Bob Hope's first tours in vaudeville were as half of a two-man dancing team. The act appeared in "small time" vaudeville houses where ticket prices were as low as ten cents, and performances were "continuous," with as many as six shows each day. Bob Hope, like most vaudeville performers, gained his professional training in these small time theaters.
Within five years of his start in vaudeville Bob Hope was in the "big time," playing the expensive houses where the most popular acts played. In big time vaudeville there were only two shows performed each day -- the theaters were called "two-a-days" -- and tickets cost as much as $2.00 each. The pinnacle of the big time was New York City's Palace Theatre, where every vaudevillian aspired to perform. Bob Hope played the Palace in 1931 and in 1932.
All vaudeville comedy acts were dependent, in some part, on stock materials for inspiration. This tradition has continued in variety comedy entertainment in all of its forms, from stage to television, drawing upon what theater historian Brooks McNamara calls, "a shared body of traditional stock material." The situation comedies popular on television today are built from many of the same raw materials that shaped medicine and minstrel shows in the early nineteenth- century as well as shaping vaudeville.
Stock materials include jokes and song parodies; monologs -- strings of jokes or comic lectures; bits -- two- or three-person joke routines; and sketches -- short comic scenes, often with a story. To these stock materials comedians add what cannot be transcribed in words, the physical comedy, or the "business" -- the humor of inflections and body language at which so many vaudevillians excelled.
The content of the vaudeville show reflected the ethnic make-up of its primary audience in complex ways. Vaudeville performers were often from the same working-class and immigrant backgrounds as their audiences. Yet the relaxation and laughter they provided vaudeville patrons was sometimes achieved at the expense of other working-class American groups. Humor based on ethnic characterizations was a major component of many vaudeville routines, as it had been in folk-culture-based entertainment and other forms of popular culture. "Blackface" characterizations of African Americans were carried over from minstrelsy. "Dialect acts" featured comic caricatures of many other ethnic groups, most commonly Irish, Italians, Germans, and Jews.
Audiences related to ethnic caricature acts in a number of ways. Many audiences, daily forced to conform to society's norms, enjoyed the free, uninhibited expression of blackface comedians and the baggy pants "low comedy" of many dialect acts. They enjoyed recognizing and laughing at performances based on their own ethnic identities. At the same time, some vaudeville acts provided a means of assimilation for members of the audience by enabling them to laugh at other ethnic groups, "outsiders."
By the end of vaudeville's heyday, the early 1930s, most ethnic acts had been eliminated from the bill or toned down to be less offensive. However, ethnic caricatures continued to thrive in radio programs such as Amos 'n' Andy, Life with Luigi, and The Goldbergs, and in the blackface acts of entertainers such as Al Jolson.
Typical Vaudeville Program
This program from New York's premier vaudeville theater shows how a typical vaudeville show was organized. It opens with a newsreel so latecomers will not miss a live act. The bill includes a novelty act--a singing baseball pitcher--a miniature drama, and a return engagement by a vaudevillian of years back, Ethel Levey, who was George M. Cohan's ex-wife. The headliners of this show at the Palace are Lou Clayton and Cliff Edwards. Clayton, a tap dancer, later appeared with Jimmy Durante and with Eddie Jackson. Edwards was a popular singer of the 1920s whose career was revived in 1940 when he sang "When You Wish Upon a Star" in Walt Disney's Pinocchio.
Ledger from B. F. Keith's Theater, Indianapolis
This ledger from Keith's Theater in Indianapolis, Indiana, provides a detailed view of "big-time" vaudeville in the early 1920s. The weekly bill and the performers' salaries are listed on the lower left-hand page. Daily receipts are posted above the bill. Expenses make up the other entries.
Ledger book from B.F. Keith's Theater, Indianapolis, August 29, 1921-June 14, 1925. Handwritten manuscript, with later annotations. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (10)
Bob Hope at the Palace Theatre
This ledger book from the “big-time” Palace Theatre in New York documents the vaudeville acts on each week’s bill, what each act was paid for the week, the name of the act’s agent, and additional costs incurred by the performers. In February 1931, Bob Hope performed for the first time at the Palace Theatre. Comedienne Beatrice Lillie and the band of Noble Sissle also appeared on the bill. Hope took out two ads in Variety for that week; the ledger entry shows that the cost of these ads was deducted from his salary. In that same issue of Variety, the influential trade journal gave Hope's act a lukewarm, but prescient, review, stating, "He is a nice performer of the flip comedy type, and he has his own style. These natural resources should serve him well later on."
