Ad-lib - To improvise. When a performer deviates from, or adds remarks that are not in the script.
Alley-oop - An Acrobatic or tumbling act.ˆä A circus term from the French "allez" (to go) and the English "up".
All Washed Up - No bookings and little hope of any in the future.
All Wet - A flop, but worse.
Ankle - Term coined by Variety to indicate that a performer has quit or been dismissed from a job. It suggests "walking".
Applesauce - Nonsense
Baggy Pants Comic - A performer (often a fulltime employee of a single theater) whose act consisted of coarse, slapstick humor.
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 ˆâ 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.
Balto - Baltimore
The Beach - 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.
Beat - a short pause (measured intuitively, usually about one second) used for comic effect or dramatic emphasis.
Big time - First class vaudeville with a program usually consisting of eight acts. Big time meant high salaries, playing big cities and only two shows a day. The theatres were top notch and often had reserved seating.
Bill - The lineup or program of a vaudeville show. Vaudevillians rarely referred to it as anything but "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 - Sketch, routine, trick or a part thereof. A bit is complete in itself, allowing it to be dropped in, excised or substituted for another bit.
(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.
Blackout - Short comedy routine ending on a punchline or curtain line as the lights go out or the curtain closes.ˆäUsually played in front of the drop or olio curtain.ˆä See: Olio
Blue - Crude jokes or other material using graphic sexual or toilet references or profanity. The term comes from the days when Keith-Albee insisted that performers stick to strict standards of propriety and would send blue envelopes with cuts to performers. 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 circuit anymore.
B.O. - Box Office. Good B.O. meant good ticket sales.
Boards - The stage.
Boff, boffo - Outstanding
Bomb - To perform a show which gets no or embarrassingly little audience response.
Booner - Talent Scout (from Daniel Boone, a frontiersman who scouted the American west)
Booster -See: Plugger
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 - Cleaned up version of a burlesque routine. So called because Boston censors were very strict.
Break - Opportunity to further a career by moving up in the show business hierarchy. See: Up
Break a jump - Get a booking located somewhere in between two other bookings in different cities. See: Jump
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 actually many professionals see its use as a mark of amateurism.ˆä
Break-in - Time during which a new act was honed and revised after performing before an audience. Theatres would usually get a cheaper rate for booking an act during the break-in period.
(to do 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 unlikely success.
Bundle actor - A performer who traveled without trunks, crates, rigging boxes, or any other type of heavy baggage. Unlike the legitimate theatre, Vaudevillians were usually responsible for the costs of transporting their own freight and baggage. See: Suitcasing
Business - Actions by a performer intended to establish atmosphere, reveal character, or explain a situation. (A guy comes on stage, looks off left, leans against the lampost, looks at his watch, sighs and lights a smoke. She's late again.)
Buster - A broadly-performed comic stage fall.
Call - The time a performer is expected to be at the theater.
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 -- Joe Penner's "Wanna buy a duck?", Joe de Rita's "I'm a baaaaaad boy!" or Pigmeat Markham's "Here come de Judge!"
Canned - Cancelled, fired. See: Shut See: Closed See: Got back your pictures
Chalk Talk - An act where a routine or lecture was accompanied by illustrations done on the spot. Often a political cartoonist or caricaturist. Famous chalk talkers were J. W. Bengough (Canada) and Thomas Nast (US) although neither counted on vaudeville for their main source of income.
Chapeaugraphy - When 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.
Chi - Chicago
Chooser - A performer who goes to see other acts to steal material.
Cincy - Cincinnati
Circuit - A multi-city chain of theaters joined by the same ownership and booked as a block.
Claque - A group of audence members who are paid to respond to an act, or who have a special interest in the success or failure of an act and react accordingly. See: Shill
Close - The last performance of a booking. Also used to mean fired. "The manager closed them a week early." Also used to mean giving the last act on a bill. "They closed for Sophie Tucker in Chicago."
