Vaudeville & Burlesque History & Lingo
Since so much of our magic history is rooted in the American Vaudeville stage, and since so many of our "magic greats" got
their start in Vaudeville, we wanted to include a section on showbiz lingo on this site. Hey, it's part of our magic history.
It's interesting to see how much of the showbiz lingo of days gone-by has made it into the popular vernacular. Enjoy!
Ad Lib - Short for "ad libitum" (latin), meaning "at will": to perform language or business made up by a performer
on the spot (and not rehearsed or in the script). Doing an ad lib might be necessary (to disguise some problem, like another
performer forgetting a line). It might also spring from an inspired burst of creativity, but such ad libs are risky (they
might surprise other performers enough to break their concentration).
Alley-Oop - An Acrobatic or gymnastic act. The performers (often European) were often heard to cue their team members
(in French) "allez" ("everybody") and [take your pick) either "up" in English, or a simple vocalization like "hup" to coordinate
All Washed Up - A performer was "all washed up" when he could no longer get a booking anywhere. Usually a condition
that occurred when he had proven unreliable or just not very good.
Ankle - Verb coined by Variety to indicate that a performer has quit or been dismissed from a job, without necessarily
specifying which. It suggests "walking".
Apron - The part of the stage projecting out past the proscenium.
Asbestos - A fireproof curtain of asbestos fabric, set immediately behind the proscenium arch, almost touching it and
traveling in metal guide channels ('smoke pockets') so as to cover the opening fairly tightly. It could be lowered when the
theater was dark and raised a few minutes before the show, and was also rigged to drop quickly at the pull of a stage-side
handle in case of fire (a theater, including the house, stage and fly gallery full of combustibles, is a huge and very efficient
Baggy Pants Comic - A performer (often a fulltime employee of a single theater) whose act consisted of coarse, slapstick
Banana - Burlesque term for a house comic, probably derived not so much from the fruit or for the banana-peel's popularity
as a prop in knockabout comedy, but from its resemblance to a certain male organ also known for "size does count." Never used
by itself...the "top banana" was the head comic, the "second banana" would fill in where needed, the "third banana" would
be assigned to stooge duty, taking falls and getting pies in the face.
Bastard - Adjective used in stagecraft to describe nonstandard items or facilities. For instance, the prompt (stage
manager's) desk is described as "bastard prompt" when it is stage right instead of, as expected, stage left.
The Beach - Now the location of TKTS in Times Square, "the beach" was the triangle in front of the Palace Theater.
Similar gathering places could be found in every major city's theatrical business district, because the theater buildings
also housed numerous booking agencies. The performers who got work were the performers who checked the agencies regularly.
Besides offices their suites also contained many small sound-proof rooms (in each one a piano) where song pluggers (q.v.)
demonstrated the latest material to performers, passed out promotional copies complete with orchestrations, and even rehearsed
and coached them. So many performers lounged about the area across from the Palace that wags saw them "vacationing" there
and dubbed it "the beach."
Beat - A short pause (measured intuitively, about one second) used for comic effect or dramatic emphasis. "It would
be even better if you heard my line, and then waited a beat before doing your spit-take."
Belting - Describes singing done in a vivid "chest voice" rather than a more classical "head voice" or "legit voice".
Some singers, like Ethel Merman, belted all the time, while others used the technique selectively as a tool to produce dramatic
Big Time - The "big leagues" of vaudeville. The best circuits offered first-rate programs with the best available performers
including big-name stars. "Big time" vaudeville meant high salaries, first-class theaters, and only two shows a day. "Small
time" venues were the theaters in small towns across the country, or the cheaper houses in large towns (sometimes even crude
storefronts with benches for seating) down to traveling tent shows offering a few singers, a wrestler and some movies. Small
time was the harsh training ground where new performers created and polished their material for three or more shows a day,
and worn-out performers worked a last few years. In the late 1930s, Alfred O. Phillipp of the Federal Writers Project wrote,
"Vaudeville circuits were invariably referred to as 'time.' Thus, instead of mentioning the 'Pantages Circuit' a performer
would remark: 'I'm going to play the Pan time.' Or 'I just finished the Loew time' … The two high class circuits …
were the Keith Circuit (or Keith time) in the east, and the Orpheum Circuit (or Orpheum time) in the West. This was 'the big
time.' These two circuits were also known as the 'two-a-day,' because of their policy of presenting only two performances
daily, matinee and evening. All other circuits were 'small time.' There never was enough "big time" to employ all the first
class acts, so the majority were forced to play the lesser circuits (such as the Loew, Pantages, Interstate, Proctor, Poli,
Delmar, etc.) It was generally considered unjust to classify an artist as a 'small timer' just because he didn't happen to
be on the Keith or Orpheum Circuits. And occasionally one might hear a performer argue that the better class circuits should
be referred to as 'medium time' to distinguish them from the cheap low-grade theatres in which inferior acts worked at a miserable
salary, but … you either played the Keith and Orpheum Circuits, and were a 'big timer,' or you were a 'small timer.'"
