Life Upon the Wicked Stage – 19th Century Entertainment

Yeah, I'm sure this act was just bursting with historical accuracy!

Yeah, I’m sure this act was just bursting with historical accuracy!

I’m sure you’ve seen it. What good Old West movie worth its salt doesn’t have a scene or two at a saloon or hall with girls on stage lifting their skirts and kicking up their heels? Or a beautiful enchantress singing songs to soothe the savage cowboy? Or even a comedic performer making them all laugh? This was, as the musical Showboat puts it, life upon the wicked stage. But what exactly were these sometimes wild, sometimes sweet shows that graced the Old West?

I’ve been a bit remiss in pre-promotions for the next novella in my Montana Romance series, The Indomitable Eve, but these theatrical extravaganzas play a bit part in the life of my heroine, Eve deLaurent. Like another famous English rose of the stage, Lily Langtry, Eve comes to America with a traveling theater troupe, performing songs and bits of Shakespeare…in varying states of respectability or not.

The variety show was not a new form of entertainment in the second half of the 19th century. As far back as the 1840s and earlier, stage shows comprised of a little bit of this and a little bit of that—scenes from serious plays, comedic sketches, songs, and yes, dancing girls—had become a staple of middle-class entertainment in America. While the standards of opera and classical theater still entertained the upper echelons of society in the large eastern cities, the common man was drawn to these variety shows with their diverse acts.

Another kind of show that drew huge crowds from the middle and lower classes were circuses. A 19th century traveling circus could consist of music, jugglers, animal acts and “cleaner” entertainments suitable for the whole family. And if you were looking for something a little less “clean”, dance halls and burlesque houses offered, um, quite a show. But these were shows intended for a male audience only. No women allowed. Unless they were on stage. Both kinds of entertainment involved traveling troupe of performers who would show up in even the most remote of towns. In fact, the appearance of a traveling troupe could be the highlight of the year for some of the sleepier western towns.

Lily Langtry, 1899.  A little bit of the inspiration for my character Eve deLaurent

Lily Langtry, 1899. A little bit of the inspiration for my character Eve deLaurent

Entertainment traveled in both directions. The Wild West show became a huge deal back east, and even in Europe. Easterner who had only ever heard about the cowboys and Indians of the West wanted to get a look at them for themselves. Folks like Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok became household names, as did women like Annie Oakley. It’s a bit bittersweet that Native Americans, the sons of once great tribes, found a place in these shows as well. On stage or in the arena, they acted out what had once been vital traditions for eager spectators.

All of these forms of entertainment were popular in the heart of the 19th century. As the century drew to a close and the 20th century loomed, however, a form of entertainment emerged that would encompass all of these shows and become a bigger deal than any of them. It would become wildly popular and morph into later forms of entertainment that we still see on TV and on stage. I’m talking, of course, about vaudeville.

Vaudeville was a curious, constantly-evolving beast. I know I have traditionally thought of it as being an early 20th century thing, but as I researched stage acts for The Indomitable Eve, I learned that it actually started in 1881 and was at its height during the 1890s! The difference between vaudeville and the variety acts and circuses that came before it was that (at first) vaudeville was touted as good, clean family entertainment. Whereas only men were allowed in the house for the racier burlesque shows of an earlier era, the point of vaudeville was to be equally as accessible and inoffensive to women and children as it was to men. In fact, if B.F. Keith, one of the earliest impresarios of vaudeville, thought that a performer had overstepped their bounds with vulgar lyrics to their songs, “bad” words in their acts, or too much exposure, he would send that performer a letter on blue paper letting them know it.

The thing about vaudeville, however, was that performers were constantly pushing the envelope…and audiences loved it. Sure, they were there for the wholesome, clean entertainment of fine singers and knee-slapping comedic acts, but they were also there for those moments when the performers “slipped”. The “naughty nineties” were all about pushing the envelope and attempting to get away with things that people never would have gotten away with in an earlier era.

A Cowgirl Chorus from a vaudeville act at the Columbia Theater in 1903

A Cowgirl Chorus from a vaudeville act at the Columbia Theater in 1903

Part of this has to do with the veneration of the female body that began in the last quarter of the 19th century (and believe me, I want to do a lot more research about where this little gem of 19th century thought came from, because it keeps coming up in further fin de siècle research and reading that I’ve been doing lately). Yes, folks and those who think the late 19th century was prudish, the decades that straddled the birth of the new century were obsessed with the female body as a sexual object. Nowhere was that more evident than on the stage. Even vaudeville.

“Blue” Vaudeville was a sneaky little side-venture of the good, clean fun of regular vaudeville. In “blue” shows, the audience could be expected to see a little skin. It was all about women on stage in various states of undress. The fact that a lot of these women happened to be talented singers and dancers was something of a surprise to the audience, who definitely came for another reason. In a way, these shows were a throwback to rougher times…and a flash forward to a lot of what we’ve got now.

As for my heroine, Eve deLaurent, as you will see in The Indomitable Eve, singing and acting on stage is one thing, but when those blue lines started to get blurred, “life upon the wicked stage ain’t ever what a girl supposes”.

In the end, vaudeville met its decline at the hands of a new entertainment that swept up the masses and held it in its thrall. I’m talking, of course, about cinema. Within the first twenty years of the new millennia, vaudeville—and indeed most stage entertainment—lost its charm in the face of those flickering images on the silver screen. Stage shows went back to what they had been in the early days: unique entertainments for a select audience. Personally, I think those who only go to the movies and never to the theatre are missing out!


[all images in this post are public domain, from Wikicommons]


5 thoughts on “Life Upon the Wicked Stage – 19th Century Entertainment

  1. Pingback: Religion in the Old West (and the East too) | Merry Farmer

  2. Sometimes I think we’d all be a lot better off going to the theater instead of to church.

    Thanks goodness we’re past the era that obsesses over women’s bodies as sex objects.

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