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


Vaudeville has been called the most influential entertainment genre in the nation's history. Between the 1880s and the 1930s, it thrived in large and small urban communities throughout North America. It provided audiences and support for America's two native art forms jazz and tap dance and promoted stand-up and skit comedy, serving as a model for radio, early sound film, and television. Managers based in New York, although national and transcontinental, constructed vaudeville tours. The proliferation of these tours led to the growth of related industries in the city, among them, theatrical photography and printing, popular music publishing and recording, radio, and film promotion.

Vaudeville began in the Progressive Era and spanned World War I, the Jazz Age and the Depression. Its focus on the period's social and political realities provides an opportunity to interpret American culture for today's audience, while entertaining them with the music, dance, and comedy of this dynamic time.

The visitor is invited to journey through the 50 years of current events and beliefs of the vaudeville audience. The inventions that revolutionized America at the turn of the century both served and challenged vaudeville. The widespread use of railroads and telegrams allowed managers in New York or Chicago to manage theaters and performers around the country in one-week bookings. Recorded sound, music publishing and vaudeville prospered in tandem. Film and radio co-existed with vaudeville, but finally overwhelmed it in popularity. Social conflicts over the Spanish-American War and World War I, and the Suffrage and Prohibition Amendments, as well as local politics, did not disappear when the audience entered the theater. These social battles were waged on stage. While only some acts, such as Will Rogers' monologues or Eddie Cantor's songs, were about day-to-day politics, most reflect issues of gender, ethnic humor, and language.

Technologies forced vaudeville and film into an era of transition in the mid-1920s and 1930s. Radio had "gone network," and attracted most of vaudeville's stars. Independent houses and chains of movie theaters had to "wire for sound." Together with the vaudeville circuit owners, they developed shortened vaudeville shows with cohesive themes and design schemes, called Prologs. These shows, with their lavish costumes and precision kick lines, remained popular though the 1930s and 1940s and complemented the increasingly opulent picture palaces. With diminished travel and curfews in World War II, most theaters dropped Prologs in favor of jazz or dance bands; but a few theaters, most notably Radio City Music Hall, presented Prologs into the 1960s.

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