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The little train robbery / Thomas A. Edison, Inc. 1905.

[Detail] The little train robbery / Thomas A. Edison, Inc. 1905

Historical Comprehension: Vaudeville and Motion Pictures

Vaudeville was a popular stage entertainment in the United States during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Actors, singers, athletes, comedians, magicians, dancers, and other performers entertained middle-class audiences in theaters across the country. This collection features footage of vaudeville entertainers such as modern-day Hercules, Eugene Sandow, dancers such as the Leander Sisters and Carmencita, Venezuelan rope and slack wire walker Juan Caicedo, and the acrobatic comic duo, Robetta and Doretto. A search on the term, vaudeville, results in audio recordings of comic songs such as Gasoline Gus and His Jitney Bus and a variety of vaudeville films.

Film projectors entered vaudeville theaters in 1896 and they eventually became the biggest attraction on the bill. While the comic film, Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show exaggerates people's reaction to the realism of the silver screen, it also demonstrates how theaters featured a variety of short films. Motion pictures such as The Enchanted Drawing and The Magician employ trick photography as a modern magic show, almost impossible to duplicate as a live stage performance. Meanwhile, documentaries such as the series of films depicting the aftermath of a cyclone in Galveston, Texas, including, Panorama of Galveston Power House and the Panoramic View of Tremont Hotel, Galveston displayed both the devastation of the area and the impressive ability of the motion picture camera to provide news images across the country.

A year later, footage of President William McKinley's funeral circulated the theaters in a similar series. (Additional themes are listed in the Special Presentation, "Overview of Edison Motion Pictures by Genre.")

While vaudeville temporarily flourished by incorporating motion pictures in their programs, the film industry eventually took center stage as many vaudeville entertainers leapt to the silver screen and theaters were converted to accommodate movies. Additional films and other vaudeville materials are available in the American Memory collection, American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment 1870-1920.

  • What styles of humor are used in comic songs such as Gasoline Gus and His Jitney Bus?
  • Why do you think that so many vaudeville performers were featured in early films?
  • What do you think were the potential benefits for audiences and motion picture distributors in featuring a vaudeville performance on film?
  • How did vaudeville and other forms of popular entertainment influence the development of motion pictures?
  • Why do you think that motion pictures eventually became more popular than vaudeville?
  • Are certain elements of vaudeville still apparent in contemporary motion pictures?