The Birth of Vaudeville

Tony Pastor

Tony Pastor, from The Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

“In the early 1880’s, Tony Pastor, a former ringmaster with the circus turned theatre manager, capitalized on middle class sensibilities and spending power when he began to feature “polite” variety programs in several of his New York theatres. Hoping to draw a potential audience from female and family-based shopping traffic uptown, Pastor barred the sale of liquor in his theaters, eliminated questionable material from his shows, and offered gifts of coal and hams to attendees. Pastor’s experiment proved successful and other managers soon followed suit.”

Gifts of coal? And ham?

Read more about the beginnings of Vaudeville from the University of Virginia, American Studies department, from which this is quoted.

One of Vaudeville’s Biggest Stars

Fanny BriceA truly fascinating woman, Fania Borach, whom we know as Fanny Brice, worked hard to turn her talents into stardom. Born in 1891, she performed on the burlesque stage, vaudeville, stage, film, musical revues (nine Ziegfield Follies), and, most famously, radio. She is perhaps best known for her radio character Baby Snooks, but she honed her comedic skills as a vaudeville performer. She was a female comedian in a profession usually reserved for men. You may know her as the woman who inspired the movie Funny Girl. Read about her life on the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Culturally Diverse

“Vaudeville’s attraction was more than simply a series of entertaining sketches. It was symbolic of the cultural diversity of early twentieth century America. Vaudeville was a fusion of centuries-old cultural traditions, including the English Music Hall, minstrel shows of antebellum America, and Yiddish theater. Though certainly not free from the prejudice of the times, vaudeville was the earliest entertainment form to cross racial and class boundaries. For many, vaudeville was the first exposure to the cultures of people living right down the street.”

American Masters, “About Vaudeville,” October 8, 1999, PBS

While anti-Semitism was common during vaudeville’s heyday, many Jewish performers had starring roles in theater as well as in film and television in later years. Yiddish theater had an enormous influence on the cultural life of Jews throughout America and abroad. In this film clip, Molly Picon, the most famous actress in Yiddish theater, is seen singing “Abi Gezunt (As long as you’re healthy),” from the 1938 film, “Mamele.” Molly Picon, born Margaret Pyekoon in 1898, “performed with Michael Thomashefsky’s Yiddish repertory troupe at the Arch Street Theater (including, at age fifteen, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with alternate performances in Yiddish and English) and in cabaret from 1912 to 1915.” [Jewish Women’s Archive] Like Teresa in The Life Fantastic, Picon started to perform at an early age. She gave her first performance on a stage at age five!

Here are several sites which give a sense of the importance of Yiddish theater to Jews throughout the world and specifically in America.

  • On the occasion of the 100th birthday of the National Yiddish Theater, Folksbiene, this video talks about the history of the theater. Note how Yiddish theater influenced composers on the broader stage, including George Gershwin and the Sherman brothers, composers of Mary Poppins.
  • Michael Tilson Thomas, the conductor, created this homage to his grandparents, early and influential actors in the Yiddish theater, The Thomashefskys.
  • These two biographies of the most famous actress and theater owner in Yiddish theater, Molly Picon, one from Masterworks Broadway and the other from the Jewish Women’s Archives

Helen Keller on stage

Helen Keller on vaudeville stage

From Helen Keller Kids Museum Online, American Foundation for the Blind, Braille Bug

Celebrities appeared on the vaudeville stage, even those who weren’t considered performers. It was a place for the community to hear famous speakers and noteworthy people of their day.

Here’s Helen (Keller) in her dressing room in a vaudeville theatre. She is sitting at a makeup table (which does not have a mirror), brushing her cheek with a giant powder puff. Behind her, hanging on the wall, are many elaborate outfits, including a silk robe, a dark evening dress, and a full-length fur coat. Helen has on a sleeveless, patterned dress that goes down to her toes and shiny high-heeled shoes.

View more photos of Helen Keller, and Anne Sullivan, at the Helen Keller Kids Museum Online on the American Federation for the Blind website. 




Q&A with Liza K, part 3

What propelled you to write a story based in show business?

Vaudeville has fascinated me since I was little girl. That’s when my father told me the romantic story about my great-grandparents, who eloped and ran away to join a traveling theater troupe. My great-grandmother was a singer and pianist, and her husband played the fiddle. The couple’s elopement—and their divorce later on—caused a scandal in the small town of Shreve, Ohio, where my great-grandmother grew up. Because some people considered vaudeville as “one step up from burlesque,” my grandmother was ashamed of her history. She refused to answer my questions about her parents and their stage careers.

I have always loved live theater, and once considered becoming an actor. In high school I acted in plays and I spent the summer before college studying acting at The Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. Though I didn’t pursue a stage career, that summer taught me invaluable lessons about creating characters.

Interior of the Tabor Opera House today. For more about this theater, visit

Many years later, I visited the Tabor Opera House in Leadville, Colorado, a restored and spectacular vaudeville theater. As I walked down the silent aisle between rows of plush seats, I thought about my great-grandparents and their story, which had never been told. Though the characters in The Life Fantastic are invented, and though it takes place in a different time and place, my great-grandparents’ adventure in the theater inspired me to write the novel.

