From Traveling Show to Vaudeville
Theatrical Spectacle in America, 1830–1910
Publication Year: 2003
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Title Page, Copyright
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Compiling this anthology has been fun but also a protracted business. For many years I have taught courses on historical popular culture and, more recently, on show business. Finding movies and music for the modern period is a relatively simple task, but for the nineteenth century, I faced pedagogical difficulties not easily resolved. Many excellent monographs and periodical ...
INTRODUCTION: From Celebration to Show Business
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... and Hollywood’s moving picture overshadowed the Broadway stage, live performance dominated American popular entertainment. In the early republic there were public spectacles open to all—communal celebrations, folk festivals, firework displays on the Fourth of July, processions of militia companies, and street parades that usually ran to the rowdy and raucous.1 Later, ...
THE DIME MUSEUM
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... York’s Broadway and the Bowery, with ill-sorted collections of ‘‘curiosities,’’ none was more renowned than Barnum’s. From 1842 to 1868 Phineas Taylor Barnum’s American Museum was the best-known ‘‘Congress of Wonders,’’ an eclectic mix of enlightenment and entertainment to please both the many and the few. It was a minstrel hall and an art gallery, a repository of natural ...
Early Museum Shows
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Ethan Greenwood was a typical showman-entrepreneur of the early nineteenth century. In 1818 he abandoned a career in portrait painting. For the next twenty years, he owned and managed the New England Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts in Boston and two other museums in Portland and Providence. Much of his time was spent in purchasing items for the collections, ...
Selling and Seeing Curiosities
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Barnum’s American Museum faced strong competition from rivals in New York. By 1850 there were six theaters, four summer pleasure gardens, and more than sixty other amusement halls serving a population of nearly half a million. Part of Barnum’s strategy was to offer more of everything, instructive and amusing. In the 1840s he greatly enlarged Scudder’s rather shabby ...
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Gleason’s was one of the large-format, illustrated popular magazines. Its praise for the American Museum in 1853 showed how successful had been Barnum’s strategy of cultivating the middlebrow public. Jenny Lind and temperance drama in the Lecture Room helped his campaign. Fine-art transparencies of European cities, statues, and the innumerable cases of natural history framed ...
Dog Days of the Museum
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Within the one large cage, predator and prey coexisted harmoniously, ‘‘contentedly playing and frolicking together, without injury or discord.’’ 12 Puzzled visitors marveled that human agency could create the peaceable kingdom foretold in the Bible where natural enemies might lie side by side. Mark Twain was less than impressed by the condition of Barnum’s ...
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The city had already seen Barnum’s Tom Thumb and George Catlin’s Indian Gallery. Now the Times drew attention to the new ‘‘Ethiopian concert, by four Virginian minstrels, in which some of the original airs of the interior of Africa, modernized if not humanized in the slave states of the Union, and adapted to ears polite, have been introduced by the musical conductor of the theatre.’’ ...
Routines: Songs, Speeches, Dialogue, and Farce
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Billy Whitlock, one of the original Virginia Minstrels, composed the most popular minstrel song of the 1840s. Its combination of sentimentality, comic nonsense, and a simple, repetitive tune made it a success with amateur and professional performers. It was topical, with mention of the Cachucha, a fast-paced Spanish dance popularized by the European ballerina Fanny Ellsler ...
Commentary: Rise and Fall of ‘‘Slave’’ Creativity
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The New York Knickerbocker interpreted the popularity of minstrels in England as recognition of the New World’s potential for genuinely original cultural achievements. The best of America’s writers had composed in the English idiom, and distinguished as many were, their poetry was not ‘‘peculiarly of America.’’ Now, at last, here was an answer to the Rev. Sydney Smith’s jibe. ...
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Ralph Keeler was only twelve years old, orphaned and living with a relative in Detroit, when he witnessed minstrel song and dance. Constant practice and a natural talent for dance allowed him to escape being a newspaper seller and to enjoy a brief show business career with a series of small minstrel companies traveling on railroads and riverboats throughout the South and West in the ...
Musical Comedy: Harrigan’s Mulligan Guard
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Edward Harrigan was of distant Irish descent but grew up in New York’s Lower East Side in a proud, working-class, Irish American culture. His specialty in the theater was an Irish comic and blackface minstrel. In 1871 he teamed up with Tony Hart (Anthony J. Cannon) in a highly successful partnership which lasted thirteen years. Their main repertoire was comic sketches of urban life ...
Confessions of an African American Minstrel
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By the 1880s, African American performers were becoming prominent as singers, dancers and comedians in minstrelsy. In 1896, Bert Williams and George Walker blacked up as ‘‘The Two Real Coons.’’ Williams’s success in all-black musicals, notably In Dahomey (1903), and his song ‘‘Nobody’’ (1906), established his reputation and made him a well-paid star of the ...
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In early May 1866 a caravan traveled through Amherst, Massachusetts, and on to towns along the Connecticut Valley. For Dickinson the show of the show—not the performance, but the parade and the brass band—was a rare treat. To Dickinson in the quiet college town, the circus brought excitement to a humdrum ...