(the) Bill - The program or list of acts, in order of performance. As in "who else is on the bill?"
Billing - The names of performers as displayed on a theater's marquee and in its advertising. A performer's status
is indicated by the size and placement of their name (who is higher or more prominently billed).
Bit - A sketch, routine, trick, any segment of an act.
(to) Black Up - To put on blackface makeup (even done by black performers.) The original method for applying such a
makeup was to hold an ordinary cork (if you were poor, the cork gasket from inside a bottle-cap) over a candle until it was
charred. The resulting powdery blacking was then rubbed on the face. Commercial greasepaint makeup was available in a variety
of appropriate shades from light tan to coal black. Yet many 'black-face comedians' continued to use the old fashioned burnt
cork because the removal of grease paint required cold cream, lard, or scrubbing with hot water and soap, while burnt cork
could be easily and quickly washed off with cold water. The term "cork comedian" thus referred to a blackface comic.
Blackout - A brief comedy routine ending with the quick closing of the curtain or a quick blackout of the lights at
the punchline. Often used when the writers have a joke that's good for a big laugh but there's nothing to follow it with,
no way to make it a part of a more elaborate routine.
Blue Material - Crude jokes or other material using graphic sexual or toilet references or profanity. The term comes
from the days when E.F. Albee, of the massive Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit, insisted that performers stick to strict standards
of propriety. Sophie Tucker, in her biography "Some of These Days," wrote "Between the (Monday) matinee and the night show
the blue envelopes began to appear in the performers mailboxes backstage … Inside would be a curt order to cut out a
blue line of a song, or piece of business. … There was no arguing about the orders in the blue envelopes. They were
final. You obeyed them or quit. And if you quit, you got a black mark against your name in the head office and you didn't
work on the Keith Circuit anymore. During my early years on the Keith Circuit, I took my orders from my blue envelope and
— no matter what I said or did backstage (and it was plenty) — when I went on for the Monday night show, I was
careful to keep within bounds." The tint of those envelopes gave "blue material" its name.
B.O. - Box Office (meaning the amount of box-office business.) To say that a show played to "good B.O." meant that
it experienced sustained good ticket sales. Also, by way of a deodorant advertising jingle, "body odor," experienced in abundance
in dressing rooms.
(the) Boards - The stage. Theater stages are surfaced with rows of wooden boards, made of soft wood and replaceable
when too worn, that allow scenery to be nailed or screwed down temporarily with special screws topped with wings for easy
insertion and removal by hand. (Auditorium stages, on the other hand, are surfaced with hardwood boards, varnished and polished,
never to see a nail or stage screw.) To "hit the boards" was to take up a career in the theater, or for a show to move from
rehearsal to performance. To "tread the boards" is to have a stage career.
Boffo - Outstanding (coined by the entertainment-industry newspaper Variety).
Bomb - To perform an act that gets embarrassingly little audience response.
Booner - A talent scout (from Daniel Boone, a frontiersman who scouted the American west).
Border - The short immovable drop at the top of each cross-stage curtain, masking the above-stage equipment when the
curtain is open.
Border Lights - The crudest type of general stage illumination. Basically a metal box the width of the stage, hung
just behind each border, containing a row of electric lamps - each lamp is covered with a glass color filter, alternating
red, blue and green. The lighting board could only control the intensity of each general color group.
Borscht Belt - The resorts in the Catskills, largely frequented by Jewish audiences and known for entertainment reflecting
the audience's background. Ethnic and dialect humor were expected, and were not considered offensive because the performers
and the audience shared a common ethnicity.
Boston Version - A "cleaned-up" version of a routine, so called because Boston censors were very strict.
Break a Leg - The traditional backhanded expression wishing other performers a good performance. Theater superstition
suggests that to actually wish someone well (in so many words) would jinx a performance, but today many professionals see
the use of 'break a leg' as a mark of amateurism.
Break-in - The period during which a new act was polished and perfected before an audience. Smaller theaters could
get an act for half its projected rate (the 50% rate was standard) during its break-in period; they might even get bigger
name performers they couldn't usually afford as the stars broke in a new act.
Break Up - To lose your concentration so severely (often by being carried away with laughter) that you have to pause
to recover. It is considered unprofessional, though it can be indulged in (even feigned) by comic performers to give the impression
that the proceedings are funnier than they really are.