1 of 4
Ledger book from the Palace Theatre, New York, February 27, 1928–April 23, 1932. Page 2 - Page 3 - Page 4 - Page 5 - Page 6 - Page 7 - Page 8 - Page 9 - Page 10 - Page 11 - Page 12 - Page 13 - Page 14. Handwritten manuscript. Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (10A)
Ad in Variety, February 25, 1931. Reproduction. General Collections, Library of Congress (10B)
Ad in Variety, February 25, 1931. Reproduction. General Collections, Library of Congress (10C)
Palace Theatre, New York Palace Theatre, New York, 1915. Copyprint. Courtesy of the Theatre Historical Society of America, Elmhurst, Illinois (22)
1929 Bob Hope Act Run-down
Bob Hope always tinkered with his material in an attempt to perfect it. Throughout the Bob Hope Collection are Hope's own handwritten notes on scripts and joke sheets. This outline of his act, listing jokes, exchanges, and songs is on the back of a 1929 letter from his agent.
Verso of letter from William Jacobs Agency with Bob Hope's notes on a routine, May 6, 1929. Holograph manuscript. (Page 2) Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (11)
Hope's 1926 Vaudeville Tour
In 1926 Lester Hope and George Byrne were booked on a tour in which the headliners were eighteen-year-old siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. The Hilton Sisters's show featured the twins telling stories of their lives, playing saxophone and clarinet duets, and dancing with Hope and Byrne.
Brochure for "Siamese Twins" Daisy and Violet Hilton, ca. 1925. Page 2 - Page 3 - Page 4. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (12)
Lester Hope and George Byrne
The team of Lester Hope and George Byrne achieved considerable success from 1925 to 1927, touring the small-time vaudeville theaters with a dance act that they expanded to include songs and comedy.
1 of 2
Publicity photograph of George Byrne and Lester Hope, ca. 1925. Copyprint. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (13)
Business card for Byrne and Hope, ca. 1925. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (13a)
Gus Sun Promotional Booklet
In 1924, Bob Hope and his first touring partner, Lloyd “Lefty” Durbin, were booked in "tabloid" shows on the Ohio-based, small-time, Gus Sun circuit. "Tab" shows were low-budget, miniature vaudeville shows and musical comedies, which played in rural areas and small towns.
Touring in vaudeville was never easy and in the small-time it could be particularly arduous. "Lefty" Durbin died on the road in 1925. Initially, it was thought that food poisoning was the cause. In fact, he succumbed to tuberculosis.
Gus Sun Booking Exchange Program. Springfield, Ohio: Gus Sun Booking Exchange Company, 1925. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (15)
Map of Hope's 1929-1930 Vaudeville Tour
This map represents one year of touring by Bob Hope on the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit. It was Hope's first national tour, and his act was called Keep Smiling. Veteran gag writer Al Boasberg assisted in writing Hope's material. Hope recreated part of the act on a 1955 Ed Sullivan television program, which can be seen in the television section of this exhibit.
Map of Hope's 1929-1930 Vaudeville Tour. Created for exhibition, 2000 (18)
Ballyhoo of 1932 Script Page
The Ballyhoo of 1932 revue starred Willie and Eugene Howard and Bob Hope. Similar to a vaudeville show, a revue usually consists of sketches, songs, and comedians, but has no overall plot. Unlike a vaudeville show, however, a revue runs for a significant period of time and may have a conceptual continuity to its acts. As this page indicates, Hope was the master of ceremonies in Ballyhoo. At the upper right, written in Hope's hand, is his remark to the audience about the opening scene of the revue.
Page from Ballyhoo of 1932 script. Typed manuscript with handwritten annotations, 1932. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (22a)
The Stratford Theater, Chicago
As Hope and Byrne toured, they added more comedy to the act. When Hope found that he had a knack as a master of ceremonies, the act split, and Hope was booked as an "M.C." at the Stratford Theater in Chicago in an engagement that would be seminal to his career. A master of ceremonies is a host, the link between the performance and the audience-providing continuity between scenes or acts by telling jokes, introducing performers, and assuring that the entertainment does not stop even if delays occurred backstage. Hope was such a success as a master of ceremonies in this Chicago engagement that his initial two-week booking was extended to six months.
