Blue Vaudeville: Sex, Morals and the Mass Marketing of Amusement, 1895-1915/from Traveling Show to Vaudeville: Theatrical Spectacle in America, 1830-1910

By Frick, John W. | Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, June 2006 | Go to article overview
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Blue Vaudeville: Sex, Morals and the Mass Marketing of Amusement, 1895-1915/from Traveling Show to Vaudeville: Theatrical Spectacle in America, 1830-1910


Frick, John W., Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film


Andrew L. Erdman, Blue Vaudeville: Sex, Morals and the Mass Marketing of Amusement, 1895-1915. Jefferson,NC:McFarland & Company, Inc., 2004. 208 pp. $39.95.

Robert M. Lewis, From Traveling Show to Vaudeville: Theatrical Spectacle in America, 1830-1910. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. 400 pp. $45.00.

The study of popular entertainments has come a long way from the intellectual 'back rooms' of the pre-1960 era, and, through the pioneering efforts of Robert Toll, Brooks McNamara, David Mayer, Don Wilmeth and others, has gained a grudging legitimacy in the academic community. As a result, over the past few decades, scholarship on the various forms of popular theatre - Vaudeville, Music Hall, Minstrelsy, the Dime Museum, Circus, and Melodrama among them - has become the focus of a younger generation of writers like Eric Lott, Janet Davis, Peter Bailey, Annemarie Bean, Andrea Stulman Dennett, Bluford Adams and Elaine Hadley. Both books reviewed here are excellent examples of such scholarship and make welcome additions to the growing and increasingly sophisticated literature on popular entertainment.

Andrew L. Erdman's Blue Vaudeville: Sex, Morals and the Mass Marketing of Amusement, 1895-1915, is one of those books that evokes the question, 'why hasn't someone written on this topic before?' His mildly revisionist study challenges the conventional notion that Vaudeville, evolving from Tony Pastor's incipient Catholicism that led him to sanitize the mid-nineteenth century variety show and B. F.Keith's and Edward Albee's decision to maintain a clean bill for mainly commercial reasons, was devoid of 'blue' material and/or acts. While Douglas Gilbert provides a narrative history of Vaudeville and lists some of its more prominent acts and Robert Snyder traces Vaudeville's development as a cultural institution, Erdman is the first scholar to suggest that so-called 'blue' material and acts may have been instrumental in the entertainment's ultimate success.

In his introduction and first chapter, Erdman challenges directly the notion that Vaudeville presented exclusively acts that had been carefully 'sanitized' to such a degree that the shows were, in the words of entertainer Fred Stone, 'clean enough that a child could take his parents.'While earlier studies grudgingly acknowledge the sexuality of Eva Tanguay, Elsie Janis and others in the later years, they seemingly avoid confronting and examining the role of sex in Vaudeville and the seeming paradox of sexuality in an art form widely advertised as 'clean.' In contrast, Erdman freely admits that there was sex in Vaudeville from the beginning, in acts like Mlle. Charmion's disrobing on a trapeze at Koster & Bial's in 1897, and in Edward Albee's interest in, not only the bottom line, but in (female) bottoms as well. Erdman extends his examination of sexuality and 'blue' material in Vaudeville to cover censorship of the form and the politics of morality - still important topics today. While he barely scratches the surface of censorship when compared to studies like John Houchin's recent Censorship of the American Theatre in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge Studies in American Theatre and Drama, 2003), his brief treatment of the subject is still a valuable addition, serving to illustrate the nature of the opposition to prurient material on stage.

Chapter Two examines Keith and Albee's business practices and the transition from a Pastor-style Vaudeville - an entertainment that was localized in just a single theatre on New York's East 14th Street - into a national business, or more precisely, a monopoly. This chapter provides the most complete account to date of how Keith and Albee spliced together alliances, often with business rivals, to create the United Booking Office, the monopoly that virtually controlled all of Vaudeville for years. To advance his argument, Erdman compares national Vaudeville (the UBO) to such commercial behemoths as Sears Roebuck,Coca-Cola and Nabisco.

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