It was America’s most beloved—and most heavily
romanticized—theatrical form for 50 years bringing inexpensive, wholesome
(mostly) entertainment to the working and middle classes of
big cities and burbs in the sticks alike. It
employed singers, dancers, musicians, comedians,
magicians, acrobats, animal acts, rope spinners, and even celebrities
fallen on hard times with nothing to exhibit but their presence by
the tens of thousands transforming a handful of disreputable saloon theaters
and traveling troops into the might industry called Show
Business. Vaudeville, as it came to be called, became an unquenchable
font of talent that provided the most luminous stars to the Broadway
stage, opera houses, recordings, film from the
earliest silents to the talkies, radio, and even early
television. In fact, American entertainment would
be impossible to imagine without it.
Yet the man who did not quite invent it,
but did more than anyone else to shape it, get it off the ground, and popularize
it is all but forgotten to all but hard core show business history buffs.
Tony Pastor was the poor son of an immigrant father, a child
singer, circus ringmaster, minstrel show side man, song
writer, saloon keeper, and finally the impresario of the common
people. He was also sentimental, deeply religious,
a shrewd businessman, and in the end a hold-out who battled
the forces that modernized and industrialized his creation.
Pastor was born on May 28, 1837 in New York City
and died 71 years later on August 26, 1908 at his comfortable suburban
home in Elmhurst, New York. In between he lived
and shaped just about every form of American entertainment. His father, Antonio
Pastor, was a Spanish immigrant and his mother Cornelia
Buckley was a Connecticut Yankee from New Haven. Papa
was a barber and part time musician.
The family was hard working and poor during a
period of intense turmoil in America’s most rapidly growing metropolis.
Clashes between street gangs of nativist American born workers
and the mostly Catholic immigrants who packed the tenement districts
and who were seen as driving down wages dominated street life.
Young Tony was caught between those worlds. On one hand he was a devout
Catholic and altar boy on the other a Yankee. Like many of the
second generation he was assimilationist, eager to put old
country ways behind him and to embrace America with a patriotic passion.
Tony had a natural gift for singing and
took to the stage early. The first public performance of this
future saloon owner was said to be at a temperance rally at the
age of 9. Soon he was employing that talent to help support his
family. He was booked for several weeks at P.T. Barnum’s
Museum billed as a child prodigy. He was known for memorizing
hundreds, eventually thousands, of popular songs, folk tunes,
and light classic fare and was able to respond to requests
from the audience.
Through the 1840s and ‘50s he worked in almost
every form of the infant entertainment business. He did his time in the dominate
form of touring stage show—black face minstrels—with the Raymond
and Waring Menagerie, did acrobatics and acted in skits at Welch’s
National Amphitheatre in Philadelphia, an outdoor circus venue
like the early versions of New York’s Hippodrome. Later he
went with one of the early traveling circuses where he got his
break—replacing the Ring Master who had inconveniently dropped dead.
He was only 19 but took to the flamboyant high hat, tight breeches,
and cut-away coat, all of which became trademarks when he went
into other forms of entertainment. Ring Masters in those days did more
than just introduce acts—he sang as crews changed apparatus in
the single ring, danced, and acted in the afterpiece, a
theatrical skit after the circus acts were complete, a tradition borrowed from
the second act of a minstrel show.
In 1861 Pastor settled back in New York as an
attraction in variety shows. He first worked in a dive
with no name at 444 Broadway. It was a rowdy working class
saloon that offered entertainment on a stage. It was patronized by men
only and considered quite disreputable. The preferred beverage was
whiskey and fights frequently broke out while the performers were
on stage. Pastor was the master of ceremonies and a singer, not
noted for the finest voice, but for a commanding stage presence. In
addition to singeing any and all popular songs, Pastor wrote parody lyrics
to scores of them, which were published in pamphlets known as songsters
which were given to the audience to sing along in the style of the English
Pastor’s songs were usually comic and often
bawdy, as befitted the “low” character of the joint. They often employed
the racial and ethnic stereotypes of the era. On the other
hand, his songs celebrated and honored the working classes that
were his audience and mocked the swells and bosses. As
the Civil War raged he added plenty of patriotic songs to the mix
and topical ballads about the war. Among Pastor’s best loved songs
from this period were Down in a Coal Mine, The Great
Atlantic Cable, The Monitor and the Merrimac, and The
During his four year run at the 444, Pastor
developed a reputation and a following. It was said that he was so
good that the audience even struggled to be quiet through his performances when
they were not lustily singing along. He ruled the stage there all
during the war. How he avoided conscription is a matter of some conjecture.
