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From Traveling Show to Vaudeville

, 400 pages

19 halftones

September 2003



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From Traveling Show to Vaudeville

Theatrical Spectacle in America, 1830–1910

Before phonographs and moving pictures, live performances dominated American popular entertainment. Carnivals, circuses, dioramas, magicians, mechanical marvels, musicians, and theatrical troupes—all visited rural fairgrounds, small-town opera houses, and big-city palaces around the country, giving millions of people an escape from their everyday lives for a dime or a quarter. In From Traveling Show to Vaudeville, Robert M. Lewis has assembled a remarkable collection of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century primary sources that document America's age of theatrical spectacle. In eight parts, Lewis explores, in turn, dime museums, minstrelsy, circuses, melodramas, burlesque shows, Wild West shows, amusement parks, and vaudeville.

Included in this compendium are biographies, programs, ephemera produced by theatrical entrepreneurs to lure audiences to their shows, photographs, scripts, and song lyrics as well as newspaper accounts, reviews, and interviews with such figures as P. T. Barnum and Buffalo Bill Cody. Lewis also gives us reminiscences about and reactions to various shows by members of audiences, including such prominent writers as Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens, O. Henry, and Maxim Gorky. Each section also includes a concise introduction that places the genre of spectacle into its historical and cultural context and suggests major interpretive themes. The book closes with a bibliographic essay that identifies relevant scholarly works.

Many of the pieces collected here have not been published since their first appearance, making From Traveling Show to Vaudeville an indispensable resource for historians of popular culture, theater, and nineteenth-century American society.

Robert M. Lewis is a lecturer in American history at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.

"Robert Lewis offers a revealing look at the rich scope of America's popular entertainment past. Through a series of marvelously chosen primary sources, he vividly brings to life the dime museums, circuses, melodramas, extravaganzas, and other amusements to which nineteenth-century audiences flocked. Ultimately the book affords us a new perspective on today's popular culture and shows that despite great advances in technology, the essence of public entertainment has changed little during the last two centuries."

"Lewis's book provides not only a wealth of information but also delightful reading. It should be part of every library as a starter point for classes on American nineteenth-century public culture."

"Belongs in the collection of anyone who claims to be serious about the study of American popular entertainments."

"Includes a range of useful and previously inaccessible sources. Both researchers and teachers will find it a valuable reference."

"An impressive and judiciously selected collection of relevant documents... This compendium is notable for its broad coverage of forms, informative commentary, and superb bibliographic essay on sources."

"An eminently useful book... It is an excellent reader for introducing students to cultural history, bringing it alive through primary sources."

"All-encompassing... it is likely to become a standard work, for media students as well as for American history enthusiasts."

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