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"Mrs Fred Allen"
For 50 years- form 1875 to 1925- vaudeville was the popular entertainment of the masses. Nomadic tribes of nondescript players roamed the land. With his brash manner, flashy clothes, capes and cane, and accompanied by his gaudy womenfolk, the vaudevillian brought happiness and excitement to the communities he visited. He spent his money freely and made friends easily.
American vaudeville came into being after the civil war, a time when growing urbanization combined with improving transportation and communication technologies at a time when savvy business men were able to incorporate them into successful circuits of both palatial theaters and lesser halls.
Traveling entertainers certainly existed prior to the Civil War, but these took the form of medicine shows and circuses, while music halls and burlesque houses provided a less genteel entertainment. The minstrel show began to be popular in the 1840's, featuring comic sketches and music. Most of these entertainments were intended for a male only audience, and therefore not suitable for families.
In the 1880s, theater owners hit upon the idea of cleaning up the acts in order to attract the family audience that was growing with the rise of the middle class. In Fred Allen's hometown of Boston, in 1885, B.F. Keith partnered with E.F. Albee to manage a circuit of theaters in the major cities of the Eastern US, beginning with Boston' Bijou. Keith was an early pioneer of the Continuous Entertainment- there would be an act on stage from 10 am through 11pm. One of the largest problems for theater owners was to constantly have fresh acts that their local patrons had not seen before. In order to supply the great need for talent was demanded, Keith and Albee formed the United Booking Artists and later the Vaudeville Manager's Association. This monopoly meant that a performer that was blackballed from the Keith Circuit would have a very tough time of it, being relegated to only performing in 'small-time' houses.
"There were hypnotists, iron-jawed ladies, one-legged dancers, one-armed cornetists, female impersonators, male impersonators, Irish comedians, Jewish, blackface, German, Swedish, Italian and rube comedians, dramatic actors, Hindu conjurers, ventriloquists, bag punchers, clay modelers and educated geese: all traveling from hamlet to town to city, presenting their shows. Vaudeville asked only that you own an animal or an instrument, or have a minimum of talent or a maximum of nerve. With these dubious assets vaudeville offered fame and riches. It was up to you."
Vaudeville had a long and slow death. The Big Time theaters along with the small time began to feature more and more motion pictures. Owners soon found that movies drew a bigger audience that cost the theater owners less than paying live performers. The Keith-Albee-Orpheum theater chain entered a financial arrangement with Joseph P. Kennedy's Film Booking Offices and RCA to become Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) Pictures.
At the same time radio began to become popular. Vaudeville comedians had to learn to play to a variety of audiences. This lent talent to the early motion picture industry, such as W.C. Fields, Buster Keaton, Al Jolson, Judy Garland, and the Marx Brothers. Many of the early radio comedians were vaudevillians who successfully made the transition. These included Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, who would become Amos 'n' Andy, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Edgar Bergen, Kate Smith, Jimmy Durante, Eddie Cantor, Burns and Allen, and of course, Fred Allen.