Clicked - Was a success with the audience.
Cold ˆë An audience is in a bad mood or responding poorly.
Commonwealth plan - All members of the act split the money equally.
Combination house - A theatre showing both motion pictures and vaudeville.
Company - Four or more performers in the same act.
Contact men - Song pluggers/promoters for music publishers
The Corner - Chicago's Woods Theatre Building was on the corner of N. Dearborn and W. Randolph Streets. This was the unofficial gathering place for vaudevillians in the city.
Corny, Cornball - Sentimental, obvious, overly broad and old-fashioned material presumed to appeal to unsophisticated country audiences.
Counting the House - Looking out into the house surreptitiously, to estimate the boxoffice success of the show.
Crossover - A staple of Vaudeville comedy. Two performers enter from opposite sides of the stage and meet in the middle for a brief comedy bit. Popular as an Olio act. See: Olio Act
Cut House - Theatre that paid lower salaries. A performer might play a cut house to "break a jump".
Dark - Time during which a theatre is closed to the public.
The Death Trail - A string of small, cheap theatres extending from Chicago to the Northwest, down the Pacific Coast, end finishing up in Southern California.
Detracting - One comic stooging for another.
Deuce spot - Second on the bill. Considered to be the worst spot in the programme.
Deucing - Playing the deuce spot.
Dialect Comic - Comic using an accent and ethnic humour.ˆä
Died - Played to little or no applause.
Disappointed - Didn't show up to go on stage.
Disappointment Act - An act substituted for a scheduled act which could not perform. It was assumed that any performer(s) still available at the last minute probably weren't very good.
(From) Dixie - Attributing a "good enough for the rubes" quality to a performer who wasn't considered able to perform well.
Dope - Information
Doughdy - Weekly salary
Dumb Act - Silent act or act that did not involve talking . Juggling, acrobats, strongmen, animal acts etc. Often first and/or last on the bill. Also know as a Sight Act.
Ducats - tickets.
The Dumps - The smallest, cheapest, and most shabby theatres.
(Doing an) Eddie Leonard - Spontaneously doing additional material after your act is over, in response to applause from the audience.
Effect Finish - A finish getting its impact from the use of props or special effects
Equilibrist - One who performs a balancing act, such as tightrope walking.
Extravaganza Act - An act that deals comically with the impossible and unreal. It relies upon physical surprises and interesting stage-effects to break the rules of the audiences understanding of how things should be.
Fair Booking Agency - An agency that specialized in booking entertainment for the hundreds of county fairs that flourished in the pre-Depression era. Unlike a theatrical agency, they did not work on a commission basis, but on an "over and above" basis. For example an act might charge $300 a week. The agency would sell them for as high a price as they could negotiate and keep anything over the base $300.
Excess Baggage - A nonprofessional spouse who tours with their vaudevillian husband or wife.
Feature spot - Top billed act, headliner. Nearly always the act next to closing. See: Next to closing
Feeder - The straight man, whose function was mostly to "feed" the comic opportunities for humor.
Fighting the agents - Looking for work
A Fish - A lousy act
Five-percenter - Theatrical agent or broker. Named for the percentage of a performer's fee to which they were entitled. Later known as a ten-percenter or just a percenter.
Flash act - Alarge impressive act . This could range from a musical with as many as fifteen beautiful girls to a large animal circus type act.
Flashback - When the straight man turns a laugh that the comedian has won into a laugh for himself.
Flirtation Act - An act with a man and a woman that is based on romantic tension.
Flop - A failure. See: All wet
Flop Sweat - The physical manifestation of the realization that your act is flopping or is doomed to flop.
Four-flushing - Faking it. Bluffing your way through an act.
Freak Act - Novelty or one of a kind acts.ˆäUsually a person/persons with unusual physical deformities (Violet and Daisy Hilton) or famous/infamous individuals who had become celebrities (Evelyn Nesbit Shaw.)ˆä Not necessarily a lowbrow act (Helen Keller.)
