Vaudeville Lingo Dictionary
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Circus Slang Vaudeville Slang
Ad Lib — Short for “ad libitum” (latin for “at will”): to perform dialog 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 or from an unprofessional and undisciplined choice to ‘show off’. In any case, 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 then either “up” in English, or a simple vocalization like “hup” to coordinate timing.
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, or when the style of his day was no longer popular.
Amateur Nights — The very cheapest vaudeville entertainment to produce, with guaranteed “home town appeal”. Local amateurs, often kids, could perform without pay, trying to get exposure and experience, with prizes for the performers who pleased the audience best. A number of big-name stars got their beginnings at amateur night shows. Some performers were “pro-am”, frequenting such nights and gaining lots of professional-level experience, and easily winning prizes.
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 fireplace). Most building codes require a fire curtain and automatic fireproof stage doors in theaters with a stage height of more than 50 feet.
Audition — A sample performance or reading for producers or directors for the purpose of being cast in a production.
Baggy Pants Comic — A performer (often a fulltime employee of a single theater) whose act consisted of coarse, slapstick humor.
Ballyhoo — A wild, figure-eight, all-over-the-place gyration of the follow spotlight.
Banana — Burlesque term for a house comic, probably derived from the description of anything crazy as “bananas.” 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 — Little used now, this adjective described nonstandard 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. So many performers lounged about the area across from the Palace that wags saw them “vacationing” there and dubbed it “the beach,” and if you were stuck on the the beach because you couldn’t get a job, you were “washed up.”
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 use the technique when dramatic emphasis is needed.
Big Time — The “big leagues” of vaudeville. The best circuits offered first-rate programs 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). Not just a matter of opinion but a matter of detailed legal negotiations. Billing is still an important measure of a performer’s status in theater and film, with the most prominent artists ranking ‘name above the title’ billing.
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 extinguishing 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.
Blocking — The planned movement of performers on stage.
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 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, in public use, “body odor” (by way of a deodorant advertising jingle), experienced in abundance in dressing rooms.
(the) Boards — The stage itself. Theater stages are surfaced with rows of wooden boards, made of soft wood and replaceable when too worn, that allow scenery to be “anchored” (nailed or screwed down temporarily) with “stage screws”, special screws topped with wings for easy insertion and removal by hand. Concert hall 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 elicits little more than boredom.
Booner — A talent scout (from Daniel Boone, a frontiersman who scouted the American west).
Borders and Legs — Borders are short immovable drops spanning the stage across the top, masking the above-stage lights and scenery. Legs hang vertically at each side performing the same function, masking the wings. See “teasers” and “tormenters”.
Border Lights — The most basic 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 aimed straight down. Each lamp is covered with a glass color filter, alternating red, blue and green. The lighting board can only control the intensity of each general color group.
Borscht Belt — The resorts in the Catskills, 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 audience was bonded by their ethnicity.
Box Set — An interior set consisting of three complete walls; the proscenium is understood to be the fourth wall (and from this comes the term “breaking the fourth wall”, meaning violating the convention that the plane of the proscenium is as solid as any of the other walls).
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. Many ridiculously complicated spurious etymologies are often cited, but the simplest explanation is the most plausible: in many fields common superstition suggests that to wish someone well (in so many words) would jinx a performance. That said, this phrase is now in such common use that the “members only” quality of jargon has been lost, and professionals leave the use of ‘break a leg’ to the amateurs.
Break-in — The three-week period during which a new act was polished and perfected before an audience in “out-of-town” venues before metropolitan critics would see it. Theaters in out-of-the-way places 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 unlikely success.
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.”
Call Board — A bulletin board just inside the stage door posted with daily announcements.
Call Sheet — A list of actors and other personnel, on which everyone must sign in on arrival at the theater.
Callback — A joke that gets extra energy by referring to another joke 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 theme 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.
Chorus — In revues, the no-name group of dancers/singers backing up the stars.
Circuit — A multi-city chain of theaters with 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 competitors.
(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 responds poorly to even the best entertainment. Or a performer may go onstage unexpectedly (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 read.”
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 or 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, perhaps through a hole in the curtain or from a gap at the proscenium, 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 home!”
Crow’s Roost, Crow’s Nest — The rear section of 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.
