Vaudeville was a genre of variety entertainment prevalent on the stage in the United States and Canada, from the early 1880s until the early 1930s. This pop-culture genre developed from many sources, including the concert saloon, minstrelsy, freak shows, dime museums, and literary burlesque. Vaudeville became one of the most popular types of entertainment in North America defining an entertainment era. Each evening's bill of performance was made up of a series of separate, unrelated acts. Types of acts included (among others) musicians (both classical and popular), dancers, comedians, trained animals, magicians, female and male impersonators, acrobats, one-act plays or scenes from plays, athletes, lecturing celebrities, minstrels, and short movies.
The origin of the term is obscure, but is often explained as being derived from the expression "voix de ville", or "voice of the city". Another plausible etymology finds origins in the French Vau de Vire, a valley in Normandy noted for its style of satirical songs with topical themes. Problematically, the term "vaudeville," itself, referring specifically to North American variety entertainment, came into common usage after 1871 with the formation of "Sargent's Great Vaudeville Company" of Louisville, Kentucky, and had little if anything to do with the "vaudeville" of the French theatre. Variety showman, M.B. Leavitt claimed the word originated from the French "vaux de ville" ("worth of the city, or worthy of the city's patronage"), but in all likelihood, as Albert McLean suggests, the name was merely selected "for its vagueness, its faint, but harmless exoticism, and perhaps its connotation of gentility." Leavitt's and Sargent's shows differed little from the coarser material presented in earlier itinerant entertainments, although their use of the term to provide a veneer of respectability points to an early effort to cater variety amusements to the growing middle class. Though "vaudeville" had been used in the United States as early as the 1830s, most variety theatres adopted the term in the late 1880s and early 1890s for two reasons. First, seeking middle class patrons, they wished to distance themselves from the earlier rowdy, working-class variety halls. Second, the French or pseudo-French term lent an air of sophistication, and perhaps made the institution seem more consistent with the Progressive Era's interests in education and self-betterment. Some, however, preferred the earlier term, "variety," to what manager Tony Pastor called its "sissy and Frenchified" successor. Thus one often finds records of vaudeville being marketed as "variety" well into the twentieth century.