Freak House - Vaudeville theatre known for presenting Freak Acts.
Frisco - San Francisco
Full stage - An act that required the entire stage area. See: In One
Gagging - Introducing unplanned and unrehearsed remarks, reactions, bits, or business into an act during performance. Used to draw focus or to throw off the other performer(s).
The Gerry Society - The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Named for founder Elbridge T. Gerry. Originally founded to prevent the exploitation of child labour, the society was a thorn in the side of vaudevillians. The society declared performers must be over 16 to work in vaudeville. Buster Keaton, Fred Astaire, Rose Marie and Milton Berle were only a few of the child performers who ran into trouble with the Gerry Society.
Girl Act - An act with a number of pretty girls where the main appeal was the attractiveness and costumes of the performers.
Giving the bird - Booing, hissing and/or catcalling. (In case you were wondering, the familiar accompanying hand gesture did not appear until the 1960s.)
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).
Ghost Light - A single bare bulb on a head-high stand, left lit on the stage overnight for safety.
Go big - Win a good round of applause.
Good place to die - A small town without any action.
Got back your pictures - Were cancelled, closed or fired.ˆä Sometimes used ironically to mean death.
Got over - Connected positively with the audience.
Grand Jury - The audience in the gallery.
Guttenburg - Wardrobe
Guy from Dixie - A performer who isn't very good.
Handcuffed - When the audience won't applaud.
Hand to hand music - Applause
Headliner - Star of the show whose named appeared at the top of the bill.
Heckler - An audience member who taunts the performer. Performers often trade "heckler stopper" rejoinders,
Hoofing, hoofer - Dancing, dancerˆä
Hope Island - The sidewalk in front of the Palace Theatre.
High Hat - Haughty. Above yourself. A top hat accompanied a full dress tuxedo which indicated prestige, both because a performer could afford it and had the nerve to wear it.
Higher Vaudeville - Term coined by poet Vachel Lindsay to describe performances by poets touring universities and other cultural venues.
Hokum or Hocum - Bits, jokes, and routines that were corny, old-fashioned and contrived.
Doing a Houdini - Getting out of a tight spot.
In-and-outer - A performer who went back and forth between vaudeville, and Broadway or the legitimate stage.
In One - An act or routine that takes place in the six-foot area behind the edge of the stage.ˆäThat plus the next six feet were "in two" and so on in six foot increments up to a "full stage".
Insurance - A "sure-fire" joke, bit or routine that could be relied upon to save the performance.
Intermission - Beside the dictionary meaning, a title for a performer so unengaging that he might as well not be onstage: "How are ya, you intermission?"
Ivory tickler - Pianist
Joe Miller - An old, stale and/or corny joke.ˆä Named for Joe Miller's Joke Book, a "book of jest" published in 1739 and re-published, pirated and rewritten endlessly into the 19th century.
Jockeying - Riding the applause for as long as possible. See: Milking
Jump - Travel between towns or cities where you are booked.
Kill - To be a complete success with the audience.
Kinker - Tumbler
Knockabout comedy - Comedy involving physical humour and mock violence.ˆä
A Knockout - A panic, but even better. See: Wow'd em
Knocked 'em bowlegged - Was a big success
L'ville - Louisville
Lard Actor - A performer who can't make enough money to remove his makeup with cold cream, but uses lard instead.
Lazzo - From commedia dell'arte. A recurring or running gag, skit, business or routine. Eg: "Slowly I turned..."
Lecturing the skull - When the straight man talks and the comic mugs.
Legit - Legitimate theatre
Legitimate encore - An encore achieved without "stealing a bow" or "milking the crowd" See: Milking
Making the rounds - Looking for work
Mugging - Contorting the face to win laughter, irrespective of any connection to the lines or action of the scene.
Milking - Encouraging, inducing and/or begging an audience to continue applauding long after they should have ceased. A practice which, although not exclusive to Vaudeville (as any Opera fan can attest), certainly reached its zenith during that time.ˆä
Milkman - A performer with a reputation for milking.
