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From ‘Vaudeville!’ to YouTube: Ransom Center makes connections

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Sophie Tucker performing with a vaudeville band, circa 1923. Contributed by Theater Biography Collection/Ransom Center

Roughly from the 1850s through the 1920s, family-friendly American stage variety shows — which included highly structured line-ups of comics, singers, dancers, serious actors, celebrities, novelty acts and, eventually, short movies — were the most popular form of theatrical entertainment in the country.

Then in the late ’20s, moving pictures were enhanced with sound. And the Great Depression contributed to the collapse of a tiered vaudeville touring system, often segregated by race, that propped up in theatrical halls in every city and most modestly sized towns, and classified touring acts from the “small time” to the “big time,” with New York’s Palace Theatre positioned at the pinnacle of the hierarchy.

But vaudeville’s conventions persisted in the careers of entertainers who starred in Hollywood films during the 1930s through the 1950s, and then again on television during its first Golden Age in the 1950s and 1960s. Its structure and popular appeal were revived in variety, sketch and talent programs from “The Carol Burnett Show” to “Saturday Night Live” and “America’s Got Talent.”

Even YouTube could be considered a form of variety entertainment in the vaudevillian tradition.

Learn more about vaudeville’s past and present in our premium story about the exhibit “Vaudeville!” on view at the Ransom Center through July 15.