Content and Historical Context

The typical vaudeville show line-up | Motion pictures as vaudeville acts | Stereotypes in variety stage films

The typical vaudeville show line-up
Vaudeville show line-up By the turn of the century, there was a standardized line-up of acts on the vaudeville stage. The bill was divided into two parts with an intermission in the middle. The show would open with a "dumb act," usually an animal or acrobatic act. "Dumb" did not refer to the quality of the act, but rather to the fact that they did not rely on sound, and thus were appropriate to use as opening and closing acts when patrons were noisily entering and leaving. Dumb acts were rarely given prime positions on the bill. "The second act could be almost anything at all, as long as it provided more entertainment than the first act" (DiMeglio 1973, 35). The third act "was intended to wake up the house, the number four to deliver the first solid punch, and the last before the interval a knockout that would bring them back wanting more" (Banham 1995, 1161-1162). This fifth act usually had to feature a big name. After the intermission, the sixth act had to sustain the impact of the previous acts yet not supersede in popularity the ones that would follow. The main attraction or star would appear as the next to closing act. The concluding act was often called a chaser since it was meant to play as people would be exiting the theater early. Often a chaser was a motion picture. Some historians have indicated that the use of the motion picture as a chaser indicated its low position in the vaudeville theater, but it is also possible that it was used for closing merely because it, too, was a "dumb act" that need not rely on sound. The chaser, while allowing theater-goers to exit noisily if necessary, also had to be entertaining enough to keep the remaining audience members happy with the entire bill. The entire bill typically included eight to ten acts with some theaters using more or less.

Motion pictures as vaudeville acts
The novelty of a moving image being projected on a screen was first viewed by American in 1895. Vaudeville theaters were among the first venues for these early motion picutres. Motion picture projectors such as the Edison/Armat Vitascope, Latham Eidoloscope, Lumiere Cinematographe, and Biograph "were all demonstrated in American vaudeville theatres" (Allen 1980, 4-5). There was a vast network of vaudeville theaters around the country and, therefore, motion pictures were seen by large numbers of people soon after their inception. Vaudeville theaters remained the primary setting for the exhibition of motion pictures for the next ten years.

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Theater patrons of the late nineteenth century were accustomed to many types of visual novelty acts on the vaudeville stage. These acts included magic lantern presentations, living pictures, pantomime, shadowgraphy, puppetry, and melodrama (Allen 1980, 311); the motion picture was simply the latest visual novelty to be shown on the stage.

Possibly the earliest exhibition of a motion picture projector may have been that of the Lumiere Cinematographe in France, March 1895. In the United States, the first exhibition of a motion picture projector in a theater may have been the Latham Eidelscope in 1895. This machine was supposedly featured on Broadway in May 1895, and later moved to Hammerstein's Olympia vaudeville theater. The Latham Eidelscope subsequently appeared at Chicago's Olympia Theatre. The Eidelscope had technical limitations that made the projected image indistinct and therefore did not attract large audiences.

Having heard of the success of projected motion pictures in London music halls, American vaudeville managers were eager to book the new machines as visual acts. In an attempt to prevent foreign infiltration of the market, the American-made Edison/Armat Vitascope was shown at Koster and Bial's in New York, on April 23, 1896. The massive publicity generated for the event helped to promote enthusiasm for the new invention among theater-goers and vaudeville managers. The demand for motion pictures resulting from this showing created a market for many of the new projectors, including the foreign ones, and prompted many theaters to put motion pictures on the variety bill.

Edison ad The types of films shown on the vaudeville stage varied. Actuality films, including local actualities (for example, scenes of the local fire department in action), were popular, as were topical, news, travel, sports, comedies, and trick films. Films depicting current events such as the Spanish-American War or the Boer War fascinated viewers, as did films featuring notable world leaders, such as William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

Motion pictures were a good fit in the vaudeville bill because of their short length. They could be moved easily to any part of the bill because only a projectionist was needed for the act. Initially, the motion picture was a headline act, but after the novelty wore off it typically occupied the same place on the bill as other dumb or silent acts: the closing act.

In 1905, the rise of the nickelodeon began. Although motion pictures continued to be exhibited on the vaudeville stage, small, "store-front" theaters, or nickelodeons, became the predominant venue for exhibition of motion pictures and remained so until the beginning of the 1910s when larger motion picture theaters became common. Early in their history, many nickelodeons featured some vaudeville acts along with the films; this practice continued in larger theaters for many years. The early history of motion picture exhibition, therefore, has been inextricably tied to vaudeville.

Stereotypes in variety stage films
The modern-day viewer will notice the use of racial stereotypes in some of the variety stage films, especially in the comedy genre. Popular comedy acts used stereotypes of many groups, including the Irish, Jews, Germans, Swedish, Italians, and African-Americans, reflecting the migration of many of these groups to American urban centers. Some examples of comedies that use stereotypes in this collection are "A Gesture Fight in Hester Street," "A Wake in Hell's Kitchen,'" and "Levi & Cohen, the Irish Comedians."

"Fights of Nations" is a particularly interesting example incorporating stereotypes because it presents several vignettes of various nationalities and ethnic groups, including the Irish, Jews, and African-Americans. This patriotic skit portrays the "fights" between various nationalities that are then resolved in the melting pot of the United States. Notably absent from the final peaceful scene are the African-Americans who are present earlier in the film. Also in the finale, a Native American woman appears kneeling in front of Uncle Sam, implying that she has less status than the other characters.

Image Captions:

  1. Advertisement for a vaudeville show listing the various acts, including the Kinetograph projecting motion pictures. The New York Clipper, April 23, 1904, p.203.
  2. Advertisement for the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company promoting its motions pictures as vaudeville acts. The New York Clipper, September 7, 1901, p.601.
  3. Advertisement for the Edison Company promoting its motion pictures as vaudeville acts. The New York Clipper, April 27, 1901, p. 204.

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