Traveling with Vaudeville Performers

For vaudeville players, traveling was a constant struggle. These performers rarely stayed more than a week in one place, so they were forever on the move, catching a train to the next town on the circuit. But it wasn’t as easy as packing a suitcase and hopping the train. Performers had a lot of baggage to schlep around–trunks full of costumes (which they usually made themselves), makeup (which they also make themselves, since this was before the days of commercial makeup), wigs, and essential stage props. Those who were unable to bring scenic backdrops and stage props with them had to rely on whatever the theater had for backdrops and scrounge for whatever furniture or props their play required. 

They stayed at hotels near the station and boarding houses because they were cheap and because reputable hotels wouldn’t allow actors as guests. They were adept at sleeping on the train–most planned their travels to include an overnight train ride to save the dollar for the hotel. Vaudeville players would try to leave the theater late Saturday night after the last performance and arrive in the next city on Sunday morning, ready to start a new week at a new theater.  Theater actors had it worse–they might stay just one or two nights in a town before moving.

Obviously, children of these families didn’t attend school. Some were functionally illiterate; others, like Mary Pickford, taught themselves to read from the billboards alongside the train tracks.  Constantly on the move, they were out of reach of truant officers, who were ineffectual anyway.  

Vaudeville actors, like all actors, were applauded on stage and despised off stage. They faced overt discrimination everywhere, from hotels that would not rent them rooms to restaurants who turned them away at the door. Church congregations scorned them and often refused to perform marriages or funerals. They were assumed to be petty criminals, prostitutes, shoplifters, con artists, thieves, and beggars, and in fact, some were. 

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