Entertainment in the Gilded Age

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In the late 1800's, American society began to burst with cultural activity. After the Civil War and the Reconstruction, Americans were eager to return to their normal lifestyles. The period that followed, however, was quite different from what the country was used to. During the war, many pushed hard for a rise in industry, leading to an explosive industrial revolution far beyond what people had expected. America's business and economy had boomed, and, as the new century approached, many had a new outlook on life. They were eager to escape the dull regiments of both the past Victorian era and the new urban lifestyle. This was easy for the upper and middle classes, both of which were growing due to the rapid increase in industry. It was great news for entrepreneurs and business people of the time, because there was money to be made in this desire for amusement. Of course, this was not the whole story of the new Gilded Age, but it was definitely an era of growing leisure time and the business that came along with it.

One of the most popular forms of entertainment during the Gilded Age was theater, particularly Vaudeville, which was a type of variety theater prominent in late 19th century America. Of course, similar types of variety shows had existed much earlier, before the 1830's, but they experienced a growth thanks to Benjamin Franklin Keith, "the father" of American Vaudeville. He spent his earlier years working in traveling shows and circuses, before establishing his own museum of oddities in 1883. His success allowed him to finance the building of his own theater, and he became the subject of his own "rags to riches" story, one of many that were so common in the Gilded Age. Keith was a savvy businessman who knew how to draw in new urban audiences. He favored the idea of the "legitimate" stage, free of vulgarity, and developed the policy of consecutive performances that created the illusion of thriving business to ensure patrons, which made Vaudeville what it was. It featured a large variety of diverse acts, and was great entertainment to those coming from cities who were assured of quality by large numbers of people and were used to constant buzz.1

Traveling entertainment was also extremely popular during this period. One such display was the circus, especially the Barnum & Bailey Circus, which was advertised as "The Greatest Show on Earth." Much like those of today, it featured an array of animals and performers gathered under a big tent. P.T. Barnum, one of its founders, started out as the owner of a freak show. He was keen on advertising and also knew how to attract audiences, skills he needed in order to compete with The Ringling Brothers' Circus, his main competitor. That show was also quite a spectacle, featuring lavish scenery and thousands of performers. The two each strove to be recognized as the best in the world, which helped to make the circus the "show to see" when it came to town.2

One more prevalent traveling show was the Chautauqua, which blended education with entertainment. When its founders realized how popular their exhibition had become, they knew they had something good, and the one show expanded to locations throughout the country. Large tents were set up for huge audiences who came to hear orators, comedians, and musicians. Eventually, the shows were run by a few agencies that booked tickets far in advanced, which gave those companies a big payoff as well.3

Another form of theater that had its beginnings in the Gilded Age was the movies. They emerged due to Thomas Edison's kinetograph, a new type of camera that could photograph motion pictures. At first, movies were very short and contained no plot structure. Due to their growing popularity, however, nickelodeons, the first permanent movie theaters, began to spring up. Soon after, glamorous movie palaces, such as The Roxy in Los Angeles, were built to mimic the grand style of real theaters. Filmmakers...
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