Fantastic History #56: What is Vaudeville? by Caroline Stevermer

“It’s French, therefore it is classy.”
–Frank Cullen, historian of vaudeville and variety theater, in “Stateside, part one,” an episode of the BBC Radio program “Palaces of Pleasure.”

Since Tor Books has just published my fantasy novel, The Glass Magician, which is set in vaudeville in 1905, in a New York City not our own, I’ve been asked to talk a bit about researching vaudeville for historical fantasy.

I want to discuss two questions. What is vaudeville? How is researching historical fantasy different from researching fantasy in general?

Vaudeville, my dictionary tells me, is “a stage show consisting of mixed specialty acts, including songs, dances, comic skits, acrobatic performances, etc.”

Historians don’t agree on the origin of the term. Here’s a partial transcription of historian Frank Cullen’s hypothesis:
[After the U.S. Civil War] “We had to get rid of disease, pernicious social conditions, and parallel to that, in the west, people came to town on weekends to raise hell. And as men began to settle there and prosper, they brought their families. Then came churches. The pressure was on. Now, the smart entrepreneur looked at this and said, ‘Okay I’ve got gambling, prostitution, booze, and entertainment. Entertainment is not causing me any trouble, and I can get away with the booze.’ So the next level after that was to establish themselves as something classy. Entrepreneurs went over to Europe and they saw ‘vaudeville’ on a marquee and they thought ‘That is a classy name! It’s French, therefore it is classy.’ And that’s my theory of the eventual but wholesale adoption of the term vaudeville in place of the benighted term variety.”

My protagonist is a young woman stage magician performing on the vaudeville circuit. In 1905, vaudeville was respectable family entertainment, suitable for women and children. So, New York City in 1905, stage magic in general and at the time, life in vaudeville, and travel from city to city on the vaudeville circuit — these were all research topics I tackled when I began this project. I used primary sources, secondary scholarship, and everything Penn and Teller had on Netflix at the time.

As I am writing the novel’s sequel, set in California in 1906, I’m still interested in those research topics. I am still working with primary sources and secondary scholarship. But sometimes I get lucky.

While writing this blog post, I had the chance to listen to three episodes of the “Palace of Pleasure” radio series, hosted by Geoffrey Wheeler, available on BBC Radio’s iPlayer. Most episodes of this radio program concern the history of music hall entertainment in the U.K. or Europe, but there are three “Stateside” episodes, which address vaudeville and variety entertainment in the United States. My transcription of part of Frank Cullen’s contributions is from the first those three episodes.

It’s pure luck that iPlayer granted me access to those episodes at this time. If you’re interested in researching vaudeville, I hope you’re able to access them when you read this blog post, because the BBC program archive is gigantic and things cycle in and out of iPlayer all the time.

How is researching historical fantasy different from researching fantasy in general?

Most of historical fantasy research is no different from non-fiction research. I prefer primary sources when I can get them. Firsthand accounts bring the setting to life for me. Where possible, I like to read newspapers or magazines published at the time and in the place I’m concerned with. As I’m a visual person, visual media help me enormously. (I particularly recommend as an online resource for period photographs.) Recordings are as evocative. “Palace of Pleasure: Stateside” contains a wonderful sampler of music as well as interviews with performers who worked in vaudeville at the beginning of their career.

When doing research for historical fantasy, however, one often comes across evocative facts that open doors to possibility in the story or close them off. In researching The Glass Magician, I came across the name of a business I found so evocative that I used it in almost every draft of the novel. It sounded right. It was right — a business of that name existed at the right place in the right time period. However, that business still exists to the present day. Using the name of the business, while authentic, would risk jerking a reader who knew the business in a real-world context out of the story. (Using the name of an actual business would probably be foolish on more practical levels, but that’s the one that concerned me.)

Still, I was in love with that particular business. It served an intrinsic role in the story. So I kept the business, but changed the name. I don’t like the invented name half as well as the real name. But I’ve learned to respect that internal process so mysterious to me, which determines what research has to be in the novel and what research can be left out.

I respect the mystery of research. But I also respect the luck of research. Finding the right fact at the right time is often pure serendipity. But if I’m not looking, I will never notice when I find it.


Caroline Stevermer writes fantasy novels and shelters in place in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.