Thursday, May 28, 2015

Tony Pastor, father of vaudeville

     Before there was the Internet, there was television. Before there was television, there was radio. Before there was radio, there was Hollywood. Before there was Hollywood, there was Broadway. Before there was Broadway, there was vaudeville. America's quest for entertainment is what archaeologists might call culture. We don't throw Christians to the lions; we throw pies at the Three Stooges. It all began with vaudeville, and vaudeville began with Tony Pastor, who learned show business and self-promotion from P.T. Barnum, whom he went to sing for professionally at age 12. 
     Born on May 28, 1837, the third son of a Spanish immigrant barber and his wife, Tony Pastor first sang publicly at age 9 at a temperance meeting. Oddly enough, his vaudeville grew out of a saloon in the Bowery. After working at P.T. Barnum's American Museum at age 12, Pastor struck out on his own. He performed in blackface at minstrel shows, was a ringmaster for a circus, and as a comic singer on stage in Soho before there was a Soho.
     All of this was training and experience that served him well later.
     Vaudeville takes its name from drinking songs and parodies written in the first half of the 15th century by Olivier Basselin, who was born around 1400 in Val-de-Vire, Normandy. His music became known as vaudeville, a corruption of his hometown's name. Basselin died battling the English in the Battle of Formigny on April 15, 1450, which the French won decisively. His songs were popular, as 150 years after his death, Jean Le Houx, a lawyer, published Basselin's songs. But he added a few of his own.
     Three years before the American Civil War, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published a poem, “Olivier Basselin,” which pointed out that while he was a simple worker who made wool, Basselin's music outlived the barons, knights and clergy he mocked. This points out that as the Civil War began, Americans were quite familiar with vaudeville-style music.
     After the Civil War, Tony Pastor familiarized Americans with vaudeville theater. He began staging shows that featured acrobats, jugglers, comics, singers and even an occasional act from a play. These were spectaculars which had their roots in PT. Barnum's shows, and a cousin in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Shows.
     Pastor had established himself as a songwriter during a four-year run during the Civil War at Robert Butler's American Music Hall, at 444 Broadway in Manhattan. The shows were bawdy, and the drinking constant. Most of the customers were male but he had a plan to attract women to his shows. He went for cleaner shows that were just as entertaining. In 1865, he opened Tony Pastor's Opera House in the Bowery. He also began a minstrel touring show that was also clean cut. But his theater -- opera house -- sold booze. While he made inroads in attracting females and families, it was not until October 24, 1881, when he opened his Fourteenth Street Theater that he found huge success. In advertisements, he called his theater “the first specialty and vaudeville theatre of America, catering to polite tastes, aiming to amuse, and fully up to current times and topics.”
    He called his theater “the Great Family Resort of the City.” Fridays were ladies' nights, as he offered as door prizes dishes, coal, bonnets, flour, dress patterns, and sacks of potatoes. He did OK, but when he changed the prizes to sewing machines and silk dresses, the women poured in. Patriotic music and ragtime were the specialties of his house. And recalling P.T. Barnum's use of Jenny Lind to sell tickets, Pastor took a farm girl named Helen Louise Leonard and turned her into Lillian Russell. He told audiences she was “the beautiful English ballad singer I've imported at great trouble and expense.” Imported from Clinton, Iowa.
     But after 32 years in show business beginning at 12, Pastor had achieved overnight success. American entrepreneurs quickly treated him in the grand tradition of American capitalism by copying him. Benjamin Franklin Keith was among the first to copy, re-casting his museum/theater  Boston as a clean cut theater. Keith became the most successful man in vaudeville, eventually operating hundreds of theaters across the United States. Keith and his partner Edward F. Albee made sure there was something for everyone in their shows.
     As for Pastor, despite all the wholesomeness of his shows, the theater he rented shared its building with Tammany Hall, the corrupt Democratic Party organization that used public office to collect bribes and kickbacks.
      But bad bedfellows aside, Pastor was an American theatrical success in the late 19th century. He died in New York on August 26, 1908. In the musical, “Hello Dolly,” songwriter Jerry Herman gave him a nod, including in one of his songs the line, “We'll join the Astors at Tony Pastor's.”

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.


  1. Was B.F. Keith the Keith of Radio-Keith-Orpheum?

    1. Indeed he is. But Joe Kennedy and David Sarnoff founded RKO. They bought out a bunch of theaters. BF Keith died in 1914. RKO was formed in 1928. But it was really Kennedy and Sarnoff at the beginning.
      Three Keith-Albee Theaters left in USA: In DC, Queens and Huntington WV just down the road a ways from Poca