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(vôd`vĭl), originally a light song, derived from the drinking and love songs formerly attributed to Olivier BasselinBasselin, Olivier
, 15th cent., French miller of Vire, Normandy. He was one of the Compagnons du Vau de Vire [companions of the Vire valley], who made drinking songs, love songs, and war songs.
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 and called Vau, or Vaux, de Vire. Similar to the English music hallmusic hall.
In England, the Licensing Act of 1737 confined the production of legitimate plays to the two royal theaters—Drury Lane and Covent Garden; the demands for entertainment of the rising lower and middle classes were answered by song, dance, and acrobatics, and
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, American vaudeville was a live entertainment consisting of unrelated songs, dances, acrobatic and magic acts, and humorous skits and sketches by a variety of performers and acts, each on stage for about five minutes. From humble origins in barrooms and "museums," vaudeville became the dominant attraction in American popular entertainment, playing in hundreds of theaters throughout the United States. It flourished from 1881, when Tony PastorPastor, Tony,
c.1837–1908, American theater manager, b. New York City. Pastor appeared on the stage from childhood and became an experienced acrobat, dancer, and singer. He opened his first theater at 444 Broadway, New York City, in 1861.
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 gave the first "big time" vaudeville show in New York City, until 1932, when its greatest center, New York's Palace Theatre, abandoned live shows and became a movie theater. Such headliners as George M. CohanCohan, George Michael
, 1878–1942, American showman, b. Providence, R.I. As a child he appeared in vaudeville as one of "The Four Cohans" with his father, mother, and sister, Josephine. He eventually wrote the act and was the business manager.
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, Harry HoudiniHoudini, Harry
, 1874–1926, American magician and writer, b. Budapest, Hungary. His real name was Ehrich Weiss; his stage name honors the French magician Houdin. He was famed for his escapes from bonds of every sort—locks, handcuffs, straitjackets, and sealed chests
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, Eva Tanguay, W. C. FieldsFields, W. C.
(William Claude Fields), 1880–1946, American comic actor, b. Philadelphia as Claude William Dukenfield. He began his career as a juggler, and much later appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies and in Earl Carroll's Vanities.
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, Fay Templeton, Will RogersRogers, Will
(William Penn Adair Rogers), 1879–1935, American humorist, b. Oolagah, Indian Territory (now in Oklahoma). In his youth he worked as a cowboy in Oklahoma, and after traveling over the world, he returned to the United States and worked in vaudeville as a cowboy
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, Ed Wynn, Eddie CantorCantor, Eddie,
1892–1964, American entertainer, b. New York City, originally named Edward Israel Isskowitz. Cantor became one of the best-known theatrical figures of his day. His style was typified by lively footwork, rolling eyes, and an utterly individual singing voice.
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, Jimmy Durante, Irene Franklin, Fred Allen, George BurnsBurns, George,
1896–1996, b. New York City as Nathan Birnbaum, and his wife Gracie Allen, 1906–64, b. San Francisco, American comedy team (1923–58).
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 and Gracie Allen, Bob HopeHope, Bob,
1903–2003, American comedian, b. London as Leslie Townes Hope; he came to the United States at the age of five. Famous for his "ski-jump" nose, topical humor, superb timing, brashly irreverant attitude, and rapid-fire delivery, Hope enjoyed immense popularity.
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, Jack BennyBenny, Jack,
1894–1974, American comedian, b. Waukegan, Ill., as Benjamin Kubelsky. His shows on radio (1932–55) and television (1950–65) made famous his miserliness, reproachful silences, and violin. His films include To Be or Not to Be (1942).
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, Edgar Bergen, and the Marx BrothersMarx Brothers,
team of American movie comedians. The members were Julius (1890?–1977), known as Groucho; Arthur (1888?–1964), originally Adolph and known as Harpo; Leonard (1887?–1961), known as Chico; and two other brothers, Milton (Gummo) and Herbert (Zeppo),
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 began their careers playing the vaudeville circuits. Beginning in the 1890s there also was an invigorating influx of performers from England and France who were a major influence on the growing sophistication and high quality of vaudeville. The popularity of radio and motion pictures caused vaudeville's decline, and many established performers moved into the new media. Television, however, brought about a revival of vaudeville-style revues.


