Vaudeville isn't dead—it just started wearing spandex and moved from the theater to the pro wrestling ring.
The violent, dramatic action that WWE produces each week is in many ways a continuation of a tradition born from the vaudeville entertainers who packed houses in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The two mediums share similarities in how they please fans, bringing together dance, acrobatics, drama and comedy.
People often refer to pro wrestling as a "soap opera for men." Sure, there are several elements of a wrestling show that are taken from the world of soap. Betrayals and love triangles are expected. That's only part of the picture, though.
Every episode of Raw or SmackDown is a medley of spectacle.
In a span of a few hours, one can see a masked man somersaulting in the air, a dancer twirling his partner and an angry warrior delivering a monologue. It's this combination of differing components that makes WWE vaudeville's descendant, allowing a defunct art form to live anew.
In the late 1800s, vaudeville shows were extremely popular.
Cities across the United States and Canada hosted them, theaters filling on a nightly basis. One could pay the price of a single ticket and see actors, trained animals, singers, dancers, acrobats, comedians and even boxing exhibitions. Child stars and magicians worked on the same bill.
One act led to another.
At one point, it would have seemed that vaudeville would reign on forever.
Then came the cinema. The lure of the motion picture didn't just steal away the crowd but took the performers as well. Comedians and actors left the vaudeville stage for the big screen, more money and better working conditions propelling them to make the switch.
Vaudeville then faded.
Today, though, one can see it resurrected with more muscular performers who have traded three-piece suits for wrestling trunks.
Comedy sketches were a staple of vaudeville shows. These included slapstick, sight gags and silliness that could be understood by anyone regardless of his or her language.
In between title bouts and grudge matches, WWE often offers palate cleansers in the form of lighthearted backstage segments. The audience can't get up the required emotion of watching a succession of violent stories play out.
A break is needed, and men like Santino Marella can provide that.
Marella has become the company's resident rodeo clown, taking punches, falling over and doing whatever it takes to draw a chuckle from the crowd. Like many of the vaudeville bits, it's not exactly high comedy.
Although his fans would like him to be more of a contender than buffoon, Damien Sandow has picked up the comic baton and run with it.
He's taken to slipping into a number of costumes, such as taking the mantle of a fictional character like Sherlock Holmes or pretending to be Lance Stephenson of the Indiana Pacers. It's not the kind of humor that forces one to think; it's as simple and low-brow as the skits that peppered vaudeville shows.
From a company that showcased pie fights as often as it has, it's not surprising to see Sandow take on such goofiness.
These kinds of moments are just as important to Raw and SmackDown as they were to rounding out vaudeville shows. Laughter is a powerful ingredient to the entertainment recipe.
The same goes for causing one's jaw to drop open.
Vaudeville used acrobats to do that all those years ago. Show a wrestling fan clips of vaudeville acrobatic troupes flipping, cartwheeling and rolling over each other, and they are certain to be reminded of what goes on inside a ring.
The high-flyers WWE and other wrestling companies employ deliver the same kind of awe that these troupes once did.
Wrestlers regularly dive out of the ring or leap from the top rope, rotating their bodies like a jet pulling some aerobatic stunt. These moves are especially thrilling coming from someone with seemingly spring-loaded feet, performers like Kofi Kingston or Evan Bourne, whose "Air Bourne" finisher is a marvel to watch.
Watching Kingston, Sin Cara, Adrian Neville or any of WWE's own acrobats, it's easy to imagine them fitting right in with the vaudeville era.
Their feats of dexterity and athleticism aren't separated from the action. They are infused into matches, which are themselves a combination of sport, theater and spectacle. Vaudeville acrobats would thrill with their act, make way for the actors and then for the boxers.
Wrestlers aren't quite as specialized.
They must stay on stage and trade blows, emote and soar, all within the context of a partly scripted/partly improvised battle. The vaudeville folks didn't have to leap from any ladders, either.
WWE fans may wonder why the company has been so obsessed with dancing and dancing characters. It's a medium that has been a staple of entertainment for as long as toes have been tapping.
Long before that, vaudeville showcased dancers of varying styles.
A non-wrestling fan may find it surprising to find out how prevalent the shaking of one's tail feather is in wrestling. Today, WWE features The Great Khali, a giant from India who is known to celebrate a win with a dance, an Australian rookie with a kooky signature dance and a ballroom dancer who is very particular about how his name is pronounced.
Fandango (you have the late a's breathe) is someone who would have found a comfortable home in vaudeville. One could simply transport him and his entrance to a theater in the 19th century.
WWE, especially at WrestleMania time, employs singers as well.
A melange of acts including Ray Charles, Florida Georgia Line and Cee Lo Green have all performed at WWE shows. Like with the comedy bits, music and dancing is an easy way to break up the more intense elements of a wrestling program.
The sports entertainment giant recognizes that. That's why it continues to give wrestlers gimmicks like these. Take singer-wrestler hybrid Aiden English, for example.
The emerging prospect croons for the audience down at WWE developmental. Before he steps between the ropes and begins to bash his foes with forearms, he has to preface that with a song.
His act is so reminiscent of the days of vaudeville that it inspired the name of his new tag team with Simon Gotch: The Vaudevillains.
Pro wrestling may have begun as a much dryer, stripped-down art featuring rough-and-tumble men bathed in cigar smoke, but it has since embraced elements like those mentioned above to vary how it entertains and make use of the wide range of skills its performers have.
Big, bulging brutes are best turned into in-ring wrecking balls, those blessed with uncanny agility are asked to spring from the ring ropes, and men like English are encouraged to serenade the audience.
Moving from city to city, an ensemble of performers at the ready, pro wrestling looks to provide a fusion of laughter and amazement, the theatrical and the spectacular, much like the men and women who were the heart of vaudeville.
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