- Blue Vaudeville: Sex, Morals and the Mass Marketing of Amusement, 1895–1915
In Blue Vaudeville, Andrew Erdman explores the co-existence of sex and morality in vaudeville at the turn of the twentieth century, observing that criticism of vaudeville as "rife with vulgarity" coexisted with the notion that vaudeville was "wholesome" and "fit for the whole family" (2). A theatrical genre that hovered between the legitimate theatre and popular amusements, vaudeville competed for its audience with a wide array of urban amusements. Attempting to diversify the potential audience base, producers and managers put respectable European operatic singers designed to appeal to middle-class women on the same bills as double entendre–wielding comedians and suggestively clothed female performers intended to satisfy more traditional audience members: men seeking a glimpse of the female form and the kind of bawdy entertainment previously found in saloons and concert halls. While public outrage over immoral urban amusements grew and governmental involvement increased, vaudeville flourished thanks to the appeal of highly sexualized attractions such as Annette Kellerman and Eva Tanguay. Despite this, Erdman argues that vaudeville not only remained relatively untouched by censorship but that it also became the nation's first mass entertainment industry.
In order to unpack this seeming contradiction, Erdman begins by comparing the social standing and effects of censorship on vaudeville and the motion picture industry in his first chapter, "'Dressed in the Form of Art': The Censorship and Curtailment of Popular Entertainments." While vaudeville stages competed with other popular amusements for the increasing presence of sexualized material, they did not suffer the same degree of censorship as did the motion picture industry and even the legitimate theatre. To explain this, Erdman points to the ethnic backgrounds of the producers. Unlike the motion picture industry, which was run primarily by European-born Jewish immigrants, vaudeville producers were allied with, or at least were more familiar to, the Catholic and Protestant elite. Furthermore, Erdman situates vaudeville in relation to larger cultural trends toward censorship and governmental control of leisure-time amusements. He demonstrates how both pro- and anticensorship positions used heightened rhetoric to argue for high(er)-minded ideals. Reformers, religious leaders, and governmental officials tended toward demands for moral purity, while theatrical managers and directors argued for free-market determination under the banner of [End Page 380] national pride. In his next chapter, "'Clean, Great, and National': The Mass Marketing of Amusement," Erdman contends that the most successful vaudeville magnates deployed the rhetoric of moral and sexual purity and, by doing so, were largely responsible for vaudeville's avoidance of censorship and its nationwide success.
The evolution of vaudeville from a chaotic and unpredictable collection of local individual artists and managers to an industrially organized, financially motivated national conglomerate of businessmen is an oft-noted change. Erdman, however, links the advertising strategies of Edward Franklin Albee and Benjamin Franklin Keith to those used in the national mass marketing of products such as face cream, cigarettes, and Coca-Cola. Erdman argues that Albee and Keith responded to the growing threat of censorship by aggressively advertising moral purity and claims of cleanliness both in terms of the subject matter and the physical site of the theatre. Of course they still needed to fill the seats, and sexualized material continued to be the biggest draw, so in actuality the vaudeville stage was not nearly as clean as their rhetoric suggested. The insincerity of these purity claims is by no means an original observation, but Erdman's most significant contribution lies in his well-documented discussion of how the notion of vaudeville's moral purity was crafted. Drawing on an impressive and thorough array of secondary materials from cultural studies, histories of advertising, and theories of mass marketing to back up his claims, Erdman points to specific vaudeville advertising campaigns and contextualizes the rhetoric in relation to larger mass marketing trends of purity, cleanliness, and authenticity.
In the following chapters, "'Of Pleasing Face and Form': The Sexual and the Sensual" and "'Wild Woman': Eva Tanguay...