From the late 1800’s to the mid 1920’s, vaudeville and the Orpheum circuit were early examples of entertainment for all of America wherever they were—from Portland, Oregon to Boston, Massachusetts. Featuring all types of act from contortionists to musicians, celebrities to balancing acts, vaudeville was the best and worst of American theatrics and was a homogenizing force that brought upper and lower classes together like never before.
Unlike its performing arts relative burlesque, where women wore sequins and feathers and often little else, vaudeville could be any kind of act, as long as it was family friendly. Surprisingly popular acts included acrobats, ice skaters and regurgitators. Regurgitators, including the most famous of them all, Hadji Ali, would swallow enough liquid to spew kerosene onto open flames and then enough water to put out the fire he had swelled.
Other surprising people who made vaudeville appearances included Helen Keller, Babe Ruth and Will Rogers, who performed rope tricks onstage. In addition, as is to be expected, vaudeville made way for its offspring, the musical, by giving room to singers and dancers on every vaudeville bill.
Besides being entertainment for all types of people, vaudeville performers could come from all races, religions and ethnicities. There were Jewish vaudeville acts and black performers, comedians who had been window washers in another life and recent immigrants.
At the height of its popularity in the early 1900’s through the 1920’s and because of its widespread appeal, it’s no surprise that vaudeville, its performers and the owners of its performance spaces were raking in the dough. Variety magazine reported that vaudeville was earning over $30 million dollars a year.
By 1919, even small-time performers who performed on the vaudeville circuit forty-two weeks out of the year were making $75 a week, or $3,150. Compare that to the average factory worker who made less than $1,300 and it’s no wonder that every Tom, Dick and Harry with a little talent tried to make it to the big time.
Major chains of vaudeville circuit theaters were built by Sullivan and Consodine, Alexander Pantages and Marcus Loew, but the largest chain by far was handled the hardened businessmen Benjamin Keith and Edward Albee. The businessmen incorporated and managed the Orpheum circuit, an 1880’s-constucted chain of theaters, which stretched form the east to the west coast. Modeled after opera houses in Europe, the opulent houses featured gold leaf paneling, high ceilings and interesting moldings. At their completion, the Orpheum circuit had 45 houses in 36 cities throughout the country.
Keith & Albee had a virtual monopoly over vaudeville houses by 1907. They crushed a performers’ union called The White Rats by creating their own fake union, the National Vaudeville Artists and refused to book anyone who didn’t join their union. They became radically puritanical about the cleanliness of the acts in their show, as well, and verbally and sometimes physically threatened any small-time performers who didn’t comply with their rules.
Deadened by the Great Depression and the invention of the talking motion picture, vaudeville lost much of its audience and appeal in the 1930’s. However, the legacy of the Orpheum theater remains. Many of these opulent theaters are still in cities across the country, including Vancouver B.C., Omaha, NE, Madison, WI and Minneapolis—and have been refurbished and protected for years of viewers of whatever type of live entertainment comes next.
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