(to take a) Brodie - To be stuck in an unmitigated flop, from the name of Steve Brodie, who in 1886 claimed to have
survived a jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. Alternative use: to take a desperate chance against all odds and hope for a very
Bundle Actor - A performer whose act did not require trunks or crates full of props, costumes or rigging, since vaudeville
performers were independent contractors responsible for the expense of carting everything their act required (including specialized
scenery in the case of "flash acts" [q.v.]). Modern magicians call the principle "packs small, plays big."
Business - Any physical action a performer includes in his routine. Script directions like "walks upstage" or "lights
a cigarette" are describing bits of stage business. Also used to describe ticket sales (e.g. "The show did good business.")
Buster - A broadly-performed comic stage fall.
Call - The time a performer is expected to be at the theater. "I have a 5pm call."
Callback - A joke that gets extra energy by referring to another joke performed earlier in the show. A joke with more
than one callback is a "running gag."
Capper - The last in a series of jokes (usually a series of three) on the same subject matter which ends the series
with the biggest laugh.
Catch Phrase - A common phrase said in a extraordinary manner which becomes the trademark of a particular comedian.
Steve Martin's "Excuuuuuuse me!" or Fonzie's "Aaaay!" are modern examples; vaudeville audiences were more familiar with Joe
Penner's "Wanna buy a duck?", Joe de Rita's "I'm a baaaaaad boy!" or Pigmeat Markham's "Here come de Judge!"
Chalk Talk - A lecture given humor by chalkboard illustrations done and changed on the spot (a sort of "living cartoon").
Chapeaugraphy - An act in which the performer uses a large stiffened circle of felt with a hole in the center to bend
and twist into various hats, depicting various characters.
Chasers - Performers playing last on the bill, named as if they were so bad they chased audience stragglers out. William
Dean Howells, writing in Harper's Monthly in 1903, wrote "Very often they are as good as the others, and sometimes, when I
have determined to get my five hours' enjoyment to the last moment before six o'clock, I have had my reward in something unexpectedly
delightful in the work of the Chasers, I and the half-dozen brave spirits who have stuck it out with me, while the ushers
went impatiently about, clacking the seats back, and picking up the programs and lost articles."
Chewing the Scenery - Performing in a hammy, over-the-top manner.
Chooser - A performer who "researches" his act by viewing other acts for the specific purpose of stealing material.
Circuit - A multi-city chain of theaters joined by the same ownership and booked as a block.
Civilians - People outside show business.
Claque - A group of audence members paid to respond enthusiastically to an act, and sometimes to boo a performer's
(to) Close - To give the final performance of a show ("the show closed on April 3"), or to perform the last act after
a star's performance ("I closed for Sophie Tucker in Peoria").
Cold - A "cold" audience is in a bad mood and shows it by responding poorly to even the best entertainment. A performer
may be thrust onstage suddenly by circumstance (perhaps the preceding act just keeled over of a heart attack onstage) and
have to perform "cold" (without adequate preparation). Or a performer may do his best to audition using a script he has never
seen before, giving a "cold reading."
Combination House - A theater playing both vaudeville and the then-short motion pictures. A theater might advertise
"Houdini, the King of Cards, plus five motion pictures."
Corny, Cornball - Sentimental, obvious, overly broad and old-fashioned material presumed to appeal to unsophisticated
Counting the House - Looking out into the house surreptitiously, to estimate the boxoffice success of the show.
Cover - To make up dialog and/or business to keep an act's continuity despite a mistake or accident onstage without
breaking character or letting the audience become aware of the error.
Crossover - A stock comedy routine, easy to put together because it needed no involved setup. Two performers enter
from opposite sides of the stage, meet in the middle for a bit of comic dialogue, then each exits in the direction he was
going. For instance, one guy has a suitcase … "Where are you going?" "I'm taking my case to court." (They meet again,
the guy now has a ladder.) "Where are you going now?" "I'm taking my case to a higher court." In another, one guy has a black
eye ... "What happened to you?" "I was living the life of Riley." (Slang for 'the easy life') "So what happened?" "Riley came
Crow's Roost - The upper balcony, the only place black patrons were allowed in many theaters. "Crow" was a common epithet
for negroes, viz. "Jim Crow" (Thomas Rice's iconic black character) and Moran & Mack's blackface act "Two Black Crows."
Cut House - A theater that paid lower salaries. A performer might play a cut house in an idle period, but wouldn't
want to have it known that he couldn't command the salary he once did.
(the) Death Trail - Different circuits were characterized according to their most notable qualities. The "Death Trail,"
for example, was a string of small, cheap theaters extending from Chicago to Southern California.
Detracting - One comic kindly acting as stooge for another.
