In 1870, on The Strand, a new theatre opened. Built on the site of a failing billiard hall, behind two houses, Vaudeville theatre was crammed onto the site. It required access through a little labyrinth of passages, and had hardly any front of house or backstage. It seated over a thousand people on three tiers. Designed by CJ Phipps, a prolific architect of theatres who specialised in squeezing theatres into tight spaces, it was Romanesque in style. However, the shows put on were in the style of the theatre’s name – vaudeville.
Variety entertainment was commonly known as music hall in England and vaudeville in America. The style originated in France – the musical revue, and became dominant in Victorian times, and not just on the stage, eventually the format spread to radio and early television. The most well-known version of it in the UK is the annual Royal Variety Performance, which is held before a member of the royal family, and began in 1912 as the Royal Command Performance.
Variety shows are a mixed bag of entertainment: sketches, comics, juggling, magic and ventriloquists. There’s a host, a compiere, to rouse the crowd into merriment. Sing-a-longs, clowns, impersonators and strong men. One act plays, dancers and burlesque. Having diverged from the French version, the UK and US each have their favoured format.
Vaudeville has no moral messages to deliver or psychological twists of complexes plots. It simply takes comical situations and plays upon them – laughter is key to success. It was popular in US and Canada from 1880s to the 1930s. Then the theatre version, however, fell into decline. The combination of cinema, the Great Depression, and television hastened its demise.
However, the format itself survived in other ways. Vaudeville is the foundation of the late night chat shows, US’s Saturday Night Live, while musical hall went onto be come Tonight at the London Palladium, and the UK’s Good Old Days (1953-1983), in which performers dressed up in Edwardian costumes and recreated the old Music Hall of the era (who remembers Hinge and Bracket? And don’t forget Fascinating Aida!)
Sketch shows, telethons, talent shows – these all have their roots in the variety shows. Many still are performed on theatre stages, rather than studio sets, in front of a live audience. Gone, fortunately, is the more insensitive aspects – the black and white minstrels, the freak shows, and what has held fast is the constant search for the next form of entertainment. Are there any left to discover?
As for Vaudeville Theatre – it’s still here, with its farces, musicals, comedies and a few dramas for good measure. I rather like the fact it has stuck to its origins and name.