Magic and Vaudeville

Dear Friends:

It’s September! Back-to-School time. We’re excited here at the Magic & Mystery School about all our fall events, some of which will actually take place live and in person – for the first time since the beginning of 2020! Check the calendar at the bottom of this Museletter to see everything coming before the end of the year.

Our guest columnist this month is our good friend, and Executive Assistant to the school, Katherine (Kat) Rettke. If you haven’t been helped by Kat, you probably haven’t attended our events. I think you’re going to love the article!

Vaudeville and Magic
By Kat Rettke (with assistance from W.M.L.R.)  

It was in the setting of Vaudeville theater that many great magicians developed their acts. According to the website Magicpedia, more than four thousand magicians appeared on vaudeville bills around the world, including Harry Houdini, Ching Ling Foo, Chung Ling Soo, Thomas Nelson Downs, and Harry Blackstone. Context is important. If you want to more fully understand any of the great magicians who were performing during the years vaudeville was popular, it is worth learning more about the history of vaudeville, and a little bit about what it meant to be employed as a vaudeville performer.

Vaudeville was a type of live performance popular from the late 1800s until the 1920s. A typical North American vaudeville performance was a variety show of unrelated performances, which included performances by magicians. According to Wikipedia, “at any given time, Vaudeville was employing over twelve thousand different people throughout its entire industry.  Each entertainer would be on the road 42 weeks at a time while working a particular ‘circuit’- or in an individual theatre chain of a major company”.  

One thing that made vaudeville unique, however, was the intention to create a family-friendly entertainment, unlike earlier popular variety shows. According to the article Vaudeville (Wikipedia) one man who can be credited with this type of show was Tony Pastor, who became a variety theater performer and manager, who began to feature “polite” variety programs in his New York City theatres.

Another instrumental founder of vaudeville was B.F. Keith, who built an empire of theaters in both the United States and Canada, and partnered with Edward Albee. They developed a chain of allied vaudeville houses and contracted acts for regional and national tours through what was called the Keith-Albee Circuit, which later merged with the Orpheum Circuit and went on to be called the Keith-Albee-Orpheum Circuit.

According to Wikipedia, “by the late 1890s, vaudeville had large circuits, and small and large houses in almost every sizable location, standardized booking, broad pools of skilled acts, and a loyal national following.”  Vaudeville performers were hired by talent bookers to tour different regions on what was called the vaudeville circuit.

It was the development of cinema that led to the decline of vaudeville. Theatres used for vaudeville were updated to show movies. On an interesting side note, the Keith-Albee-Orpheum Circut merged with Radio Pictures to become Radio Keith Orpheum… RKO Pictures. This is just one example of how the motion picture industry can trace back its own history to vaudeville roots.

An important aspect of learning more about the history of vaudeville is developing an appreciation of the theaters where these shows took place.  Many of the theaters built for, or used for vaudeville circuits have been torn down over the years. Some of these theaters survive and thrive, while others are in disrepair, lacking funds, or at risk of being torn down.

The Theatre Historical Society of America and The National Trust for Historic Preservation are two historical preservation societies fighting to keep these theaters available for future generations. So many magicians have contributed over the years to efforts to save historic theaters. I can think of two wonderful examples of magicians contributing to the preservation of historic theaters: Magicians Danny Archer and Mark Zacharia, who with the Smoke & Mirrors Magic Theater hosted a magic show in January 2021 to benefit the historic Newton Theatre in Newtown, PA. Another magician, Paul Draper, makes it a point to book shows in historic theaters across the country as a way to help these theaters benefit financially.

Newton Theatre, Newton, PA

We owe a debt of gratitude to the great magicians who developed their craft through vaudeville. So much was learned in the vaudeville setting about technique and interacting with an audience, and this knowledge was passed down to following generations of magicians.  

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