But by the time it was over and the Johnnies all came marching home,
Pastor had saved up enough money to open his own joint.
Pastor partnered in 1865 with popular minstrel
show performer Sam Sharpley to take over the rundown Volks Garden
at 201 Bowery and after renovating and making improvements
re-opened it under the grand sounding name of Tony Pastor’s Opera
House. Of course, it was nothing of the sort, but still a saloon
music hall. But Pastor had plans. The same year the partners
launched an annual minstrel show touring company that worked from spring to
early fall. Sharpley toured but Pastor stayed in New York as host and
master of ceremonies of the Opera house. However, he booked talent form
the minstrel troop. Eventually he bought out his partner in both
While variety houses like his remained
disreputable—and subject to periodic outbreaks of Victorian outrage and
temporary moral reform crusades—Pastor took note that one group of
immigrants enjoyed a much different entertainment venue without the
rowdiness and bawdiness of variety. The sturdy Germans treasured their
Beer Gardens with their brass bands and classical singers where
wives felt comfortable accompanying their husbands and whole
families, including children could spend a Sunday afternoon following
church services. That appealed to Pastor’s religious convictions,
and he also figured it was a good business model—potentially doubling
the paid customers with the addition of women unafraid to enter a theater.
Pastor started his transformation slowly, first banishing
curse words, expelling rowdy patrons and cutting off drunks
to avoid fights, and insisting that his acts present only clean
entertainment eliminating the bawdy songs and skits that he himself
had once sung. He made a point of greeting patrons personally at
the door, shaking hands and remembering the names of many regulars, who he
pointedly advised to bring the family. He began to advertise shows
“unalloyed by any indelicate act or expression…fun without vulgarity.” He
enforced a similar policy on his touring show.
Slowly the ladies began to come. Then
patrolling them to make sure that they were not prostitutes trolling for
johns became a problem. When the shady ladies were
effectively banned, more working class women began to attend. He added
special ladies matinees so that women could come and not feel threatened
by leering, pawing men. But the middle class still shunned
what was still a saloon.
Pastor twice moved his operation, each time
hoping to improve his broadened appeal. First in 1874 he took over Michael Bennett
Leavitt’s former theater at 585 Broadway, away from the
rowdy Bowery and in a very respectable neighborhood near the theater
district centered on Union Square. Then in 1881 he
assumed the lease of the former Germania Theater on 14th
Street. The theater was in the famed Tammany Hall Wigwam,
a location sure to give him a modicum of protection from over-zealous
reformers. More to the point, it did not have its own bar,
although a saloon was located conveniently next door where patrons could easily
repair for a drink.
But the absence of alcohol sales on the premises made it acceptable to a better class of ladies, middle class matrons and respectable shop girls, if not the grand dames of high society. The theater was also only a short walk from the city’s most important shopping district, then known as the Ladies mile and was an anchor for a new theater district along 14th Street known as The Rialto. To appeal to the ladies, he made sure his female stars were outfitted at the height of fashion—and indeed were soon setting fashion—that sent them scurrying to the shops after matinees. Merchants were ecstatic and began to closely follow trends established on the stage. Their symbiotic relationship with the new kind of variety theater that Pastor was presenting also shored up its respectability.
The young Lillian Russell was promoted by Pastor as the "most beautiful woman in the world."
None of Pastor’s female stars was greater or was more of a fashion icon than his discovery and protégée Lillian Russell. Pastor noticed her in the first of a series of satirical musical plays that he experimented with to alternate with his variety. The show was The Pie-Rats of Pen-yen, a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s hit comic operetta The Pirates of Penznace. The show was only moderately successful and after a handful of others of its type, Pastor abandoned the form to concentrate full time on variety. Helen Louise Leonard was a young classically trained singer from Clinton, Iowa. She was also tall, statuesque, raven haired, and a stunning beauty. Pastor knew he had something unlike the almost bawdy musical hall queens like his reining star, Maggie Cline, The Irish Queen.
sent young Leonard on an extended western tour to both season her
as a performer and to allow him time for him to establish a new identity for
her, Lillian Russell, and build her up as an English stage star who
he had imported at great expense. Pastor used as his template the
build-up P.T. Barnum gave Jenny Lind The Swedish Nightingale back
in 1850. When Russell premiered in his New York theater under her new
name, she was dazzling in huge, broad brimmed and plumed
hats, elegant gowns that emphasized her ample bosoms and
tightly cinched wasp waist, elbow length gloves, and
usually carrying a long walking stick or parasol.