See C. W. Stein, ed., American Vaudeville As Seen by Its Contemporaries (1984); S. Staples, Male-Female Comedy Teams in American Vaudeville, 1865–1932 (1984); A. Slide, ed., Selected Vaudeville Criticism (1988); Trav S. D., No Applause—Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous (2005).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a light, comic play with topical songs and dances. Vaudeville originated in France and takes its name from the valley of the Vire River (Vau-de-Vire), where the popular singer O. Basselin lived in the 15th century. Originally, songs in comedies at fairs in the first half of the 18th century were called vaudeville.

Vaudeville emerged as an independent theatrical genre during the Great French Revolution and soon became wide-spread in Europe. According to A. I. Herzen, the classics of French vaudeville— E. Scribe and E. Labiche—preserved many features of vaudeville as a “French popular creation,” including its provocative hilarity and allusions to evils of the day. Vaudeville first appeared in Russia in the early 19th century, inheriting an interest in Russian subjects from 18th-century comic opera. Its early development is associated with the names of A. I. Pisarev, N. I. Khmel’nitskii, A. S. Griboedov, and A. A. Shakhovskoi. In the late 1830’s and 1840’s it was characterized by democratic tendencies and a rapprochement with the realistic comedy of manners under the influence of the naturalist school (D. T. Lenskii’s Lev Gurych Sinichkin and vaudevilles by F. A. Koni, V. A. Sollogub, P. A. Karatygin, and N. A. Nekrasov). At the end of the 19th century, A. P. Chekhov’s one-act plays continued the vaudeville tradition (without the songs). In the Soviet period vaudevilles by V. P. Kataev, V. V. Shkvarkin, and others have been performed on the stage.

To a significant degree vaudeville is connected with the development of the comic actor’s art in the 19th century and with the struggle against the decrepit traditions of classicism. The actors’ performances in the best types of vaudeville were distinguished by a natural, ingenuous quality, improvisational lightness of dialogue, and a sense of humor: Vaudeville demanded that the actor be able to sing and dance. Actors mastered the art of transforming themselves completely into a character, performing several roles in one short play. The French actors V. Dejazet, C. G. Potier, P.-T. Levassor, E. Arnal, and others—brilliant vaudeville performers—were genuine heirs of the 18th-century theater’s democratic art who made a contribution to the development of a national singing culture. (For example, Dejazet was considered the best performer of P. Beranger’s songs.) In the Russian theater brilliant comic actors whose basic repertoire was the light comedy—N. O. Diur, V. N. Asenkova, N. V. Samoilova, and V.I. Zhivokini—as well as major realistic actors, including M. S. Shchepkin, I. I. Sosnitskii, A. E. Martynov, K. A. Varlamov, and V. N. Davydov, performed in vaudeville. They contributed a psychological subtlety and satirical sharpness to the performance of vaudeville.

The Soviet theater has trained directors with a feeling for vaudeville (R. N. Simonov, N. P. Akimov, and others) and actors who have mastered the art of performing vaudeville (V. la. Khenkin, P. N. Pol’, F. N. Kurikhin, A. D. Beniaminov, N. I. Slonova, S. A. Martinson, and others).


Russkii vodeviV. Foreword by V. V. Uspenskii. Leningrad-Moscow, 1959.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. Chiefly US and Canadian variety entertainment consisting of short acts such as acrobatic turns, song-and-dance routines, animal acts, etc., popular esp in the early 20th century
2. a light or comic theatrical piece interspersed with songs and dances
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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Shirley Andress thinks of her as a powerful stage singer with roots in vaudeville.
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One of the major theaters of the vaudeville era, "If You Can Play Scranton: A Theatrical History" discusses the theater which earned prominence as a major platform of vaudeville, big band concerts, comedy, and many other performance art aspects.