1 of 2
Advertisement for the Stratford Theater from the Chicago Daily Tribune, August 23, 1928. Detail of advertisement. Reproduction. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (34A)
The Stratford Theatre, Chicago, ca. 1920. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society (17)
Ziegfeld Follies Program, 1912
Florenz Ziegfeld broke the color barrier in theater by hiring Bert Williams for his Follies of 1910, in which Williams was a sensation. He appeared in most of the editions of the Follies mounted in the 1910s and was among Ziegfeld's top paid stars.
"Tin Pan Alley" was a term given to West 28th Street in New York City, where many music publishers were located in the late nineteenth century. It came to represent the whole burgeoning popular music business of the turn of the twentieth century. Tin Pan Alley music publishers mass-produced songs and promoted them as merchandise. Composers were under contract to the publishers and churned out vast numbers of songs to reflect and exploit the topics of the day, and to imitate existing hit songs. Publishers employed a number of means to promote and market the songs, with vaudevillians playing a major role in their efforts.
A Tin Pan Alley Pioneer
This sentimental song was the first major hit of Tin Pan Alley composer Harry Von Tilzer (1872-1946). Von Tilzer claimed that his publisher paid him fifteen dollars for the song which sold 2,000,000 copies. He later founded his own publishing company. It was the tinny sound of Von Tilzer's piano which inspired the phrase "Tin Pan Alley" used to refer to music publishers' offices on West 28th Street and further uptown, in the early twentieth century.
Von Tilzer Music Company Advertisement
Vaudeville performances of songs resulted directly in sheet music sales. Song publishers of the vaudeville era aggressively marketed their new products to vaudeville performers in a number of ways. "Song-pluggers," salesmen who demonstrated new songs and coaxed variety performers to adopt them, worked for all major music publishers. Ads such as this in the trade newspaper, Variety, reached on-the-road performers who were inaccessible to the pluggers.
Advertisement in Variety, 1913. Reproduction. Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (25b)
As Sung By . . .
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, vaudeville performers were paid by music publishers to sing the publishers' new songs. Covers of popular sheet music in the early twentieth century featured photographs of the vaudeville stars, promoting the performer as well as the song.
To ensure that a publisher's song catalog received the widest possible dissemination and sales, publishers commissioned instrumental and vocal arrangements of new works in all combinations then popular.
1 of 2
Harry Von Tilzer. "Latest Popular Mandolin, Banjo & Guitar Arrangements." New York: Shapiro, Bernstein & Tilzer, 1901. Sheet Music. Music Division, Library of Congress (25d)
T. P. Trinkaus. "Popular Arrangements for Mandolin and Guitar." New York: M. Witmark & Sons, 1900. Sheet Music. Music Division, Library of Congress (25d.1)
Bert Williams's Most Famous Song
Bert Williams's most famous song was "Nobody," a comic lament of neglect that he first sang in 1905. Both Williams's first recording of the song and Bob Hope's version from The Seven Little Foys can be heard in the Bob Hope Gallery.
1 of 3
Alex Rogers and Bert Williams. "Nobody," 1905. Musical score. Music Division, Library of Congress (24)
Bert Williams. Portrait of Bert Williams, 1922. Copyprint. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (26)
Eddie Foy's Dancing Shoes
Bob Hope owns the dancing shoes of Eddie Foy (1854-1928), a vaudevillian who performed with his seven children. Hope produced and played Foy in the 1955 film biography, The Seven Little Foys.
1 of 2
Eddie Foy's dancing shoes, ca. 1910. Courtesy of the Bob Hope Archives (28)
Photograph of Eddie Foy, ca. 1910. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (28b)
Houdini's Handcuffs and Key
Harry Houdini escaped from handcuffs, leg irons, straightjackets, prison cells, packing crates, a giant paper bag (without tearing the paper), an iron boiler, milk cans, coffins, and the famous Water Torture Cell. In most of these escapes, later examination showed no sign of how Houdini accomplished his release.
"It's a Good World, After All"
Stock musical arrangements were created and sold by many music publishers for use by vaudevillians and other performers who could not afford to commission their own arrangements for their acts.