Her repertoire was, at first, operatic arias and
classical songs, similar to that which Lind had popularized. Over time
she added original popular songs long on romance without the
leering snicker of much variety fare. Men adored her and women
wanted to be her, spending good hard money in the shops for gowns and hats that
With Russell mostly gone, Pastor followed up with
new female stars in a similar mode, most notably Faye Templeton, known
to film buffs as the star that James Cagney as George M. Cohan
writes his hit show Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway for.
And speaking of Cohan, his famous family act The
Four Cohans were among the many star attractions cultivated and promoted on
Pastor’s stage. Others included another family act, The Three (later
Four) Keatons featuring young Buster and in his last year Groucho
and Gummo Marx trodding the boards as part of The
Three Nightingales. Also featured by Pastor were the Irish
song and dance man Pat Rooney and storyteller George Fuller Gordon each
of whom toned down the wild Irish bog trotter and sot stereotypes of
earlier acts and promoted a sentimental view of the Auld Sod and
a more nuanced, sympathetic comic character. German Gus Edwards
was a prodigy for Pastor much as he was for Barnum, and he continued to
feature him as he grew older and created kiddie skits that were first
used as afterpieces for the variety shows and latter continued independently as
full scale Broadway shows. In these skits Edwards introduced songs of his
own composition including the standards School Days
and the Light of the Silvery Moon.
Pastor alumni included Weber and Fields, Sophie Tucker, Eva Tanguay, Blossom Seeley, Benny Fields, May Irwin, and Eddie Leonard. Ben Harney and
other musicians introduced a new musical craze—rag time—which
would come to define the early vaudeville era.
Just as Pastor’s theater was at its height in the
1890’s he found himself rudely challenged by an upstart impresario who
some also call the Father of Vaudeville because he invented the business
model on which it matured.
B.F. Keith had opened the Bijou
theater in Boston in 1885 and introduced the continuous variety show
which ran from 10:00 in the morning until 11:00 at night, every day.
Previously, shows ran at fixed intervals with several hours of downtime
between shows. The innovation kept theaters busy and selling
tickets at all times. He also established the first vaudeville circuit
by which he kept troops of performers constantly moving every week
or two weeks through a chain of theaters which were either owned by him
or who signed exclusive contacts with him. The rapid growth of
these circuits and new competitors like the Orpheum tended to freeze
out independent operators like Pastor making it harder and harder for him
to book top talent for his own stage. Pastor was even more appalled in
1896 when Keith obtained the exclusive American rights to the Lumière
Brothers projection apparatus and their film output and
followed up with exclusive rights to the films of the new Biograph studios.
That made motion pictures a part of a standard vaudeville bill—a
part that would in the next three decades crowd out and ultimately replace
the live shows.
Yet Pastor resisted either establishing his own
circuit or joining an established one. He made a valiant fight for the
rights of independents and gained a new nickname, Little Man Tony.
Pastor also resisted the use of the name
vaudeville, a term of hazy French origin first used by Sergeant’s
Great Vaudeville Company of Louisville, Kentucky in 1871. It
was the same rowdy, bawdy kind of show the Pastor had first appeared in during
the Civil War. Modern vaudeville is usually credited to Pastor a decade
later when he separated the saloon from the theater and instituted his clean,
family friendly format that set it apart from Burlesque which was
developing along parallel lines descending from the common saloon
variety shows. Pastor had used the term in some of his earliest
advertising for is 14th Street theater, but soon abandoned it charging the term
was un-American and “sissy and Frenchified.” This criticism
mounted with the emergence of Keith’s circuit, which promoted itself as
vaudeville. To Pastor what he put on was always just plain old Variety.
Pastor continued producing—and personally
hosting—his shows right up to the end of his life even though other New York
theaters were able to offer top talent and bigger named stars. But after
he died in 1908 his heirs and partners quietly closed the
theater in which so much show business history was made.