Deuce Spot - Second act on the bill. Considered to be the worst spot in the program (the usual opening "dumb act" not
even being worthy of consideration by a self-respecting artiste.) The second spot was forgettably early in the show when the
audience had not yet been warmed up to a good level of response, and just before the big star whose act would eclipse whoever
played the deuce spot.
Deucing - Playing the deuce (second) spot. A performer might be deucing if he was not yet (or was no longer) worthy
of a better position.
Dialect Act - An act (usually comedy) using dialect material (a broad accent and ethnic humor, usually Italian, Jewish,
Irish or Negro). If this brand of humor seems crude today, it went over far better in a time when most of the audience had
just gotten off the boat from somewhere else, and accepted humor directed at any immigrants as humor related to their own
Died - Played to perfunctory applause or none at all.
Disappointment Act - An act substituted for an advertised performer who could not appear.
Doing an Eddie Leonard - Spontaneously doing additional material after your act is over, in response to applause from
the audience. "Ad-libbing" an unscheduled (and usually unapproved) encore.
Drop - Lateral curtains extending the full width and height of the stage are called "drops." They may be hung at various
distances from the footlights (see "olio"). They might be simply draperies, or they might be painted with various scenes and
serve as simple sets. A good theater would have a variety of painted drops representing generic settings, like "garden drop,"
a "palace drop," a "woods drop," a "street drop," coordinating with stock furniture and set pieces (a garden bench, a throne,
a tree stump, a street lamp). The very front curtain was usually called the "house drop." The "street drop" usually hung just
behind the house drop for simple "two guys meet on the street" routines played close to the footlights.
Ducats - tickets.
Dumb Act (or Sight Act) - An act that did not involve speech, usually performed to music, such as an acrobatic act
or a juggler. A dumb act was often first and/or last on the bill because the audience was still entering (or leaving) noisily.
"Dumb Dora" - 1920s slang for a comically mindless female. The name was applied to a standard two-person vaudeville
act in which the man (playing 'straight') would try to communicate with the woman, whose odd logic defeated all attempts to
make sense. George Burns and Gracie Allen elevated this scenario to its highest form (see "Straight Man" below). The precursor
of "dumb blonde" humor.
Dumps - The smallest, cheapest, shabbiest theaters. "The last I heard of him, he was playing the dumps around Chicago."
Effect Finish - A finish getting its impact from the use of props or special effects (think of a baton twirler finishing
with a bombastic display of flags, sparklers and lights.)
Excess Baggage - A vaudevillian's spouse who tours with the performer but does not perform.
Feature Spot - The top-billed act, the major advertised attraction.
Feeder - The straight man, whose function was mostly to "feed" the comic opportunities for humor.
Fighting the Agents - Looking for work, often in vain.
Finish - The finale of an act, especially when it contrasts with the rest of the act (the performers in a comedy act
might break into a song and dance, or finish with a pie in the face or some other effect.)
(a) Fish - A poor act ("Stinks like a three-day-old fish.")
Five - "The five" is the stage manager's warning that 'places' will be called in 5 minutes.
Five-Percenter - A theatrical agent or broker. 5% was the usual percentage of a performer's fee retained as commission
by an agent (Later, "ten-percenter.")
Flash Act - A generic act, usually a solo number like a tap-dancer; something that could be booked on little notice
and fit anywhere into the program without rehearsal, often as an emergency replacement.
Flashback (or comeback) - When the line after a laugh line elicits an even bigger laugh.
Flirtation Act - An act (sometimes comic) based on flirtatious banter between a man and a woman, and perhaps a romantic
song and dance.
Floor Pockets - Boxes set into the floor, fitted with sturdy hinged covers, containing electric sockets connected to
the dimmer board, to supply electricity to nearby stage lighting instruments.
Flop - An act or show that utterly fails.
Flop Sweat - The physical manifestation of the realization that your act is flopping or is doomed to flop.
Fly Gallery (or "the Flies") - The area above the stage, ideally an additional 1½ times the height of the proscenium
arch, where a system of ropes and counterweights allows lights, drops and other pieces of scenery to be lowered to the stage.
Footlights - A row of lights at floor level extending the width of the front edge of the stage. Used in the days of
gaslight (or inefficient electric lighting) to illuminate performers working very close to the front.
Freak Act - An act notable for the unique nature of the performer, who might not be a freak in the carny sense, but
could be a famed celebrity or notorious person. The "freak act" might lecture or recount their experiences. Some "freak acts"
were "human oddities" like the Hilton Sisters (conjoined twin musicians and subjects of the Broadway musical "Sideshow") but
another example was the notorious Evelyn Nesbit, whose love affair ended in a murder dubbed "The Crime of the Century" in
1906. Not necessarily a lowbrow act (Helen Keller, Babe Ruth). Carl Denham's introduction of the giant gorilla in the Broadway
theater, in the classic movie King Kong, is a perfect example of the lead-in to a freak act (though the story rushes the appearance
of the big star, leaving out any indication of what else might fill out the show).