Monologist - A single whose act consisted entirely of talk, without the use of song, dance or major props.ˆä The bridge between ancient storytellers and modern standup comics.
Morgue - A house that is not doing business.
Mountaineer - A comedian who is an alumnus of the Borsht Belt.
Mowed 'em - Was a big success
Mud Show - Small time tent show that travelled by road, not rail. See: Tent Show
N.S.G. - Reviewer's shorthand for "Not so good"
N.S.H. - "Not so hot"
Next-to-closing - This was the "top" or "star" spot. In big-time, the seventh spot on the bill. Top of the bill in Vaudeville was to play next-to-closing on the Orpheum Circuit. See: Feature Spot
Number - An entertainment selection. In vaudeville programs the acts were often numbered by the unning order.
Nut act - Comic(s) using an excessive style, usually physical comedy. See: Knockabout comedy
Nut House - Vaudeville theatre known for comic acts.
Open time - When a performer is not booked and is free to accept engagements.
Out of town - Anywhere not New York City.
Olio Acts - Vaudeville numbers that were performed between the between the acts of the principal show. In the early days of Vaudeville, specialty acts did their numbers in front of an oilcloth curtain while the stage was being set for the next part of the show. The word "olio" is Italian for oil. Also sometimes used to refer to the supporting acts in a vaudeville bill.
Olio curtain - Also called the "in-one curtain" or in today's lingo the "mid-stage traveller." In a vaudeville theatre the Olio curtain was set about ten feet back from the footlights. The olio curtain often had advertising painted on it.
Over their heads - An excuse used by performers who felt their act was not appreciated by the audience due to a lack of intelligence and/or understanding.
Painted on the drop - Appearing in an act or skit, but with no lines.
Palaver - Talk. Someone with a "great string of palaver" had a terrific sales pitch.
Pan Time - Playing the Pantages Circuit
Panicked the house - Was a big success. Even better than a riot. See: Knockout
Paper - Complimentary and promotional admissions.
Papering the house - Giving away free tickets to fill up the audience. Often done on Opening Night or when a critic is in the audience. (This term and this practice are still in common use.)
Patter - The spoken parts of an act.
Patter Act - An act based on clever, rapid-fire dialogue.
Patting rabbit hash - A brisk recitative, with the performer using his body as a percussion instrument. The technique involved patting and slapping the knees, forearms, shoulders, hips etc. with increasingly intricate timing. Sometimes called "Patting Juba".
Pipes - Voice
Play up - Pitch the pace of a scene or act at a high level.
Playing to the haircuts - Last on the bill. In other words, playing to the backs of the audience as they left the theatre.
Plot interest - Act or routine that uses a thread of plot on which to string its business
Plugger - Someone who promotes a song for payment. Some vaudevillians made as much money "plugging" as they did performing. Also: A salesman for a music publisher.
Point - Laugh line/Punch line
Polite Vaudeville - Strictly enforced family entertainment.
Pro-am - Professional amateurs. Acts who made regular income by entering amateur contests.
Professional copies - The lyrics and full orchestrations of the latest songs, provided to vaudeville pros free of charge as a marketing tool.
Protean Act - Quick change act
Relatives in the ice business - What an unresponsive audience must have.
A Riot - Succeed with big applause. See: Panicked the House
Risley act - Acrobatic act with foot balancing. Named for Richard Risley, a 19th century circusmaster who introduced Chinese acrobatic troupes to Europe and North America.
Roper - A cowboy act.
Route - Series of play dates involving travelling.
Routine - A particular arrangement of bits, schtick and/or choreography. A whole act, or part thereof.
Rube - A vaudeville stock character. An unsophisticated "country" comic type.
Running Gag - A joke or physical bit which appears several times throughout the show.
Schmaltz - Yiddish for "chicken fat," shmaltzy material is broad, sentimental material.
