Vaudeville Wars


How the Keith-Albee and Orpheum Circuits Controlled the Big Time and Its Performers
written by Arthur Frank Wertheim, published by Palgrave Macmillan

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The Keith/Albee Circuit

During the mid-1870s some New York theater owners advertised their wholesome shows as vaudeville rather than variety in order to distinguish their playbills from the bawdy entertainment found in concert saloons and other indecent establishments. In so doing, they aimed to broaden their audience to include families and to give their programs an aura of refinement. (Pg. 10)

As an assistant at Bunnell's dime museum, B.F. Keith was directly involved in staging wholesome shows that appealed to families. Museums were initially institutions that displayed wax figures, paintings, mechanical instruments, stuffed animals, and curios. P.T. Barnum was instrumental in making museums amusement showplaces for families. At New York's American Museum in 1849-50, Barnum expanded his lecture room into a 3,000-seat theater where he offered eclectic entertainment such as animal acts, human curiosities, melodramas, and concerts. (Pg. 11)

Because of its propriety and censorship, the Keith chain was named the "Sunday School Circuit." During the circuit's early years a Protestant Sunday school teacher was hired to censor jokes. Performers were constantly warned not to offend the audience. (Pg. 33)

The Orpheum Circuit

The year Keith opened his museum in Boston, Gustav Walter, the founder of the Orpheum Circuit, was operating San Francisco's popular Vienna Gardens. Pg. 38 With its many international acts, the Vienna Gardens' atmosphere exuded a European ambience. Among the performers he imported were the Bohemian Ladies' Orchestra, Gschwandner's Tyrolean Alpine Singing Troupe, Archduke Joseph's Hungarian Gypsy Band, and the Royal Spanish Opera Company with thirty vocalists and a grand chorus. (Pg. 35)

Inspired by his success, Walter next decided to build the largest, most luxurious theater in the West modeled on the opera houses of Europe. With the financial backing of several partners, he formed a company that underwrote the building of a theater on the south side of O'Farrell Street. He called it the Orpheum Opera House, a popular name for theaters in Europe. In Greek mythology, the poet-musician Orpheus played spellbinding melodies on his magical lyre that enchanted the gods. (Pg. 51)

By 1891 Walter had difficulty paying his creditors. He had spent far too much money importing European acts regardless of cost and had overextended his operations. He seemed always in debt, barely paying salaries to his performers and stagehands. Facing bankruptcy, Walter leased the

Orpheum to John Cort. Cort took over the Orpheum with great expectations knowing that the venue could be easily connected via railroad to his holdings in Oregon and Washington.

Cort's management of the Orpheum, however, lasted only about two years. Due to railroad overexpansion, monetary speculation, and a sharp fall in the U.S. gold reserve, the panic of 1893 caused massive failures of banks and businesses. With a 20 percent unemployment rate and wages declining, people lacked money to attend the theater. (Pg. 52)

Cort's bankruptcy proved fortuitous for Walter who was rehired to manage the Orpheum. This time he was backed by a major investor, Morris Meyerfeld, Jr. who would play a pivotal role in the circuit's growth.

As a co-owner in the Orpheum corporation (Meyerfeld invested $50,000 as his share), Meyerfeld oversaw the firm's fiscal affairs while Walter managed the theater and arranged the playbills. "I was to try and bring a little order out of Walter's tangled financial methods," said Meyerfeld, a shrewd businessman. As the financial brain behind the Orpheum, Meyerfeld became known as "the Rockefeller of vaudeville."

During the 1890s, the Orpheum's playbills were among the most eclectic in the nation. It was not unusual to see a Parisian ballet on the same program as a blackface comedy skit or a Hungarian boys military band followed by an aerial artist. As the economy improved, the Orpheum became the place for San Francisco theatergoers to go for a night on the town. The theater was regularly sold out including the standing room. Its admission ranged from ten cents for balcony seats to twenty-five cents for reserved seats, and fifty cents for opera chairs and box seats. Meyerfeld next opened the first Los Angeles Orpheum in 1894. (Pg. 54)