From Dixie - Attributing a "good enough for the rubes" quality to a performer who wasn't considered able to perform
Back to Top
Gagbook — Jokebook published as a resource for both amateur and professional performers, primarily between the
late 19th and early 20th Centuries. A typical one might have chapters like "monologues," "acts for two males," "acts for male
and female," "sidewalk patter," "parodies," "minstrel first-parts" and "afterpieces." The books usually contained a mix of
original material and scripts gleaned from older sources - the authors may have claimed to be the originators of the material,
but a study of several examples will show items common to many books. Joe Miller's Joke Book, a famous example, was published
in 1739 and republished endlessly.
Gagging — Adding "ad lib" remarks or other business into an act unexpectedly during performance. A performer
might "gag" in the same sense he could "upstage" someone, aggressively drawing attention or throwing the other performer into
Get Back Your Pictures — To be canceled or fired (your promo photos were removed from the lobby and returned
Get the Hook — To be such a bad performer that you were dragged offstage mid-performance by the stage manager,
using a long hook like a shepherd's crook (ostensibly to avoid having a stagehand be seen by the audience). “The hook”
was reportedly introduced in 1903 at Harry Miner’s Bowery Theater in New York, when novice performers could try their
skill in "amateur night" competitions, exposing themselves to harsh judgment by the audience. Often the management knew that
some of the acts were terrible, and booked them for no other purpose than to bring the “hook” into play and get
a laugh from the audience.
Ghost Light — A single bare bulb on a head-high stand, left lit on the stage overnight for safety.
Go Up — To lose your concentration suddenly and completely onstage, forgetting your next line, possibly the line
you're speaking at the moment, and even how you can possibly cover for your error.
Gods — Or "Gallery Gods," the occupants of the cheap upper-circle seats who commonly made their approval or disapproval
known in very rowdy and noisy ways.
Green Room — Not often available in vaudeville theaters (where performers usually awaited their call in their
dressing rooms), the "green room" is a quiet parlor (traditionally painted a restful shade of green) adjoining the stage where
performers ready to go on await their calls to the stage.
Gutenberg — Your wardrobe trunk (from "press," the antique term for a standing wardrobe trunk fitted with rail
and hangers as a traveling closet.)
Half-hour — The first of several calls (backstage announcements to performers in their dressing rooms or the
green room) by the stage manager, culminating in "places" at showtime. All performers were required to sign in by half-hour
or face penalties. Also called "the half": "I have to be at the theater by the half." Half-hour is usually called at 35 minutes
before curtain (30 minutes to the "places" call), quarter is called at 20 minutes, and the five is called at 10 minutes before
the show begins.
Headliner — Star of the show whose named appeared most prominently on the bill and in the advertising, perhaps
even "name above the title."
Hemp — Scenery and lights were originally hung from pipes suspended by hemp ropes. Each set of lines was rigged
to be raised into the fly gallery above the stage or lowered into view, and tied off at the pin rail. Steel wire and counterweights
replaced ropes hauled by simple strength, but some theaters did not upgrade and were known as "hemp houses," connoting that
the owners may have decided not to modernize other parts of their facility either.
Heckler — An audience member who taunts the performer. Performers often trade "heckler stopper" rejoinders, but
many find more success by ignoring the heckler.
High Hat — To be very classy, or perhaps to have an overinflated opinion of yourself (referring to the top hat
which traditionally accompanied a full dress tuxedo).
Hokum — Corny, old-fashioned material. Clichéd sentimentality, kneejerk patriotism and old-wheeze jokes.
Hoofer — Dancer.
House — The audience seating area. When the doors are opened to admit the audience, it is said that "the house
is open," and it would be very unprofessional for a performer to be seen in that area (unless actually performing). Also,
may refer to the theater as a whole: "The Orpheum is a high-class house," or "I don't bring my own, I just use the house scenery."
House Manager — Responsible for coordinating activity in the house area.
In-and-Outer — A performer equally at home on the legitimate stage and the vaudeville circuit.
In One — An act or routine that works in the six-foot area between the footlights and the closed main show (number
one) curtain. An act that needed that area plus the next six feet was "in two" since that area was in front of the number
two curtain, and so on up to "full stage." While various theaters' stage dimensions might vary a bit, these specifications
were standard ways of describing an act's space requirements, and were a primary consideration in planning the practical flow
of a full program.
