871, and, although stars Mabel Santley and May Howard showed no more than their ankles, their performances were considered immoral. Audiences were increasingly made up of men and some poorer women. As fashions in women’s dress changed and even respectable women revealed more flesh than in the past, burlesque itself changed. Attempts at “clean” burlesque generally failed. Burlesque became even less inhibited with the introduction of the “cooch” dance at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. This led to the introduction of belly dancing in burlesque and, as that fashion lost its power to shock, of the striptease. Burlesque was no longer a respectable form of entertainment. Neither was it socially subversive. Women such as Eva Tanguay, whose performances represented an increasing demand for empowerment by middle- and working-class women, were to be found in vaudeville. Apart from an occasional female comedian, burlesque women generally were silent, simply furnishing a physical spectacle for the pleasure of men.


Burlesque and vaudeville began to fail in the 1920’s. Especially after the Great Depression of 1929, audiences were drawn away to the newer and cheaper entertainment provided by films and, later, radio. Nonetheless, the effect of vaudeville and burlesque on later mass entertainment was enormous. Florenz Ziegfeld Ziegfeld, Florenz borrowed some aspects of burlesque for his fabulous Follies reviews, which began in 1907. His showgirls revealed their bodies, but he made these productions respectable by hiring innocent young girls who could at least pass as middle or upper class, providing them with expensive costumes, and ensuring that their performances were seductive, not subversive. In doing so, Ziegfeld pointed the direction for early musical films.

Ziegfeld and his competitors, such as George White White, George (Scandals) and Earl Carroll Carroll, Earl (Vanities), drew major performers from burlesque and vaudeville. Bert Williams, for example, stepped from the segregated African American vaudeville stage to stardom in Ziegfeld’s Follies. Many vaudeville performers went on to dominate films, radio, and television. These included Fanny Brice, Al Jolson, newspaper columnist Walter Winchell, Fred Astaire, Adele Astaire, the Marx Brothers, Eddie Cantor, stage star Ethel Merman, Red Skelton, Jimmy Durante, W. C. Fields, and Jackie Gleason. Ed Sullivan hosted and toured with vaudeville troupes before beginning his twenty-three-year career as a popular television variety show host, while Milton Berle, known as Mr. Television during the late 1940’s and 1950’s, began as a vaudeville comedian.

Further Reading

  • Allen, Robert C. Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Comprehensive discussion of both burlesque and vaudeville.
  • Cary, David. A Bit of Burlesque. San Diego, Calif.: Tecolote, 1997. Pamphlet offering basic facts and some illustrations.
  • Erdman, Andrew L. Blue Vaudeville: Sex, Morals, and the Mass Marketing of Amusement, 1895-1915. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2004. Discusses alleged self-censorship of vaudeville as part of its marketing campaigns.
  • Glenn, Susan A. Female Spectacle: The Theatrical Roots of Modern Feminism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Discusses early, self-dramatizing vaudeville and stage stars as marking changes in popular conceptions of womanhood, not simply as passive victims of oppressive management.
  • Snyder, Robert W. The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York. Reprint. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000. Offers a historical narrative paying particular attention to working-class performers who viewed vaudeville as a potential escape from poverty.

Professional Theaters Spread Throughout America

Hugo’s Hernani Incites Rioting

First Minstrel Shows

Barnum Creates the First Modern American Circus

Irving Manages London’s Lyceum Theatre

A Doll’s House Introduces Modern Realistic Drama

Chicago World’s Fair

First Commercial Projection of Motion Pictures

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