By William O. Logan

In the late 1800’s many Vaudevillian type variety shows appeared in and around the Eastern seaboard. One of the major stops was Buffalo, N.Y., a rising industrial metropolis. The working class had more money to spend and more time to spend it. What better to spend their extra money than on entertainment? The combination of standardized work hours, a surplus of capital, and more leisure time forever changed the way Americans spent their money and free time.

The Vaudeville show had the basic elements still found in modern entertainment (action, drama, comedy, music and sex). Maybe your idea of comedy isn’t a fake donkey act, maybe your idea of music isn’t banjo players. However, entertainment is contingent on the time and the place it is presented and by the perspective of the audience.

Below are two articles to give you an idea of what it was like to see these shows. The first review is of a Shea’s Garden Theater show that featured an acrobatic act called The Nelsons (no, not of Ozzie & Harriet Nelson). This was a Vaudeville act. Unfortunately, Vaudeville has been stigmatized with a label of being a show loaded with bad musicals and corny comic acts. When in fact, during that time period this was the "entertainment of the common man."

When a post generation looks back on a previous generation’s humor or musical taste it may be indeed seen as corny (all we have to do is look back at the variety shows of the sixties and seventies (Carol Burnett, Laugh In and Sonny and Cher). In any case, these acts were valid and very successful, although in these days of political awareness some of their content is very questionable.

Below is a sample review as it appeared in Buffalo Express in December 1899.


The spacious auditorium of Shea’s Garden Theater was crowed at both performances yesterday. The S.R.O. sign was displayed early both afternoon and evening, but before either show was well under way there was no standing room. The promenade was filled and men and women were standing on the tables to catch a glimpse of the stage. The show was excellent as borne out by the fact that the vast audiences made no move to depart until the curtain was rung down to the last act and it was evident that repeated encores could not raise it again. This proves the appreciation with which it was received.

The hit of the show was the acrobatic turn of the Nelson Family. It came last on the bill and captured the audience by storm. There are nine in the family and all are good acrobats, but the one that won the greatest applause is a little girl, who turned back somersaults with bewildering rapidity. In the troupe are six children, three boys and three girls and the feats they perform are wonderful.





The Behman Show, which appeared also at the Shea’s Garden Theater around the same time. The act stars the Four Cohans, featuring the Broadway legend George M. Cohan. (Several Vaudeville graduates later went on to super stardom). This night Mr. Cohan was outshined by his sister Josephine. From reading the article, you get a sense of the competition for audience approval...


The reception accorded to the Four Cohans almost took the roof off Shea’s Garden Theater last night. George M. Cohan, who is popular as author, comedian and dancer, was the last of the family to come on the stage in his sketch, "Running for Office," and the applause which greeted him seemed to indicate that he had the call with the great audience. This was disproven shortly afterward, when his sister had executed her Parisian dance and won an ovation such as is rarely heard, even is Shea’s. In point of grace, Josephine Cohan has scarcely a peer in the list of American dancers. Some new business has been put into "Running for Office", but its construction could not have been improved and it stands today as the model one-act farce of the Vaudeville type. The elder Cohans, both polished and natural actors, have become very popular with Buffalo audiences.

Later in this same review, is the story of the Rossow Midgets:

...Much laughter was caused by the act of the Rossow Midgets, who box three rounds to a knockout. Charley Rossow afterward appears in little girl’s garb and sings songs. He is a bright little man and the impersonation is excellent.

Proof of the immense popularity of Vaudeville in Buffalo is shown by the appearance of the ticket scalper, then known as the "ticket speculator." Back then it was not uncommon for scalpers to be arrested as the following article from the Buffalo Express of December 26, 1899 will demonstrate.


Two were arrested last night for plying their trade in front of Shea’s.

Manager Shea of the Garden Theater has made many complaints to the police recently that sidewalk speculators were buying up seats in his house and peddling them in the street to the highest bidders.

Just before the evening performance at the Garden Theater yesterday Detectives Solomon and Dugan of the First Precinct arrested Joseph Berman and Phililp Silberberg who, it is claimed, were standing in front of the theater and endeavoring to sell tickets at an advance over the regular price. They were locked up and charged with violation section 1 of chapter 17 of the City Ordinance, which prohibits peddling without a license. Both men were bailed out.

In Berman’s pockets were found nine Garden Theater tickets. During the half hour while Berman was in a cell half a dozen friends called and claimed that Berman had bought the tickets with their intention of giving a box party.

Silberberg is a brother to Sammy Calahan, the pugilist.

Being conditioned to be taken aback by these reviews, we can begin to analyze our own taste in entertainment. Although most of us know that our ideal Saturday night would not be watching midget boxing, we have also to admit that we know who Billy Barty and Herve Villachev are. Perhaps it is with a sort of ambivalence that we read these articles about the exploitation of people due to their physical characteristics. Surely, many of these people would not have been as successful as they were if they had not been singled out, but were simply left in the general population. The Victorian era in America was cruel to people of unusual shape, size or color, unless such a person was used as a public spectacle. After all, puritanical ideals made it a sin to be an individual. Though Vaudeville has been "dead" for many years, the legacy of the variety show still lives on television.


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