Insurance — A surefire joke or bit that could be relied upon to spark better response to material a performer
Intermission — Beside the dictionary meaning, a joking (well, usually joking) title for a performer so unengaging
that he might as well not be onstage: "How are ya, you intermission?"
Ingenue — An actress playing, or a role depicting, a young woman.
Joe Miller — An old, stale and/or corny joke. Named for the ancient and seemingly eternal Joe Miller's Joke
Book. Miller (1684-1738) was a popular comic actor whose name was attached to a "book of jest" containing 247 quips ostensibly
uttered (but probably not authored) by Miller. The book was published in 1739 and re-published, pirated and rewritten endlessly
into the 19th century. Referred to in Dickens' A Christmas Carol when Scrooge mutters, "Joe Miller never made such a joke
as sending [the turkey] to Bob's will be!" Since the contents were endlessly recycled, performers often referred to any joke
that saw wide and repeated use as "a Joe Miller."
Juvenile — An adolescent performer, or a role depicting a youth.
(to) Kill — To be a complete success with the audience.
Knockabout Comedy — Exaggerated physical comedy like pratfalls and mock violence (the Three Stooges might be
a good example).
A Knockout — Greatly successful with the audience.
Lard Actor — A performer who can't make enough money to remove his makeup with cold cream, but uses lard instead.
Lard being "ham fat," after a while the term matured into "ham," an untalented performer with a broad and unskilled style.
Lazzo — From commedia del'arte, a recurring bit (running gag) that builds comic impact by repetition.
Lecturing the Skull — When the straight man talks while, supposedly unknown to the straight, the comic mugs.
Probably from the iconic "Alas, poor Yorick" speech in Hamlet, which was likely to be spoofed with the addition of mugging
behind 'Hamlet's' back.
Leg — A narrow drop beside each cross-stage curtain, masking the wings from the audience's view. Legs are in
pairs, stage right and left.
Legit — "Legitimate theater". The term differentiates serious drama from mere entertainments like vaudeville
Legitimate Encore — An encore demanded by the audience without "milking."
Limelight — An early (pre-electric) stage light, using a hydrogen/oxygen flame to heat a cylinder of lime, raising
it to white-hot incandescence. The term is still used to mean "being in the public eye".
M.C. or Emcee — Master of Ceremonies; the person who introduces the performers.
Milking — Inducing (by body language or just continuing to stand on stage and "accept" applause) an audience
to continue applauding long after they would ordinarily have ceased. Usually becomes obvious rather quickly, to the detriment
of the performer's reputation. Sometimes called "stealing an extra bow."
Milkman — A performer with a reputation for milking.
Monologist — A performer whose one-person act consists entirely of talk. Probably the origin of modern "stand-up
comedy," the vaudeville monologist's act might also be serious (a patriotic or poetic recitation), and the material might
be rendered straight or in dialect.
Morgue — A house that is not doing much business, or an audience that resolutely refuses to applaud.
Mountaineer — An alumnus of the Borscht Belt, the resorts in the Catskills catering largely to Jewish audiences
and known for their affinity for Jewish ethnic material.
Nut Act — Comic(s) using an excessive style, usually mugging or simply acting goofy.
Nut House — Vaudeville theater known for comic acts. Also, the title of a standard burlesque routine encompassing
numerous zany walk-ons framed by its setting in an insane asylum (often titled "Crazy House").
Olio Acts — Smaller numbers or acts performed "in one" during set changes for the major acts of the show. 'Olio'
derives from 'oilcloth,' meaning cloth treated with oil or paint. The "olio drop," often painted with advertising for local
businesses, hung 6 to 10 feet back from the footlights. Simple specialty acts would perform in front of the "olio drop" while
the stage was being set for the next major act. Such acts might be called for with ads such as: "Wanted: Acrobatic, juggling,
and other novelty acts, to work in olio."
One-Liner — A joke made up of only one or two sentences.
(to) Open — To give the first performance of a show ("the show opened Saturday in Boston"), or to perform the
warmup act before a star's performance ("I opened for Durante in Vegas").
Out of Town — Anyplace that isn't New York City (is there anywhere else?).
Paper — Complimentary tickets given out ("Papering the House") to give the impression that the show was drawing
large crowds and to ensure a crowd of sufficient size to keep them from nervously "sitting on their hands." Often done on
opening night when critics were in attendance.
Patter Act — An act based on rapid, clever dialog (Abbott and Costello's famed "Who's On First?" is an example.)
Pin Rail — A sturdy horizontal rail, firmly affixed to the wall and floor, holding a row of belaying pins. Each
12-inch wooden pin is shaped to fit the hand, which also prevents slippage of the hemp line which may be tied to it. This
system is used to snub off the lines raising scenery into the fly gallery. It is the most direct reminder that in many ways
the stage systems mimic the fittings of a sailing ship.