To give their performers more engagements before reaching California, Meyerfeld believed that the Orpheum needed to establish theaters between the Pacific Coast and the Midwest – what he called "the eastern march." This was especially critical given the long distances between cities west of the Mississippi. The problems in operating a chain of theaters in the less populated western states were immense. Bookings and travel arrangements had to be carefully planned. Communications between theaters was slow and artists spent more time on the road. Trains were often delayed and the unpredictability of winter weather caused performers to be stranded. (Pg. 58)

Three months after the Kansas City Orpheum opened in 1898, the Orpheum's New York representative received a telegram from Meyerfeld – "After a few days' illness Gustav Walter died this morning. Business to go on as usual. All contracts hold good." Walter's death, which occurred on May 9, had been due to an appendicitis attack. As the founder of the Orpheum Circuit, Walter had played a pivotal role in the development of vaudeville in the West. (Pg. 59)

Besides opening new theaters, Meyerfeld cleverly linked his venues to the Western Circuit of Vaudeville Theaters (WCVT), an association of theaterowners headquartered in Chicago that coordinated booking in order to bring vaudeville to growing audiences in the Midwest. No longer would artists have "to move around in uncertain jumps in order to fill three or four weeks in the west," claimed the WCVT management. "It is better to make a reasonable figure for a long season that to get big money for a few weeks, and lie idle half the time." Joining the WCTV was critical to the growth of the Orpheum since it guaranteed its performers many more bookings. The circuit now assured vaudevillians twenty to forty weeks on the road from Chicago to the Pacific Coast. (Pgs. 61-62)

Nationwide Circuit

In March 1899, Edward Franklin Albee (Keith's partner) began gathering the support of other leading owners for a national vaudeville association. He was worried that the WCVT and the Orpheum Circuit might build competing theaters in the East. An informal understanding had heretofore kept the Orpheum and WCVT west of Chicago. A national association, Albee felt, would formalize this relationship. After taking three years to overcome resistance from many quarters, the founders signed the bylaws and constitution of the Association of Vaudeville Managers of the United States (AVM) on May 29, 1900. (Pg. 99)

The AVM represented sixty-two theaters and summer parks from New York to San Francisco, including five Keith theaters and five Orpheum venues. With so many theaters, the association guaranteed performers thirty to fifty-two weeks on the road. If the AVM gave performers more engagements it paid them less by regulating salaries and charging them a 5 percent commission for its services. The AVM urged vaudevillians to bypass their agents and apply directly to the association. (Pg. 104)

If an artist used a representative to negotiate bookings with the association, he owed another 5 percent commission to the agent. Members of the AVM denied they had formed a syndicate to control the vaudeville market. Performers now feared that if they did not book through the AVM their livelihood would be endangered. When the AVM threatened to blackball vaudevillians who did not use their booking services, performers rallied together to fight the association. (Pg. 105)

Vaudevillians Form a Union and Strike

In June 1900, a group of performers met in New York and decided to form a vaudeville artists' union. George Fuller Golden became their leader and suggested the name White Rats (after a similar group of artists in England) – rats is "star" spelled backward. Pg. 110 The members immediately began to address their number one grievance – the 5 percent commission that the AVM charged performers for its booking service. Pg. 112 In February 1901 the White Rats ordered their members to strike. Pg. 113 A month later, the AVM managers decided to rescind the commission and also promised not to discriminate against the strikers. (Pg. 106 paraphrased)

The White Rats' jubilation, however, was short-lived. Except for a few managers, the AVM never abolished the commission fee. Golden naively believed that Keith would keep his promise. Disillusioned by the failure to achieve their goals, members of the White Rats felt betrayed and many resigned. The loss of the strike reflected a more serious problem – the lack of commitment to unionization among many vaudevillians. Since vaudevillians were concerned about their public image and feared being branded as radicals, most performers were reluctant to use activist methods against managers. (Pg. 114)

The Combine

Despite the AVM's success against the White Rats, internal dissension marked the organization from its beginning. By the end of 1904, five months before the five-year AVM alliance was set to expire, the eastern and western managers had divided into two separate and strong booking circuits that competed once again for the best performers. (Pg. 117)