Dark — Describes a theater in which there is no performance on a particular night.
(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.
Deck — The stage floor. This, like many theater tech terms, recalls the nautical origins of stage systems.
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 — A comedy act using dialect material (a broad accent and ethnic humor, usually Italian, Jewish, Irish or Negro). This brand of humor seems crude by today’s standards, but it went over far better in a time when most of the audience had just gotten off the boat from somewhere else. They accepted humor directed at any immigrants as humor related to their own experience, especially when immigrants tended to be embarrassed by their “simple” origins and yearned to become “more American”.
Died — Played to perfunctory applause or none at all.
Dimmer — An electrical control that adjusts the amount of current going to a light, or to a set of lights, changing their intensity. Formerly a large number of dimmers would be operated from offstage, but now the controls are electronic and the control board is located in a booth at the back of the house.
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 a “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,” which was often painted with advertisements for local businesses (unpainted front curtains were the rule in non-vaudeville types of theaters). 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” opportunities for humor to the comic.
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.
Flat — An element of scenery; a rectangular wooden frame stretched with canvas and painted as necessary, usually representing a wall.
Flirtation Act — An act based on flirtatious banter between a man and a woman, perhaps ending with 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 does insufficient business.
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 drops and other pieces of scenery to be lowered to the stage. The counterweights were once sandbags, but now they are heavy iron ingots stacked in a secure “arbor” to adjust for heavy or light loads. Each fly position raised or lowered a “batten” (a sturdy straight pole as wide as the stage, to which the flown scenery or lights were attached. A batten hung with lights is an “electrical pipe”, and safety rules prevent scenery from being hung on these. Suspended items that do not raise or lower are said to be “dead hung”.
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 well.
G-string — A narrow strip of fabric that covers a stripper’s pubic area, the remainder supported by nearly-invisible strings, designed to circumvent narrowly-defined anti-nudity laws.
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 (stolen) 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 confusion.
Gallery — Synonymous with ‘balcony.’ The gallery seats were the cheapest. In turn-of-the-century New York, lower gallery seats were 50¢, while upper gallery seats cost 25¢.
Get Back Your Pictures — To be canceled or fired (your promo photos were removed from the lobby displays and returned to you).
Get Shut — To be fired after an unsatisfactory first performance.
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. A variety of legends have been concocted for the ghost light (like “it placates the ghosts who haunt the theater”) but it is required by safety laws because a pitch-black theater, with its pits and easily-dislodged hanging scenery, is a hazardous place.
Girl Act — A one-act musical comedy. In one writer’s words, “all I remember is a lot of pretty girls who changed their clothes every few minutes, two lovers who sang about the moon, a funny couple and a whole lot of music.”
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 who are ready to go on await their calls to the stage.
Grouch Bag — A small bag or purse worn under the clothing, carrying the performer’s valuables (which are likely to be stolen from an unattended dressing room).
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 called at 30 minutes before curtain time, a “British half” is called at 35 minutes before. Quarter is called at 15 minutes (20 in Britain), and the five is called at 5 minutes before the show begins (10 in Britain). The final call is “places” in America, “beginners” in the UK.
Headliner — Star of the show whose named appeared most prominently on the bill and in the advertising, perhaps even “name above the title.”
“Heads!” — Warning shout used when something has fallen from above, or when scenery is flying in at an unexpected time. Everyone should immediately look above and get out of the way.
Heckler — An audience member who taunts the performer. (Yes, alcohol is often involved). Performers often trade “heckler stopper” rejoinders.
Hemp — Scenery and lights were originally hung from pipes suspended by hemp ropes. Each set of lines was rigged to raise the scenery hung from a pipe into the fly gallery above the stage or lower it into view. The ropes were 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.
High Hat — To be very classy, or perhaps to have an overinflated opinion of yourself (referring to the top hat which traditionally accompanied men’s formal evening wear).
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.
House Seats — A few tickets to very good seats reserved for distribution to people associated with the show: critics, friends, etc. May be released for last-minute sale if not given away. Also called “comps”.
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.
Ingenue — Young actress (usually fresh-faced and pretty), plays romantic roles.
Insurance — A surefire joke or bit that could be relied upon to spark better response to material a performer didn’t trust.
