Date of Degree
Theatre and Performance Studies
Vaudeville was the most popular form of entertainment in the United States, from roughly the 1890s through World War I. In fact, it can reasonably be called the first truly mass form of entertainment in the United States, and perhaps the world. This dissertation examines how vaudeville grew as the first national, large-scale form of amusement in America. It attempts to locate the rise of this first form of mass entertainment within an era when powerful businessmen in many industries were beginning to market products and services to a national market as well.
Furthermore, this dissertation examines some of the key promotional practices used by the vaudeville industry. Chief among them were consistent claims of purity and wholesomeness with regard to the content of vaudeville acts. It was promised that no act seen in vaudeville would offend a theatregoer. At the same time, however, vaudeville was clearly full of acts that were sexually provocative, titillating, and reminiscent of the burlesque hall stage. Thus, what begins to emerge is a picture of promotional and marketing practices that promised moral purity, while the product that vaudeville offered was often times anything but pure. This work attempts to explain this rift by comparing the marketing practices of vaudeville to those of other large industries at the time. It will be seen that the tactics used by the vaudeville chiefs—promises of purity, wholesomeness, and sterility—were much like the claims employed by dozens of other early mass-marketers, who claimed their products were, above all else, clean, safe, pure, honest, and free from taint of any kind. In promoting their products as such, it is argued herein, early mass marketers were in fact trying to allay anxieties over the participation in mass-scale commerce and were preparing the American populace as a responsive mass market that had no qualms about buying its goods and services from large, faceless commercial entities headquartered, in many cases, in cities hundreds of miles away. Such tactics not only permitted the vaudeville chiefs to introduce the first form of mass entertainment into the American market, but also allowed them to offer an increasingly ribald and sexually tantalizing array of entertainment to the American public (much of which is detailed in this work), thus liberalizing views of sexuality in general and the female body in particular (even though it also led to the further objectification of the female body). Finally, this dissertation closely examines a number of popular female performers, such as Eva Tanguay and Annette Kellerman, who used their body and their sexuality to craft a successful mass entertainment product.
Erdman, Andrew L., "Blue Vaudeville: Sex, Morals, and the Mass-Marketing of Amusement, 1895-1915" (2001). CUNY Academic Works.