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The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts > Vaudeville Nation

The Building Blocks

The building blocks of vaudeville are the geographical route of theaters ("the circuit"), the order of the show ("bill"), and individual performers' talents ("specialties") and how they presented them ("acts"). American 19th century performance had many popular entertainment forms traveling around the country. Some had plots, but most were variety shows featuring a series of acts. A manager selected these acts, balancing music, dance, comedy, and other performers. As vaudeville grew in popularity, the selection process was made centrally by managers in New York or Chicago, with a system of agents, talent scouts and theater managers similar to that of baseball. The performers traveled from theater to theater, with contracts specifying everything from billing and payments to the amount and weight of scenery and rigging. They performed three to five times a day to audiences of single men, women and families. Because a vaudeville bill was compiled from un-related acts to entertain audiences in large areas of the United States, it served the full diversity of the American public as performers and as audience and provided more freedom for self-expression of social and political commentary.



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