In 1907 a groundbreaking new agreement was reached between the Keith Circuit and the WVMA (Western Vaudeville Managers' Association which included theaters operated by the Orpheum and the Midwestern owners). This new alliance, known as the Combine in the trade, was divided into two wings. The eastern division was headed by Keith and Albee and the western division was led by Meyerfeld and Martin Beck, the Orpheum's general manager and later its president. The Combine strengthened the power of the Keith and Orpheum circuits and created an oligopoly that now dominated the big-time booking business. (Pg. 122)

The Advent of Movies

As early as 1910, more customers were going to the movies rather than attending a vaudeville show. Pg. 256 Albee felt that appearances by his performers in motion pictures lessened their appeal on stage and reduced a headliner's drawing power by a third. As early as 1915, the Keith Circuit began to cut the salaries of headliners who performed in films. Albee still naively believed that "there will always be an audience for vaudeville, just as there always will be for musical comedy, the drama, the opera, and pictures." By 1926, the attraction of motion pictures had been challenging vaudeville at the box office for many years. (Pg. 254)

Joseph P. Kennedy Takeover

In December 1927, an agreement was reached to merge the two circuits and its booking agencies into a new holding company, the Keith-Albee-Orpheum Corporation (KAO). Albee who was named KAO's president, held with his family approximately 215,000 shares, and John Murdock who owned nearly 100,000 shares, was appointed vice president and general manager in charge of KAO's organization. (Pg. 262)

For several years Murdock had secretly striven to replace Albee as the circuit's head. During the 1920s he had become increasingly frustrated by Albee's inability to take advantage of opportunities to invest in the film business. Unaware of Murdock's motives, Albee felt he was a loyal colleague since he had played a prominent behind-the-scenes role in his circuit's growth.

On February 15, 1928, Murdock signed a key agreement with Joseph Kennedy that made KAO a major investor in FBO (Film Booking Offices of America). As a board member of FBO and a large shareholder in Keith-Albee-Orpheum, Murdock was now in a powerful position to plot a takeover of KAO with Kennedy. (Pg. 265)

On May 10, 1928, Kennedy sent an agreement to Albee offering to buy 200,000 shares of KAO common stock at $21 a share, approximately $5 above its current price. Murdock urged Albee to accept the offer. Albee thought about the $4.2 million he could reap from the transaction and agreed to meet Kennedy's terms. He did not realize that he had been blindsided. When KAO's stock reached $30 in September, Kennedy and his colleagues scored a financial coup. (Pg. 266)

In order to let the KAO employees know who was in charge, Kennedy moved promptly to demonstrate his power. When the executive committee met on June 21, he announced his plans to reorganize departments and warned that employees not needed would be eliminated to reduce overhead expenses. Kennedy aimed to redesign the KAO theaters for improved film exhibition and equip them for sound pictures. Feature film would be given prominent in advertising and on marquees. If needed, he was prepared to cancel vaudeville at the combination houses and devote them exclusively to showing films. (Pg. 267)

During 1928, Kennedy had been negotiating with David Sarnoff to create a mega-merger that would formally link RCA, KAO, and FBO. On October 18, a new holding company, Radio-Keith-Orpheum Corporation (RKO), linking the three companies was announced. With assets of $80 million, RKO was a cutting-edge media conglomerate combining sound films, radio, and theater exhibition. For his services in forming RKO, Kennedy received $150,000 and swapped his 37,500 FBO shares for an equal amount of RKO preferred stock. (Pg. 269)

To his credit, Kennedy had achieved what Albee would never have accomplished. He had transformed the Keith and Orpheum circuits into a major film production-exhibition company. By the early fall of 1929, RKO along with Fox, Warner Brothers, MGM, and Paramount, was one of the big five studios that controlled the motion picture industry. The advent of sound movies and the popularity of radio soon doomed big-time vaudeville. (Pg. 270)


Did the luxurious theaters the moguls built and the exhilarating entertainment they originated outweigh the ruthless means they often used? Did the grievances the vaudevillians faced pale in comparison to the chance to appear on stage before thousands of adoring fans? In the end, the vaudeville wars were a trade-off. Daring, ingenious impresarios left their mark on the history of American show business by developing a national chain of theaters that presented an extremely popular amusement to a broad range of Americans. (Pg. 279)

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