The Mystery of the Vanishing Vaudeville Playbills

Sounds like a Nancy Drew, doesn’t it? But this is a real mystery—whatever happened to all the old vaudeville playbills? I don’t understand why I don’t see them for sale at every antiques mall in America.

Vaudeville lasted about sixty years, from around the 1880s until World War II. During much of this time, vaudeville provided the only form of entertainment available to most Americans. Oh sure, larger cities had legitimate theater—George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Gilbert & Sullivan, and so forth—and some towns saw the occasional traveling circus, but for the majority of Americans, vaudeville was their only access to live entertainment.

Vaudeville shows generally ran for 6 days and nights, then changed on Sundays as the acts moved on to the next town for the next week. Printed playbills advertised the new acts. Sometimes these were illustrated with photographs or drawings of the headliners, vaudeville-speak for “stars.” Some were even printed in color. Playbills were posted on the theater marquee and other public places. People could—and did—take them home as souvenirs.

So why on earth don’t they show up in collections of ephemera at auctions, antique malls, and on eBay?

I don’t know, but they don’t. At least, not often. A genuine vaudeville playbill is a rarity. If you have any suggestions or see one somewhere, please let me know. I have three in my modest collection and would like more.

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Published in: on September 21, 2009 at 9:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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