THE DECLINE OF VAUDEVILLE
It’s true – over the course of the 20’s, vaudeville was on the way out; even though some houses went on afterward, scholars consider 1932 to be the year vaudeville ended. There were actually several reasons why…
Radio and record players were one reason. A number of singers, comedians, and other vaudevillians recorded themselves in the teens and 20’s, and if a fan bought the record, they could listen to it over and over and over again whenever they wanted rather than waiting for the act to show up. It was easier for the performer, as well – one recording session and they were done, rather than traveling out on the road again and again. Vaudevillians liked radio for the same reasons; but radio’s live format let them continue to come up with new material and still stay close to home. Americans were already buying 25 million records a year at the beginning of the 20’s, and radio boomed as a medium during the 20’s.
Broadway was starting to cannibalize vaudeville acts for its own stages. Several big acts, such as the Marx Brothers, had been invited to expand sketches into full-length plays for Broadway, and shows like Ziegfield’s Follies copied the vaudeville revue format on Broadway itself. Some vaudeville stars, like Ed Wynn, even got offers to develop an entire revue show, starring all their sketches. For many performers, it was a much more lucrative and “classy” alternative to continuing on the vaudeville circuit. Performing on Broadway was also easier for the performer – rather than vaudeville’s two-shows-a-day schedule, and its constant travel, Broadway offered only one show a day and being able to stay put in New York. Some acts occasionally continued to tour, but most made the jump to staying put in New York.
Amid both the performers and the audiences, some were finding that vaudeville was a little too squeaky-clean. At its onset in the late 1800’s, particularly for vaudeville theaters owned by the Keith-Albee producing team – which meant most theaters east of the Mississippi – vaudeville had been billed as wholesome, family-friendly entertainment, an alternative to the seedier saloon shows. Theaters on the Keith-Albee circuit charged fines and sometimes cancelled an act if performers showed a little too much skin or used objectionable language. (A tangent – theaters often communicated their displeasure with misbehaving performers in memos that came in blue envelopes; some say that this is the source of “blue” being a slang term for off-color or adult language.) This kind of family-friendly approach just didn’t suit many in the 1920’s any more – after living through a World War, the country was ready to let its hair down and party a little. Some performers also were feeling stifled by vaudeville’s squeaky-clean image and had better luck on the legitimate stage – Mae West, for one, just plain didn’t work as a vaudeville comedienne, but her racy talk worked just fine on the straight theater circuit. Other vaudevillians, such as Jimmy Durante and Helen Morgan, actually bought and co-owned night clubs in the 20’s, appearing there as hosts and performers.
Movies often first saw light as part of vaudeville bills, but over the 20’s the movies took over. Like with radio or records, it was easier on the performers – one filming session and they had a performance on record that could be shown again and again. Showing movies was also easier – and cheaper – for the vaudeville houses, who only had to keep the movie reels in a box rather than contracting and hiring act after act after act. Already by 1921, a quarter of the theaters that had both films and vaudeville had switched to all-film formats. An even bigger blow to vaudeville came in 1926 when the first “talkie” film was produced – The Jazz Singer, starring vaudeville regular Al Jolson. The bigger theaters continued to pair vaudeville acts with movies throughout the late 20’s, featuring the flashier production numbers instead of smaller acts; such “presentation houses” often presented a film accompanied by a big band performance and six big-name acts such as Burns and Allen or Cab Calloway. But with the big names in New York, regional theaters simply couldn’t compete – unless they switched to an all-movie format.
Ironically, one of vaudeville’s biggest producers may have had a hand in its demise. Edward Albee, half of the Keith-Albee production team, made a series of business moves that drove performers away from his theaters towards the end. First, in 1925, Albee hoped to recoup some of the losses from audiences who were seeing movies instead; to compete, he switched from presenting two shows a day in his theaters to as many as five shows a day, a grueling performance schedule that either exhausted performers or put them off entirely. Albee also responded to any competition – radio, Broadway, or film – by writing clauses into performers’ contracts that if they agreed to join his vaudeville circuit, they absolutely would not appear in radio, in film, or on Broadway. The bigger names eventually found Albee’s restrictions unreasonable. In 1928, even Albee’s own assistant jumped ship for movies – Albee had given his assistant, one J. J. Murdock, several shares of company stock as a bonus, and his assistant turned around and sold it to Joseph P. Kennedy (JFK’s father, interestingly enough), who already had a sizeable amount of stock in the Keith-Albee company. Murdock’s piece gave Kennedy controlling interest in the company, and he forced the company to expand into movie and radio production and gradually de-emphasizing its vaudeville. Albee kept what control of the stage side of the company that he could, but one day when he tried to make a suggestion to Kennedy during a company meeting, Kennedy put him off, saying, “Don’t you know, Ed? You’re washed up.” Albee, stung, soon retired from the company entirely, and shortly thereafter the company merged with another movie distributor to form RKO pictures.
The Depression itself may have been the final nail in the coffin. Salaries for the big names were especially high by this point, and audiences dropped off sharply as a public with little money sought cheaper, or free, entertainment.
Arguably, some elements of vaudeville continued in other formats; some acts went blue and joined burlesque shows, others joined the Broadway revues or musical theater, still others went into radio or film. Some point to the early days of television as a brief revival of the vaudeville “revue” format, and others regard the sketch comedy of shows like Saturday Night Live as the beginning of a contemporary revival. But by 1932, one of the biggest RKO houses – the Palace in New York – announced it was switching to an all-movie format, and vaudeville was effectively over.