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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 349-351

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Book Review

The Voice of the City:
Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York

The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York.By Robert W. Snyder. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000; pp. xxvi + 220. $14.95.

Robert W. Snyder's book has been reprinted with a new preface from its first edition, originally published in 1989 by Oxford University Press. It joins (or more correctly, rejoins) the mass of literature on vaudeville in America, a subject of mystic attraction, that refuses to die in cultural memory. Snyder focuses on New York City, which cannot [End Page 349] accurately be said to be the birthplace of vaudeville, but was certainly in its day the leading purveyor of this form of popular entertainment for the rest of the country.

New York City saw the invention of the type of show assembled from bits and pieces of previous popular entertainments (concert saloons, minstrel shows, English music hall, entr'acte acts) that came to be known as vaudeville. Here its leading purveyor, Tony Pastor, a former clown and acrobat, born in the proverbial backstage trunk, succeeded in removing prurient material from its concert saloon ancestry, repackaging the parts to present wholesome and attractive bills to entice women and families into the theatre. In 1881, he put vaudeville on the entertainment map when he moved his shows from the Bowery to Fourteenth Street, close to the burgeoning theatre district.

In 1906 a vaudeville-theatre trust was also established in New York through the entrepreneurial talents of Benjamim F. Keith and Edward F. Albee, one that was almost a mirror image of the infamous theatrical Syndicate (born ten years earlier) to control vaudeville houses and performers throughout the east. In 1916, they joined hands with regional "circuits" to create a vast network of theatres from coast to coast all the while controlling the careers of talented performers who were in their stables.

The early rumblings of discontent among the vaudevillians, as a reaction against the Keith-Albee empire building, were to lead to attempts to create a protective union. Outflanked and outmaneuvered by the moguls, they had a choice of working with the managers or not eating. They were forced into an uneasy alliance with the trust, which formed the National Vaudeville Artists, a company union.

Snyder's thesis is that New York's vaudeville became a melting pot, a force for assimilation, in the most ethnically diverse city in the land. Through comic sketches and songs based on or mined for their humorous or sentimental idiosyncracies from the immigrant origins of its audience, vaudeville brought its audiences together on common ground, the stage of a theatre. He maintains that "vaudeville was created largely by people from immigrant and working-class backgrounds who supplied both its talent and audiences" (43). People could laugh or cry at the ethnic or national culture of their neighbors--at least for the duration of the show. Of course, caricatures and over-simplifications abounded, but it was all taken with good humor. Whether this camaraderie of the vaudeville audience reached beyond the exit doors of the theatres is vitiated somewhat by one of the author's concluding statements: "The conflicts between Jewish and Irish New Yorkers in the [nineteen] thirties and forties, and the city's racial tensions that endure to this day, all testify to the limits of integration through popular culture" (161).

In his panorama of the types of vaudeville acts, which included the Dutch acts (cleverly disguised acts that were really Yiddish, not German, in spirit), the Irish songsters, the black hoofers, the dialect comedians from all national and ethnic backgrounds, the ballad singers, the "dumb acts" featuring trained animals, magicians, and so on, Snyder omitted mention of the "kiddie act," immensely popular throughout the country but banned on the New York stage. With the formation of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1874 (sometimes called the "Gerry Society" from the name of its founder, Elbridge Gerry...


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