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

Topical Vaudeville


Promotional photograph of Marie Dressler in a patriotic number from her vaudeville act during the Spanish-American War
Promotional photograph of
Marie Dressler in a patriotic
number from her vaudeville
act during the
Spanish-American War


Trixie Friganza speaking on suffrage, October 28, 1908
Trixie Friganza speaking
on suffrage, October 28, 1908

Vaudeville at War

It is said that the Spanish-American War (1898) was waged by popular newspapers. It was also played out in vaudeville through flag-waving acts by vocalists, such as Marie Dressler. Painted glass song slides and the newly available Kinetoscope provided photographic images of Commodore Dewey, the Rough Riders, and battlegrounds. The United States debated entry into World War I, through rival songs, such as "I Didn't Raise My Son to Be a Soldier" and "I'm Proud I Raised my Son to be a Soldier." When war was declared, Vaudeville performers were active fund-raisers and troupe entertainers in Europe and the United States.

Topical Vaudeville

Songwriters and vaudeville comics reflected political concerns of the 1919 season Suffrage, Prohibition, and the popularity of evangelist Billy Sunday's revival meetings. Most Suffrage parody songs followed the tradition of "Becky" songs about immigrant women becoming overly Americanized. The Tin Pan Alley songwriters could not resist constructing puns with the evangelist's name and New York's notorious Blue laws that banned Sunday performances.

Prohibition was a major concern of vaudeville, Broadway and the audience. Comics were against Prohibition, but realized that the audience, obsessed with evading the laws, appreciated puns and references for every individual clause of the amendment. Bert Williams made two such songs popular -- "The Moon Shines on the Moonshine" and "Everybody wants a Key to My Cellar," alluding to illegal stills and the grandfather clause that allowed personal stashes of wine. Eddie Cantor, in his young man about town persona, saw the positive side of Prohibition -- "You Don't Need the Wine to have a Wonderful Time when they still make those Beautiful Girls."

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