Rather than appeal solely to the working class, vaudeville
attempted to unite audiences familiar with variety and melodrama
with audiences more acquainted with a quiet audience suitable
for a lady. Cheap theaters in the Bowery district, minstrel
shows (the Virginia Minstrels were a smash hit in 18431),
variety shows (emerging in the late 1850s, they might include
Broadway singers, dancers, comedians, circus performers,
and a burlesque on a popular or classic play2),
and dime museums offered alternative entertainment to those
pushed out of upper-class venues. Reformers denounced concert
saloons and theaters throughout Manhattan in 1880s into 1890.3 "But
vaudeville, as turn-of-the-century Americans understood it,
was variety theatre that entrepreneurs made tasteful for
middle-class women and men and their families by removing
the smoky, boozy, licentious male atmosphere." 4 Vaudeville
entrepreneur Tony Pastor established such a venue on 14th
Street in 1881.5 In
1893 B.F. Keith and Edward F. Albee opened a theater in New
York's Union Square; their employees carried cards asking
audience members to not talk and not to stamp their feet
or pound their canes on the floor.6 By
1894, the theater was popular with shoppers, and was therefore
clean enough to host women and children. 7 But
vaudeville was also entertaining enough for the poor: New
York machine politician Tim Sullivan in 1893 began the tradition
of feeding as many as 5,000 needy people a free Christmas
dinner, where local vaudeville singers and musicians entertained
the diners. 8
If vaudeville's attempt to unite audiences recall the
Yellow Kid, the content of some skits also appear relevant.
Featured child acts—real-life Yellow Kids—faced condemnation
by moral reformers by the late-nineteenth century. Elbridge
T. Gerry, who founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty
to Children in 1875, said child actors were lured into vaudeville
deals: "Gathered into troupes, the children are then drilled
into a so-called musical performance of some light opera,
or in some silly little song and dance; they are taught the
gestures, walk, and action of the minor business of the stage,
or are required to learn the libretto of the opera by heart,
and are instructed how to render it for the approval of the
Keaton, who was in vaudeville as a child star beginning in
about 1895 noted his father's anger at the Gerry Society:
"What most burned up Pop was that there were then thousands
of homeless and hungry abandoned children of my age wandering
around the streets of New York, selling newspapers, shining
shoes, playing the fiddle on the Hudson River ferryboats,
and thousands of other small children working with their
parents in the tenement sweatshops on the Lower East Side.
Pop couldn't understand why the S.P.C.C. people didn't devote all of their time, energy, and money to helping
Victorian tensions over what was appropriate for children
fed into the controversy over the Yellow Kid as well. Keaton,
his act also that of a mischievous boy, was a desired commodity
by the public and managers: "The reason managers approved
of my being featured was because I was unique, being at that
time the only little hell-raising Huck Finn type boy in vaudeville."11
The consistent appearance of entertainment venues points
to the influence of vaudeville and its entertainment predecessors
on the formation of the Yellow Kid's character. "Amateur
Circus: The Smallest Show on Earth" (New York World, April 26, 1896)—the second appearance of a "circus" in the series, shows
Outcault's focus on the pleasures of entertainment, as does
"The Residents of Hogan's Alley Visit Coney Island" (May
24, 1896), where we see a prominent reference to vaudeville:
Willie Polk's Seaside Museum & Vaudeville Specialty
Company is emblazoned across an entranceway filled with children.
We see a variety show of sorts in "The Opening of the Hogan's Alley Roof Garden" as well (New York World, July 26, 1896). Yellow Kid historian Bill Blackbeard
writes: "Roof gardens, open-air places of amusement that
offered dinging and dancing to those that could afford them,
first opened atop hotels and other commercial buildings in
the 1880s. The 1890s marked the peak of their popularity
when the most fashionable and successful, like that above
Madison Square Garden, attracted well-heeled crowds with
shows featuring vaudeville entertainers."12 Despite
the luxurious setting here, vaudeville offered a nexus where lower
and upper class worlds could meet.
But was Outcault facing the same pressure to tone down his cartoons that affected theater entertainment? The Riccadonna girls,
who appear to be inspired by burlesque or vaudeville dancers,
appear more demure in "The Studio Party in McFadden's
Flats" (New York Journal, January 3, 1897); perhaps this shows editors' pressure
on Outcault to sanitize his work tp appeal to a broad audience, as entertainment entrepreneurs felt the need to sanitize
vaudeville. In a January 10, 1897 Journal feature of "De Yaller
Kid's Mother Goose Vaudeville Co. L't'd," readers
see a stage within a stage, but are also privy to the orchestra,
placing viewers most clearly in the role of audience member.
A basket of eggs bears the sign warning the audience: "Dese
Eggs is fer theatrical use," perhaps mocking the rigid
rules regarding audience behavior, while showing the temptations
still present in the setting. In the upper boxes, traditionally
the better seating, a sign reads, "Dese Boxes is reserved
fer people wot asks fer free passes. Drinks will be served
free." Perhaps Outcault is pointing out the perks of the
rich in an establishment that wants to be accepted by them—or fantasizing about putting the poor in the upper-class
seating. "The Amateur Dime Museum in Hogan's Alley" (World,
October 4, 1896), puts the kids in a typical spot—on the
outside looking in at the entertainment. In most Yellow Kid comics, readers are in the same position. A sign shows the
museum is also a vaudeville show; admission is only 1 cent,
so it is likely they will go in; because the reader never sees the interior here or in the Coney Island cartoon, perhaps this reflects its growing identification with lower-class pleasures.
|The Riccadonna Sisters.
1 Stott, Richard B. Workers in the Metropolis: Class, Ethnicity, and Youth in Antebellum New York City. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990. 26.
1 Stott 227.
3 Snyder, Robert W. The Voice of the City: Vaudeville and Popular Culture in New York. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989. 25.
1 Snyder 12.
1 Snyder 21.
1 DiMeglio, John E. Vaudeville U.S.A. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1973. The first
20 years of the 20th century saw groups such as the
United Irish Societies of New York put pressure on theater
managers to get rid of ethnic jokes (44). "Holy gee" was
one of the banned phrases in Keith houses in 1914 (50).
1 Snyder 26.
1 Mohl, Raymond A. The Making of Urban America. Wilmington: SR Books (1997, 2d ed.). 135.
1 Gerry, Elbridge T. "Children of the Stage." American Vaudeville As Seen By Its Contemporaries. Ed. by Charles W. Stein. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984. 138.
1 Keaton, Buster, and Elsie Janis, "Buster Keaton and Elsie Janis Clash with the Gerry Society." American Vaudeville As Seen By Its Contemporaries. Ed. by Charles W. Stein. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984. 148.
1 Keaton 146.
1 Blackbeard, Bill. Introduction. R. F. Outcault's The Yellow Kid: A Centennial Celebration of the Kid Who Started the Comics. Northampton, MA: Kitchen Sink Press, 1995. 47.