The Circus Debated
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Throughout the century, evangelical Christians condemned the circus as an insidious and pernicious amusement that sapped the virtue of the republic’s citizens. Insidious, because what appeared to be merely a novel display of skill enticed, excited, and deluded the innocent; pernicious, because it ensnared the young, the most vulnerable, into a thoughtless love of pleasure that led to ...
The Early Circus
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On May 28, 1835, Nathaniel Hawthorne noted his impressions of the circus performance he had seen in Salem and used it as the basis for his brief essay in the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge in April 1836. Perhaps the accent on tradition gave the skills greater legitimacy. ...
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William Cameron Coup was the managerial genius of the modern circus. After joining the circus in Indiana as a teenager, he supervised sideshows in the south and midwest for more than twenty years before joining Barnum and Dan Castello. ‘‘P. T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie and Circus, International Zoological Garden, Polytechnic Institute and Hippodrome’’ was ...
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Hamlin Garland grew up in many different communities in the Midwest. For those engaged in the hard, unrelenting toil and lonely misery of farm life, the traveling circus offered hope and escape. In late middle age Garland remembered the appeal of the annual visit of the horse-drawn caravans as the canvas ‘‘mushrooms’’ suddenly appeared in June in ‘‘Sun Prairie.’’ ...
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... sensational drama offers life-enhancing make-believe as well as pleasing fantasy and forgetfulness. The evening’s entertainment allows the poor seamstress to forget her drunken mother and the squalid tenement apartment in Rum Alley, and the day spent sewing cuffs and collars in the garment factory. Everyone in the cheap Bowery variety saloon responds ...
A Plea for an American Drama
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The novelist James Kirke Paulding was one of the most passionate advocates for a drama celebrating American nationality. He was stung by the jibes of British commentators like the Rev. Sydney Smith that the new republic lacked cultural achievement of note, and wrote the satirical Diverting History of John Bull and Brother Jonathan (1812). Others looked to literature, but ...
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Charlotte Cushman became the leading tragic actress of her day. As a beginning professional, she wrote a short story for fashionable Godey’s Lady’s Book magazine in 1837. In chapter 1, the innocent Leoline learns of her father’s fate and her brother’s unwillingness to assist mother and sister; as her mother tells her, this is ‘‘but one page in the volume of earthly selfishness, now spread ...
Classic Melodrama’s Audiences
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During a fortnight in Boston in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne went to William Pelby’s National Theatre on the evening of May 7. The National, situated in the working-class North End, offered the same kind of dramatic spectacles and melodrama as New York’s Bowery theaters. As usual, Hawthorne made a detailed pen-portrait in his notebook. ...
The Ten-Twenty-Thirty Melodramas
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A tragedy hero is a milk-sop, unless he rescues some forlorn maiden from an impregnable castle, carries her down a forty-foot ladder in his arms, holds her with one hand, while with the other he annihilates a score or so of pursuers, by picking up one by the heels, and with him knocking out the brains of all the rest, then springs upon his horse, leaps him over a precipice, rushes him up a mountain, and finally makes his escape with ...
‘‘LEG SHOW’’ BURLESQUE EXTRAVAGANZAS
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Folly, a low-comedy Brooklyn theater that Rollin Lynde Hartt attended at the turn of the century. For the price of twenty cents, in the company of men he described as a ‘‘herd’’ of petty criminals, he watched the dancers, billed as ‘‘a bevy of bouncing, bewitching, bewildering blondes’’ but sadly depleted in number and long past their prime, appear as soldiers, sailors, gondoliers, ...
The Black Crook
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The origins of The Black Crook lay in a speculative theatrical venture. Two New York entrepreneurs, Henry C. Jarrett, a young and ambitious producer, and his business partner Henry Palmer, believed that a big-budget musical show would be highly successful. They planned a visual feast of female dancers in a multi-media production with the most modern special effects. ...
A Burlesque of Burlesque
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The Black Crook’s triumph invited copycat productions and parodies. In the winter season of 1866–67, George Fox enlivened the traditional English pantomime Humpty Dumpty by adding original and playful flourishes that pleased the eye, most notably a roller-skating ballet. There were also many one-act burlesques. The Black Crook, Jr. competed with The Black Rook, ...
Reactions to the Controversy
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Writing sixty years later, Mabel Osgood Wright remembered fondly the elite circles in which her father Samuel Osgood moved as a prominent Unitarian minister to a wealthy congregation. ‘‘Better New York’’ remained loyal to opera and the theater throughout the Civil War, and the leading opera singers performed at private parties. ‘‘It was by way of the theatre, or the drama, as ...