Maeve’s Warning

When Thunder ComesIn The Life Fantastic, Maeve warns Teresa to be careful in her friendship with Pietro, an African American vaudeville performer. She tells Teresa that black men and boys in the South “get lynched if they look at a white girl.” Maeve also shares the story about a civil disturbance in Springfield, Illinois in 1908, where a white woman lied about being raped by an African American.  Two black men were arrested, and when they escaped lynching, white residents rioted, causing massive destruction in the black community. The woman’s lie wasn’t discovered until after the riot ended and a number of people were killed. After that, Maeve’s father took part in Ku Klux Klan meetings.

Many people think that the KKK was only active in southern states, but in the novel, Teresa remembers her father talking about the Klan having meetings in Vermont. Do you know the history of the KKK? Are you aware of their continuing presence in America today?

Learn more with these recommended books:

Superman versus the Ku Klux Klan: the True Story of How the Iconic Superhero Battled the Men of Hate, written by Rick Bowers, National Geographic Society, 2012.

They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group, written by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

When Thunder Comes: Poems for Civil Rights Leaders, written by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Jim Burke, R. Gregory Christie, Tonya Engle, John Parra, and Meilo So, Chronicle Books, 2012.

Witness, written by Karen Hesse. Scholastic, 2001.

Wreath for Emmett Till, written by Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Philippe Lardy, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.

Vaudeville, a Whitehall Lecture

Recorded at the Flagler Museum, this one-hour Whitehall Lecture, “Vaudeville: from Small-Time Acts to Ziegfield’s Follies,” is given by Jerry Dickey, presented February 14, 2010. (Skip the introductions and acknowledgements by beginning at 4:20.)

Dr. Jerry Dickey is the Director of the University of Florida School of Theatre + Dance. His research and teaching specializes in the history of early twentieth century theater in the United States.

Q & A with Liza K, part 2

Question: Have you talked first hand with people who remember vaudeville?

Ketchum and Airplane

My grandfather (on the right) and a colleague next to his WWI plane, in France. This photo was shot a few years after The Life Fantastic takes place. Grandpa crashed twice but survived to tell the tale.

Answer: Yes. My paternal grandfather, who was born in 1893, told me how much vaudeville meant to him as a young man. Grandpa’s father died when he was very young. He was raised, in part, by his grandparents, and started working—taking court dictation—when, as he said, he was “still in short pants.” Grandpa worked to pay his way through college and then started his own business, so vaudeville was the only entertainment he could afford. He would sit up high in a theater’s cheapest seats, often staying for more than one show. He loved the music and the comedy routines. When I was young, he used to sing me the songs he remembered from those days, including some I included in The Life Fantastic—such as “Everybody works but Father—he sits around all day.” My parents were appalled that, when I was four years old, I knew all the words to “There lay Brown, upside down, lapping up the whiskey off the floor. ‘Save the booze!’ the fireman cried, as he came running through the door.” I always wished I could have sat beside Grandpa in those theaters.

You’re Invited!

The Life FantasticPlease join us for a party to celebrate the release of The Life Fantastic: A Novel in Three Acts. The story takes place in 1913, at a time when vaudeville was America’s most popular form of entertainment. The book was inspired by a family story: Liza’s great-grandparents eloped and ran away to the vaudeville stage. In keeping with the vaudevillian backdrop of the book, the evening will include theatrical entertainment and music, as well as a reading and time for questions. The book has received kudos from teen readers as well as adults.  

When: Thursday, March 9, 7 PM

Where: Porter Square Books, 25 White St., Cambridge, MA.  617-491-2220

For more information about the book, see Liza’s website:

Or follow Liza on Facebook.

The Life Fantastic provides a fascinating window into the 1900s New York vaudeville scene, while examining the complexities of family support and expectations, as well as burgeoning black activism … Ketchum fits it together seamlessly and entertainingly. Her love of vaudeville shines through Teresa and her descriptions of 1913 Broadway, but she does not ignore the built-in limitations placed on people of color.” (VOYA Magazine)

Q & A with Liza K, part 1

Question: Liza, in The Life Fantastic, you refer to The Gerry Society when Teresa’s age comes into question. What was The Gerry Society?

Commodore Elbridge Gerry, co-founder of the SPCC

Answer: The Gerry Society was founded in 1875 after a woman named Etta Wheeler, who had suffered living with an abusive foster parent, asked why there was a Society for the Protection of Animals (ASPCA)—but nothing similar to protect children? Her question led to the formation of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC). One of its founders was named Elbridge Gerry, so the organization was also known as the Gerry Society. Gerry wanted to keep children away from what he called “immoral activities”—such as amusement parks, penny arcades, and live theater. In New York City, children under sixteen were prohibited from performing, and theater owners risked being fined by the Gerry Society if they allowed them onstage. This is why Teresa, in The Life Fantastic, pretends that she is sixteen—and why she and Maeve have to be careful when her younger brother Pascal juggles during Maeve’s performances with her dogs. 

Today’s New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.