“High-Class” Vaudeville

With his partner Edward Franklin Albee, theater owner Benjamin F. Keith (left) staged his first vaudeville show in 1885. By the mid-1890s, the Keith-Albee circuit had added luxury—ornate theaters with uniformed ushers—to family-friendly programs and facilities as a trademark of “high-class” vaudeville in major U.S. cities. When Keith died in 1914, his circuit numbered 29 such theaters, including Keith’s Theater in Washington, D.C. (shown here), which was built in 1913 and soon became the theater of choice among U.S. Presidents. Vaudeville peaked in popularity in the 1920s (drawing two million patrons per day) and remained a popular form of entertainment until the early 1930s. Several of the headliners mentioned on the marquee in this photo—Greta Nissen, Lew Cody, and Skeets Gallagher—also had motion-picture careers lasting, variously, from the 1920s to the 1950s. The Keith-Albee-Orpheum theater circuit became part of the conglomerate known as RKO—the Radio-Keith-Orpheum Corp.—in October 1928.

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