Schtick - Bit, routine or style.
Second Banana - A stooge or support player in a comic act. Used most commonly in Burlesque.
Shill - A confederate planted in the audience in order to stimulate the participation of others.
Shine - A hick who thinks he is an artiste.
The Shi**y Circuit - The Sheedy Circuit. (Small time East Coast circuit)
Show stopper - A act that receives legitimate applause or ovations lasting into the time allotted for the next act. Some acts, hoping to be noted as a show stopper, became experts at "milking" applause. See: Milking
Shut - Cancelled, fired, canned.
Sidewalk comedy - Comic act in front of the Olio.
Sight Act - A joke which conveys its humor visually. See: Dumb Act
Silo circuit - Small towns and rural areas. See: The stix .Later, Summer stock.
Single - A solo act
Sister act - An act with sisters. Sometimes sister acts were comprised of non-related performers who wanted to add novelty to their performance.ˆä Sister acts became popular in WW1, when there was a shortage of male performers.
Sitting on their hands - See: Handcuffed
Sketch - A short narrative with two or more performers. A sketch has little or no plot and character development, but instead depends upon incidents or problems resolved by stock characters.
Skull - A doubletake or mug.ˆä See: Lecturing the skull
Sleeper Jump - The dressing room furthest from the stage, often assigned to the deuce spot. The higher in status an act was, the closer to the stage they had their dressing room.ˆä See: Deuce Spotˆä ALSO An overnight railway trip. See Jump
Small time - Vaudeville in smaller towns with lower pay and a higher number of performances a day.ˆä
Snake - Contortionist
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.
Split week - A week booked in two different theatres, often in different cities.
Spotted week - A week in which an act was not fully booked.
Star turn - An act by a great performer. Also used facetiously to mean an offstage temper tantrumor other diva-like behaviour. See: Turn
Stealing a bow - Reappearing on stage for another bow. See: Milking
Stick Act - Act on the horizontal bars
The Stix , Sticks -See: The Silo Circuit
Stooge - Comic aide to a comedian; a foil, often a performer who appears to a "volunteer" called up to help from out of the audience.
Stopped the Show -See: Show stopper
Stubholders - The audience
Suitcasing - Travelling on tour with minimal baggage. See: Bundle Actor
Sunday School Circuit - The Keith-Albee Circuit, known for their rigorous enforcement of polite vaudeville.
Sure-fire - A no-fail bit, gag or routine. See: Insurance
Tab Show - An abbreviated version of a musical comedy. Usually found on the road.
Tad comic - Irish comic
Talking Single - A solo act using stories, jokes or other verbal communication. Magicians, impersonators and monologists would be classified thus.
Ten-percenter -See: Five-percenter
Tent show - Carnival or medicine type show
Terp team - Ballroom dancers
Three-sheeting - Hanging around the theatre making it known that you are a performer in order to try and impress others. Grandstanding. Named after the 44" x 84" posters that were used in the lobby of the Vaudeville theatre to promote the show.
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."
Took the veil - Retired from public life.
Top of the Bill - The star spot on the lineup. Usually the next-to-closing act.
Topper - A joke that amplifies and gets extra energy from the previous joke.
Tramp Comic - A stock character. A homeless, down-on-his-luck opportunist.
A Turn - An act
Up - Moving to a higher status in show business hierarchy. A performer would strive to move up from tent shows to burlesque to small time vaudeville to big time to Broadway.
Upstage - An aloof or haughty manner. The part of the stage furthest from the audience is called "upstage". Prior to the twentieth century stages were often "raked" or slanted from back to front. Anyone upstage would be literally higher than others on the same stage.ˆä
Walking off cold - Flopping
Wheels - Burlesque circuits
Wow Finish - An impressive climax at the end of an act calculated to bring enthusiastic applause.
Wowed 'em - Was a huge success. The ultimate accolade.
Yock - A big laugh from the audience.