Pit — The sunken area immediately between the edge of the stage and the first row of the house, in which the
house musicians play.
Places — The last in a series of timed calls from the stage manager. They begin with "half hour" and culminate
in "places," the signal for those in the show's first minutes to make their way to the stage.
Playing to the Haircuts — Playing last on the bill (in other words, playing to the backs of the audience members
as they left.) In its worst construction, performing so badly that the audience walked out in boredom and disgust.
Pro-Am — Professional amateur entertainers. Many famous performers gained notoriety (and experience) in frequent
"amateur night" competitions.
Prop — Short for "property", any item onstage other than scenery.
Protean Act — A quick-change act (from Proteus, a Greek god who could change shape).
Quarter — The stage manager's announcement that "places" will be called in 15 minutes.
Quick Change Act — An act in which a performer entertains by lightning-fast onstage costume changes.
Revue — Like a vaudeville show, a revue consists of sketches, songs, and comedians. However, instead of changing
its acts weekly, a revue has a longer run, and the acts might be tied together with a central concept. Ziegfeld's Follies
and Lou Leslie's Blackbirds of 1928 were some of the many revues.
Roper — A cowboy act.
Running Gag — A joke or physical bit which appears several times throughout the show, gaining momentum each time
through its familiarity and through its appearance in a new context.
Schmaltz — Yiddish for "chicken fat." Schmaltzy material is broad, sentimental material like weepy songs about
your poor old mother back in the old country.
Schtick — Yiddish for a "bit." Exaggerated, stylized business or clowning.
Sight Gag — A joke which conveys its humor visually.
Show Stopper — An bit or act that earns such wild applause that the performers must pause until the ovation quiets.
Often prompts a brief reprise of the material or an encore number.
Sidewalk Comedy — Comic act in front of the olio, the setting often being "two guys meet on a sidewalk."
Sight Act — See "dumb act," above.
Silo Circuit — Small towns and rural areas (referring, of course, to the feed silos.) The equivalent of the circus
term "mud show." Also, summer stock.
Single — An act by a single performer.
Sitting on their Hands — An audience resolutely refusing to applaud.
Skull — A doubletake or mug.
Slapstick — Knockabout physical comedy, named for the "slapstick," a bat-like paddle with a flap that emits a
huge "slap" sound when struck.
Sleeper Jump — The top-floor dressing room, assigned to the smaller acts. The higher in status an act was, the
closer to the stage they had their dressing room. The old theaters had dressing rooms stacked all the way to the fly loft
(and that could be four or five storeys.) And, of course, you got there by backstage stairs all the way up. The top floor
dressing room was the farthest, the hottest, the least-well maintained, and performers had to carry their wardrobe trunk up
all of those narrow metal stairs. Called a "sleeper jump" because it was so far from the stage that it took an overnight railway
trip to get up there.
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Small Time — The circuits playing more than three shows a day.
Song Pluggers — Men who demonstrated new songs to entice performers to use the material in their acts. If a performer
could be induced to put a new song in his act, it would increase sales of the sheet music (which, when a tune was made famous
by a star performer, could hit the million copy mark or higher.) The song pluggers made the rounds of agents' offices, providing
promotional copies of the latest songs complete with orchestrations (printed on inexpensive paper and marked "ADVANCE ARTIST
COPY"), and even rehearsed and coached performers. Alfred O. Phillipp wrote for the Federal Writers' Project in the late 1930s,
"Performers of all types, in every rank and category, walked into these offices all day for their free copies. Not all of
them were singers. Aerialists requested the latest waltz numbers for their incidental music while swinging on a trapeze. Perhaps
Archie Onri, one of America's great jugglers, would drop in to try out a snappy number in 'two-four' with which he could keep
time while manipulating his famous 'devil sticks.' Perhaps Jack Norworth, while starring at the Majestic Theatre, gets a wire
from Ted Snyder asserting 'great new number just out, just your style. Please drop in at our Chicago office', so Jack Norworth
(a $2,000 a week star) drops in just as an ivory tickler finishes demonstrating a number for the $20 a week strip dancer of
a South State Street honky-tonk."
Spotted Week — A week in which an act was not fully booked. Similar to "Split Week," in which an act was not
booked for a full week in one theater but played part of the week in another house.
Stage Door — The entrance from the street to backstage. A bulletin board located here holds a daily sign-in sheet,
information about nearby hotels and restaurants for the benefit of traveling artists, and rules particular to that theater.
There might also be a set of mailboxes for the performers to receive mail or notes from the producer (see "blue material").
Stage Left — The side of the stage that is on the performer's left as he faces the audience. (Similarly, "stage
right" is the other side.)
