"There's No Business Like Show Business" -- Irving Berlin
Vaudeville was born of variety acts presented in saloons and beer gardens in the nineteenth century. When it died, after almost half a century ( 1881-1928), its acts returned to those saloons, now called "nightclubs," shedding the wholesome cloak that vaudeville had given them and signaling the start of a new, harsher era.
At its peak ( 1900-19), vaudeville employed close to ten thousand people as dramatic actors, sketch artists, monologists, singers, dancers, animal trainers, acrobats, musicians, and magicians. Thousands more were employed as stagehands, ushers, concession sellers, washroom attendants, and house managers. The institution, like the jobs, is gone. Even the nightclubs have passed into history.
A vaudeville act might consist of one person, or two dozen. It might consist of anything and qualify as vaudeville, providing that it entertained and did not offend popular mores. Vaudeville was entertainment for the masses -- the genteel middle class, as opposed to the "rough element" after men like Pastor, Proctor, and Keith brought it up from its beer garden roots. Drinking was prohibited, civility encouraged. Vaudeville, in essence, was a "wholesome" marriage between theatre and cafe-saloon entertainment -- a grease-paint icon of America between the Spanish-American War and the start of the Jazz Age. The new morals, a demand for faster living, and the outlooks of the '20s caused a new generation to leave it for the smarter world of jazz records and for shows with scores by Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, and other "sophisticates" of the new Broadway. The librettos of these shows incorporated sexual and other mores that the world of vaudeville would have deemed "offensive" to its audiences. Vaudeville waned during the Jazz Age and was dead before the age of swing.