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. Mentioned in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol when Scrooge chortles “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 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 musicals or mere amusements like vaudeville or burlesque.
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.
Mugging — Making faces and over-exaggerating lines, trying too hard to get a laugh.
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 a mental 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,” sometimes painted with advertising for local businesses if the main curtain was not, 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.
Parterre — We now think of the entire ‘orchestra’ seating area as a premium section. But sometimes the real portion of the main seating, often behind a cross-aisle or under the balcony, is called the ‘parterre’. Until the 1860’s, this area had no fixed seats; it was a standing-room area for budget-minded patrons.
Pasties — Decorative patches just the size of a stripper’s areola, applied with adhesive, designed to barely circumvent anti-nudity laws forbidding showing nipples.
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 tied to it. This system is used to snub off the lines used to raise scenery into the fly gallery. It is a reminder that in many ways 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” (or, in Britain, “openers”), the signal for those in the show’s first minutes to take their places onstage.
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.
Proscenium — the main arch, behind the apron but in front of all curtains.
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 of lightning-fast onstage costume changes. See “Protean act”.
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.
SRO – Standing room only. When a show’s seats are sold out, a limited number of tickets may be sold allowing standing along the back aisle of the house.
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 enthusiastic 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.
Sketch — A short acted scene, almost always comic, with two or more performers. There is only the most rudimentary plot and the simplest characters (e.g. “a couple on a date” interacting with “a waiter”). One modern example is the “sketch comedy” featured in Saturday Night Live. The word “skit” is derived from “sketch” but implies amateur performance.
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 seemed to take an overnight railway trip to get up there.
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. Booking offices often contained many small sound-proof rooms (in each one a piano) where song pluggers demonstrated the latest material to performers. Big-name performers were often paid to showcase some songs. 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.”
Spotlight — A lighting unit that projects a bright, defined pool of light. The beam can be controlled to have a hard or soft edge, focused to cast sharp or soft shadows, and adjusted by metal shutters to a round or other shape. If the unit is rigged to move in order to light a single moving performer, it is a “follow spot”. Follow spots often have an adjustable iris which narrows the beam, and a “boomerang” (a selection of holders for color media).
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 the show” (gives lighting and scenery cues as the show is in progress), and in long-running Broadway shows he supervises rehearsals (to keep the show sharp or to introduce replacement actors) after the director has gone away to direct some other show.
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 pretends to be 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 who plays the “average Joe,” 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 — Travelling on tour with very light or minimal baggage. Performers paid their own expenses between engagements, including the expense of shipping their props and scenery.
Tab — A bit longer (45 to 60 minutes) than the usual 35-minute one-act musical or drama included as a part of most vaudeville bills, the tab was a condensed “tabloid” version of what would be a full-evening show, were it presented alone. The tab might have several scenes and several sets.
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 was received. Alternately, the day’s or week’s “take” is the total sum taken in at the boxoffice.
Teasers and Tormentors – Short black drop hung across the stage (teaser) or on each side (tormentors) just behind the grand curtain, adjusting the visual height of the stage. Both of these are usually stiffened with a frame.
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.” Black vaudevillian Pigmeat Markham said ” “In the old days show business for a colored dancer was like going through school. You started in a medicine show – that was kindergarten – where they could use a few steps if you could cut them, but almost anything would do. Then you went on up to the gilly show, which was like grade school – they wanted dancers. If you had something on the ball, you graduated to a carnival – that was high school – and you sure had to be able to dance. College level was a colored minstrel show, and as they faded out, a vaudeville circuit or even a Broadway show.”
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.
Tormentors — The drape masking the side of the stage, reducing the visual width of the stage, usually capable of adjustment to provide varying widths.
Trap — A “trap door” opening in the stage floor enabling performers to enter or exit downward, 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 — Many west coast houses had low fly galleries, too low to fly drops unless they were first ‘west coasted’: reefed like a sail (bundled up and tied at intervals to the batten suspending the drop.) Alternately, may refer to the sloppy practice of simply bunching up a drop and stuffing it into a packing box. Similar techniques include “tripping” (folding in half by securing the bottom of the drop, fitted with a second batten, up to the fly batten) and “breasting” (tripping, then tripping again using a third batten installed ¾ of the way down 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.