Humor from Unexpected Pairings
A common type of humor is based on unexpected juxtapositions or associations. This song shows how the technique can be reflected in music as well as in jokes.
1 of 2
In the early twentieth-century, jokes at the expense of women or of someone's national heritage and ethnicity were a staple of not only vaudeville but American life. This selection of humor books in this case shows that few groups were left unscathed.
Yankee, Italian, and Hebrew Dialect Readings and Recitations. New York: Henry J. Wahman, 1891. Vaudeville Joke Books New Vaudeville Jokes. Cleveland: Arthur Westbrook, 1909. New Dutch Jokes. Cleveland: Arthur Westbrook, 1909. Jew Jokes. Cleveland: Arthur Westbrook, 1909. Ethnic Joke Books Chop Suey. Cleveland: Arthur Westbrook, 1909. Irish Jokes. Cleveland: Cleveland News, 1907. Dark Town Jokes. Cleveland: Arthur Westbrook, 1908. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (29b-h)
Source for Vaudeville Routines
Vaudevillians often obtained their jokes and comedy routines from publications, such as Southwick's Monologues.
This binder, like many others in the Library of Congress Bob Hope Collection, contains jokes and sketches written in the early 1930s. Most of the material was written by a gifted comedian, Richy Craig, Jr., who wrote for Bob Hope as well as himself.
Richy Craig, Jr., Joke Notebook, ca. 1930. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (31)
Bob Hope's Joke Notebook
The hotel front desk has been a very popular setting for sketch humor for more than a century. The Marx Brothers used it in The Cocoanuts, as did John Cleese in the British sitcom, Fawlty Towers. Bob Hope's sketch, shown here, is from a binder that contains jokes and bits written for him during his later years on the Vaudeville circuit. Most of the material was written by Richy Craig, Jr.
Joke Notebook, ca. 1930. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (31.2)
"Act needs a lot of watching"
As with network television today, vaudeville promoted itself as family entertainment, but its shows often stretched the limits of common propriety. This report from a Boston stage censor outlines some of the questionable material in Bob Hope's 1933 act and preserves some of the jokes the act included. The pre-printed form catalogs common offenses found in variety acts.
Censorship card, May 27, 1933. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (37.1)
The Bob Hope Collection includes more than 100 scrapbooks that document Hope's career. This one, said to have been compiled by Avis Hope, Bob Hope's mother, is the earliest. It includes many newspaper clippings relating to Hope and Byrne's tour with the Hilton Sisters.
Bob Hope Scrapbook, 1925-1930. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (33)
Hope's 1929 Contract
Bob Hope's thirty-nine-week contract with the national Orpheum circuit included options for extension. The contract and tour resulted in the February 1931 engagement at the Palace Theatre in New York of his mini-revue, "Bob Hope and his Antics."
Bob Hope's vaudeville tour contract, 1929. Page 2. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (34)
Hope's 1930 Contract
Bob Hope's national Orpheum circuit tour of 1930 and 1931 included options for extension. The tour resulted in the February 1931 engagement at the Palace Theatre in New York of his mini-revue, Bob Hope and His Antics.
Bob Hope's vaudeville contract. Typewritten manuscript, 1930. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (34.1)
Copyright Advertisement from The New York Clipper
Theft of vaudeville material was common enough that a legal firm advertised its copyright services in the theatrical newspaper, The New York Clipper.
A railway guide was essential for the vaudevillian on the road.
Annual guides such as Cahn's provided theatrical professionals with information about the technical specifications of theaters, railroads servicing every major city, and other useful information.
Julius Cahn's Official Theatrical Guide. New York, 1910. Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (38)
Review of Hope's Act in Billboard, 1929
In 1929 Bob Hope put together a popular act which included a female partner, intentionally discordant comic instrumentalists, and Hope's singing and dancing. To augment the comedy he hired veteran vaudeville writer Al Boasberg to write new material. This act toured for a year on the Orpheum circuit.
This 1913 mail-order course was directed toward aspiring vaudeville performers. Advice is included on "Handling your baggage," "Behavior toward managers," and "Eliminating Crudity and Amateurishness." Among the ninety types of vaudeville acts explained in the course are novelties such as barrel jumpers, comedy boxers, chapeaugraphy (hat shaping to comic effect), and "lightning calculators."