The Popular-Price Circuit
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By the turn of the century the cheap variety halls had abandoned any pretence at satire. In a Brooklyn theater the journalist Arthur Ruhl found a ‘‘roughhouse’’ musical comedy, a poor man’s Harrigan and Hart, knock-about ethnic caricature which featured the ‘‘Beef Trust Beauties,’’ everyone weighing about two hundred pounds. It was traditional: the Beauties’ boxing ballad, ‘‘Throw ...
THE WILD WEST SHOW
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... nineteenth century, the United States had ‘‘free land’’ to acquire immediately adjacent to its settled border. England and France annexed huge areas overseas in Africa and Asia; America found its ‘‘empire’’ beyond the Atlantic’s hinterland, and moved rapidly to the Mississippi, the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific. Europeans brought home ‘‘tribesmen,’’ ‘‘natives,’’ and ‘‘jungle’’ ...
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One possible influence on Cody’s Wild West was the exhibition of Plains Indians which P. T. Barnum arranged for his ‘‘Congress of Nations’’ in his New York Roman Hippodrome arena in late 1874. Barnum had displayed several small groups of Indians in the museum Lecture Room as early as 1843, and published Life and Adventures of the Indian Chiefs, Warriors and Squaws, ...
Extracts from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Programs
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The first Wild West program of 1883 drew attention to the exhibitions of shooting and the variety of exotic equestrian acts assembled. The Wild West, Cody and Carver’s Rocky Mountain and Prairie Exhibition, with the famed Scout and Indian Fighter, Buffalo Bill (Hon. W. F. Cody) and Dr. W. F. Carver, King of riflemen, and acknowledged champion marksman of the world, will soon appear in this ...
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Hundreds of medicine-show ‘‘Indians,’’ accompanied by a few white ‘‘Indian fighters,’’ visited small towns in the late nineteenth century, dispensing cure-alls flavored with free entertainment. The troupes most imitated were the ‘‘encampments’’ of the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company, founded by John Healy and Charles Bigelow in 1881. In the open air, in tents, or in town ...
SUMMER AMUSEMENT PARKS
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... metropolitan city populations doubled in a generation, the psychological, social, and physical costs of congestion became apparent. Greater New York was the extreme case; its population increased twofold between 1850 and 1870, and again by 1900, reaching a total of more than four and three-quarter million by 1910. Urbanism seemed a mixed blessing. The great city was ...
Journalists and the ‘‘New’’ Coney
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Journalist Julian Ralph went to Coney Island during the heyday of the grand hotels: the Manhattan Beach, the Brighton Beach, and the Oriental. Coney was already, he announced in 1896, ‘‘the pioneer with modern improvements ...
Showmen and the ‘‘Amusement Business’’
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Journalists from the popular monthly magazines of the Progressive era used the new language of sociology and psychology to explain the appeal of the ‘‘new’’ Coney Island. ‘‘It is blatant, it is cheap, it is the apotheosis of the ridiculous,’’ wrote one.9 It was successful, he noted, precisely because of its range of options—because it offered so many different opportunities for ...
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Coney Island was one of the few avenues of temporary escape available for the urban poor. Of all the large cities, New York had the highest proportion of recent immigrants; by the 1880s, four-fifths of the population were first-and second-generation Americans. East European Jews were the most numerous of the newcomers in the thirty years before World War One. In Anzia ...
Two Critics of Coney’s Banality
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During his visit to the United States in 1906, the Russian socialist writer Maxim Gorky found Coney’s tawdry amusements depressing beyond measure. From a distance the island at night was dazzling—as ‘‘a fantastic city all of fire,’’ with ‘‘shapely towers of miraculous castles, palaces and temples,’’ linked by necklaces of light bulbs. However, by day, once the glare of artificial ...
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... European musical hall, its essence was variety. It offered a fast-paced program of music, comedy, and drama, embellished with specialty and novelty acts of human skill and ingenuity, where the diverse acts seemed blended together into a package. Its virtues, Cosmopolitan noted in 1902, were ‘‘clean humor, nimbleness of action or fascinating originality.’’1 Under its broad umbrella ...
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In its first issue of October 1905, the Midway, the monthly periodical serving amusement park professionals, commented on vaudeville’s ranking in the entertainment industry. It was ‘‘the acme of variegated theatrical entertainment,’’ combining the best traditions of the popular theater with the latest technological innovations, and the model of good business sense for all ...
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Benjamin Franklin Keith modernized variety theater. In 1883 he opened the storefront New York Dime Museum in a prime location on Washington Street in Boston’s central business district. The improvised stage upstairs proved more attractive to downtown office workers and shoppers than the human oddities, and Keith found that abridged and burlesqued versions of Gilbert ...
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In his 1915 manual, Brett Page singled out Aaron Hoffman as unusually talented, and pronounced one of his vaudeville sketches ‘‘perhaps the best example of the pure monologue ever written.’’ Hoffman’s ‘‘The Horse Doctor’’ was a classic slapstick farce of mistaken identities, timed to fit a fifteen-minute spot in the program, and one of dozens that he wrote. In the early ...
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Page Count: 400
Illustrations: 19 halftones
Publication Year: 2003