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Vaudeville Melodies

Popular Musicians and Mass Entertainment in American Culture, 1870-1929

Vaudeville Melodies

Popular Musicians and Mass Entertainment in American Culture, 1870-1929

If you enjoy popular music and culture today, you have vaudeville to thank. From the 1870s until the 1920s, vaudeville was the dominant context for popular entertainment in the United States, laying the groundwork for the music industry we know today.

In Vaudeville Melodies, Nicholas Gebhardt introduces us to the performers, managers, and audiences who turned disjointed variety show acts into a phenomenally successful business. First introduced in the late nineteenth century, by 1915 vaudeville was being performed across the globe, incorporating thousands of performers from every branch of show business. Its astronomical success relied on a huge network of theatres, each part of a circuit and administered from centralized booking offices. Gebhardt shows us how vaudeville transformed relationships among performers, managers, and audiences, and argues that these changes affected popular music culture in ways we are still seeing today. Drawing on firsthand accounts, Gebhardt explores the practices by which vaudeville performers came to understand what it meant to entertain an audience, the conditions in which they worked, the institutions they relied upon, and the values they imagined were essential to their success.

208 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2017

Culture Studies

History: American History

Music: Ethnomusicology, General Music


“In this lively and immensely readable book, Gebhardt makes a convincing case that vaudeville was responsible for instituting a set of practices and conventions that affected all areas of popular performance.”

Derek Scott, University of Leeds

“Gebhardt’s Vaudeville Melodies explores how late-nineteenth century American political economy—a combination of progressive ideology and corporate-administrative capitalism—forged a space for the invention of show business and the idea of the modern entertainer. Moving between the stage and the corporate office, Gebhardt’s theoretically sophisticated study is a powerful argument for a dynamic, relational understanding of popular culture. Neither a top-down nor a bottom-up phenomenon, vaudeville emerged from the interplay of performers, managers, and audiences. Deftly weaving together diverse sources—performer biographies, popular press accounts, film, and music—Gebhardt provides a new and more holistic account of the creation and development of this prototypically modern American entertainment. VaudevilleMelodies will be an essential resource for scholars of vaudeville, popular music, and popular culture generally. More than just a renewal of the scholarship on vaudeville, Vaudeville Melodies offers a brilliant analysis of the very idea of entertainment in modern American mass culture, an analysis as applicable to the early-twenty-first century as it is to the early-twentieth century.”

Andrew Berish | author of Lonesome Roads and Streets of Dreams: Place, Mobility & Race in Jazz of the 1930s and ‘40s

“In this theoretically sophisticated overview of American vaudeville, Gebhardt provides a first-rate introduction to what became the dominant site for a wide-range of entertainments presented across the globe in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century. He offers a brilliant analysis of the evolution of this uniquely American institution, from its beginnings as a disjointed, rough-and-tumble, often crude amusement to its phenomenal success as a business enterprise. . . . The author’s knowledge of sources—both long-time standards and recently published—is particularly impressive. A valuable resource for those interested in vaudeville, popular music, and popular culture generally. . . . Highly recommended.”

D. B. Wilmeth | Choice

“Gebhardt mines performers' memoirs, along with films and cartoons, to convey how conventions established in vaudeville theaters echoed in the postvaudeville world through different forms of mass media. . .Gebhardt argues persuasively that the charged and fertile relationship between vaudevillians and their fans still has much to teach us about popular culture.”

The Journal of American History

“Essential reading not only for its exploration of practice, but also for its focus on how this business was shaped and changed by the circuits, the stress on respectable family entertainment, its star system, and the continuous show that was vaudeville. . .[Vaudeville Melodies], although an indisputably academic work, will have appeal beyond the specialist historian.”

International Association for the Study of Popular Music Journal

“A thoroughly researched and passionately written story of performer-audience relationships, evidenced by the author’s enormous respect for vaudeville artists struggling amid a rising corporate culture and commodification of show business.”

The American Historical Review

Table of Contents



1. That’s Entertainment
2. There’s No Business Like Show Business
3. Rites of Passage
4. Elementary Structures
5. Show Me the Money
6. On with the Show
7. In Search of an Audience
8. Vaudeville Melodies
9. Nothing Succeeds Like Success
10. Applause


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