Stage Manager — The real, day-to-day boss and hero of show business. He or she sits on a stool at a podium just
offstage to the left of the performers (stage left), issuing orders as the show proceeds. The stage manager calls lighting
and scenery cues, and in the case of revues he may even supervise rehearsals after the director has gone off to direct some
Stealing a Bow — Reappearing on stage for another bow (tending to keep the audience politely applauding) when
the volume of applause does not really warrant it. One way of "milking" applause.
Stick Act — A gymnastic act on the horizontal bar.
(the) Sticks — Out-of-town (out of New York) venues, especially really out-of-town venues.
Stooge — A comic aide to a comedian, often a performer who appears to a "volunteer" called up to help from out
of the audience. A magician may also employ a stooge to give the appearance of performing miraculous effects on a randomly-chosen
audience member (the stooge).
Straight Man — Half of a comic team, the performer in a routine who plays the "average Joe on the street," the
person the audience can identify with, who meets or converses with someone odd, resulting in comical situations. George Burns
was the straight man in tandem with wife Gracie Allen. He always explained "I just stand there and ask Gracie a question,
she answers it in her way, the audience applauds and thinks I'm a great comedian."
Stubholders — The audience.
Suitcasing — Traveling on tour with very light or minimal baggage. Performers were required to pay their own
expenses between engagements, including the expense of shipping the props and scenery their act required.
Tab Show — Low-budget condensed versions of major shows, suited to easy transport between rural areas and small
towns. Perhaps an abbreviation for "tabloid," a half-the-standard-size newspaper, but more likely referring to "tabs", the
cross-stage curtains (see "in one") which might (along with a few pieces of furniture) be the only scenery used in a tab show.
Tag Line — An additional punch line to a joke; gives a second laugh without a new setup.
Take — A comedic facial reaction. A "double-take" is a "take" (usually depicting simply noticing something and
starting to move on) followed by a quick return to the sight and a broad, shocked reaction to what you've just seen. A "spit
take" is a reaction of such shock that the performer sprays out whatever he had been drinking or eating when the stimulus
Teaser — The short drop just behind the proscenium arch, adjusting the visual height of the stage.
Terp Team — Ballroom or other paired dancers, from "Terpsichore," the Greek muse of dance.
Three-sheeting — Hanging around in front of the theater trying to date a town gal or impress people that you
are a performer. Named after the 44"x84" posters (made of three standard-size printed sheets) used on the side of the theater.
Managers discouraged the practice because it looked seedy and detracted from the mystique of the stage.
Tin Pan Alley — West 28th Street in New York City, where many music composers and publishers had their offices
at the turn of the century, and the sound of multiple instruments playing different tunes was described as "like banging on
a thousand tin pans." It came to represent the whole burgeoning popular music business of the day. Tin Pan Alley publishers
mass-produced songs and promoted them as merchandise.
TOBA — Theatre Owners Booking Agency, a circuit of about 100 vaudeville houses catering to black audiences (though
the theaters were white-owned.) Known by white performers as "Toby Time" and by black performers as "Tough On Black Asses."
Black comedienne Moms Mabley told Studs Terkel in 1960, "You'd go down by way of Washington, and in two years time you'd come
out by way of St. Louis, because in those days you worked two and three weeks in one place."
Took the Veil — Retired from professional life. From the Catholic term for becoming a nun.
Topper — A joke that amplifies and gets extra energy from the previous joke.
Tormenters — The legs (q.v.) just behind the proscenium arch, adjusting the visual width of the stage.
Trap — An opening in the stage floor enabling performers to go down, fitted with a secure covering to make the
area just another part of the stage floor when not in use.
(to) Upstage — Before the twentieth century stages were often "raked" or slanted, higher in the back than in
the front. Anything done upstage would be behind the back of the star, who would be downstage and facing the audience, and
a misbehaving cast member could easily steal attention from the performer who should be the focus of attention. Also, to take
on a superior and patronizing attitude: "George is getting upstage lately."
Walking off Cold — Flopping, leaving the stage at the end of your act while leaving the audience unimpressed.
West Coasting — Vaudeville theaters on the west coast tended to have low fly galleries, too low to fly backdrops
unless they were first 'west coasted': bundled up ('reefed') and tied to the pipe suspending the drop.
Wheels — Theater circuits, chains of theaters under the same management.
Wings — The areas offstage right and left, out of sight of the audience but clearly visible to performers onstage.
Work Lights — General utility illumination for the stage during non-performance times. Work lights for the house
were called "cleaners."
Wowed the Audience — Was a huge success, synonymous with a dozen other expressions like "laid 'em in the aisles,"
"knocked 'em dead," etc.
Yock — A really big laugh from the audience.
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