This past weekend, we saw a performance of the musical Gypsy, which is based on the life of the burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee. It traces her early days as a child named Louise Hovick, performing with her sister June in vaudeville under the influence and guidance of their extraordinarily controlling and commanding mother. It had me thinking about vaudeville.
I first heard of vaudeville, I think, in an Archie comic strip, where the high school principal, Mr. Weatherbee, exclaims “Vaudeville!” after being hit in the face with a pie. Quite reasonably, I assumed it was a place. Even after I learned that it was a word for a kind of variety show, I still assumed that it was an eponym. There had to be an original Vaudeville, right? Presumably in New York City, just like Broadway and Tin Pan Alley?
Well… no. New York City was the Emerald City of American vaudeville, true, but it didn’t start there, and there was no place in the city called Vaudeville. If the word looks French to you, you’re right: it came from France. But there’s no place in France called Vaudeville either. The word vaudeville, like the entertainment form itself, evolved over a few centuries.
It’s not that there were vaudeville performances centuries ago. The variety show genre called vaudeville appeared in France and then the US and Canada in the mid-late 1800s, and it had a good half-century run before having its lunch definitively eaten by motion pictures. But whereas the North American vaudeville quickly came to be what was also called variety theater, similar to the British music hall genre, its French origins were a light drama with songs interspersed. And the French form in turn came from the genre of comédie en vaudevilles, which was a sort of comic opera with popular songs, often as part of a sort of variety show. It got its name from the popular songs that were used in it – they were the vaudevilles.
Yes, vaudeville was first the name of the kind of popular song used in these comic operas. It was a genre of song that developed in the 1600s and 1700s. The name is often said to come from voix de ville, ‘voice of the city’ (and not New York City, not yet). But that voix de ville is likely to have been a pun (or even a folk etymology) on the name of an older genre that fed into it: vaudevire.
And what is vaudevire? It’s vau de Vire – the Vire valley, i.e., the valley of the Vire river, in Normandy, France. That’s where one Olivier Basselin, in the early 1400s, wrote a bunch of popular drinking songs. And in the early 1600s, one Jean le Houx published a collection of songs, Le Livre des Chants nouveaux de Vaudevire, purportedly by Basselin but probably by le Houx himself. This collection broadly popularized the songs, giving rise to the genre.
The Vire valley is a nice enough place, in that part of France that was at one time invaded by Norsemen (the Normans), who subsequently invaded England and brought French to it, resulting (after centuries of blending) in this language you’re reading right now. The region is the home of the andouille sausage. It has also been a site of much military action over the centuries, from the Hundred Years’ War to World War II. After D-Day, the town of Vire was bombed nearly out of existence.
It would be tempting to say that vaudeville bombed out of existence too, but it’s not that the shows were met with boos or stony silence or flying fruit. It’s just that people found other forms of entertainment, and, more to the point, the people who had been presenting vaudeville found more reliable and cost-efficient ways to make money: converting their vaudeville halls into movie theatres. Many people who got their start in vaudeville went on to be movie stars – just about every actor you’ve ever heard of who was in movies before 1950, in fact.
Gyspy Rose Lee, who moved on from vaudeville to burlesque, made a couple of movies, too. But film acting wasn’t her forte. Her sister June, on the other hand, made a good career in movies, TV, and live theatre under the modified name June Havoc. She died in 2010. The past is not as long ago as it may seem.
And vaudeville may be a thing of the past, but it was a forerunner of talk shows, sketch comedy (including Saturday Night Live), stand-up comedians, and talent shows such as America’s Got Talent. And, for that matter, YouTube and TikTok. Oh, and of course burlesque – which is still a thing, in case you didn’t know.