Follow these links to an online treasure trove of vaudeville history at the Library of Congress:
Bob Hope and American Variety – Vaudeville
Bob Hope and American Variety – The Bill
The American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment 1870-1920
List of Variety Stage Films
From the early 1880s to the end of the 1920s vaudeville was the most popular form of live entertainment in the United States. A vaudeville show was a succession of seven to ten live stage acts, the “bill,” which built to a climax with the performance of its top star, the “headliner.” A vaudeville bill always included comedians and musicians, but might have included dancers, acrobats, trained animals, magicians, and novelty performers as well. Its form and content had been shaped by a wide range of 19th century diversions, including minstrel shows, the circus, medicine shows, traveling repertoire companies, curio museums, wild west shows, chautauquas, and British Music Hall.
The growth of vaudeville in the late 19th century reflected the rise of urbanization and industrialization in America. Vaudeville’s audiences, as well as many of its stars, were drawn from the newly immigrated working classes. Just as goods in the late 19th century could be manufactured in a central location and shipped throughout the country, successful vaudeville routines and tours were first established in New York and other large cities and would then be booked on a tour lasting for months. The act would change little as it was performed throughout the United States. In this sense, vaudeville was a precursor of mass media — a means of creating and sharing a national culture. While its popularity declined after the 1920s, vaudeville’s influence on most popular entertainment forms of the 20th century — musical comedy, motion pictures, music, radio, television — was pervasive.