Music hall

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Music hall, Variety and Vaudeville

Music hall

The term generally refers to a form of entertainment deriving from song-and-dance and recitation shows of early 19th century public houses in England.

As venue

Originally music hall was a literal reference to the hall used for musical and other presentations in a tavern, but these gradually developed into gilt-and-plush “palaces” devoted to comic songs, varied with acrobatics, conjuring, juggling, and dancing. These "temples", "palaces" or "theatres" intended to host such variety shows were called music-halls in England and France. (In the USA the term Variety - and later Vaudeville - were appended to the name of a hall.) Large numbers of music halls were built in England in the second half of the 19th century.

As form of presentation

The term music hall also came to refer to the form of presentation. A rich tradition, it exists even today, though in vastly smaller numbers than in its heyday. (Hartnoll, 19**) Like its American counterpart, Vaudeville, it refers to a variety show consisting of a number of contracted acts, or “turns”, including songs, dances, acrobatic displays, comic turns, male/female impersonators, etc. Became extremely popular toward the second half of the 19th century, also in South Africa. Numerous music hall artistes were brought from England to perform in the colonies.

Music hall in South Africa

The beginnings

This music hall tradition really took hold round about the 1880’s when a number of entrepreneurs opened variety establishments in Cape Town and elsewhere, though interesting enough often using the American terms as well. Among the notable venues are ****, **** and *** Harry Stodel, who ran the Empire Palace of Varieties in Cape Town****

The New Music Hall

Variety and Vaudeville

These terms are closely linked, and are in effect the American and French equivalents of the British Music Hall.


A term of French origin, applied to plays of light or satiric nature, interspersed with songs. In the fifteenth century it referred to French satirical songs added to comedies; later a form of light or comic opera. In the USA it became a variety show consisting of a number of contracted acts, or “turns”, including songs, dances, acrobatic displays. In the USA the term has become synonymous to the British term “music hall”, and formally existed in America between 1881 when Tony Pastor first put on a new kind of variety show in New York, to 1932 when the last vaudeville theatre (the Palace Theatre on Broadway) closed. It succeeded the older concept of variety, though a little more “genteel”, and like variety, consisted of a collection of anything up to fifteen robust farcical, comic, musical, animal, and other acts. (See Phyllis Hartnoll, 19**)

In South Africa this form arrived largely throught the music hall tradition introduced by artists and impressarios from England and the dominons, though a number of American vaudeville stars visited the country in the early years of the 20th century. The South African tradition of variety is discussed under African Variety above and Vaudeville in South Africa below.

Vaudeville in South Africa

Vaudeville referred, in the fifteenth century, to French satirical songs; later to predominantly musical, mixed-bill entertainments. These were popular in South Africa throughout the nineteenth century, often presented by visiting military units. Music-hall began in the taverns and "song-and-supper rooms" in England in the 1840’s as programmes of disparate acts, presided over by a “chairman”, at which audiences could purchase food and liquor. South African Music Halls include the Trafalgar* (1850's, Durban), Burn's Music Hall (1880's, Kimberley), Empire (1894, the first of three in Johannesburg) and Tivoli (1903, Cape Town), hosting such performers as Charles du Val, Marie Lloyd, Little Tich, George Robey and Harry Tate. When music-hall venues dispensed with individual supper-tables to adapt to conventional theatre seating, many were renamed (Tivoli Theatre of Varieties, Empire Palace of Varieties (where the first motion picture was screened in South Africa in 1896)). In the early twentieth century, Bio-vaudeville houses were built to present films and variety acts within the same programme (Criterion*, 1912, Durban; Palladium, 1913, Johannesburg). Variety relied on the attraction, generally, of an imported performer as top of the bill with local supporting acts. Prior to the advent of television broadcasting in 1976, Danny Kaye, Marcel Marceau, Liberace, Marlene Dietrich, Shelley Berman, among others, were imported by such impresarios as Jim Stodel and Pieter Toerien. South African variety performer/presenters include Eve Boswell, and Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke (the Minstrels and Follies series during the 1970's).Vaudeville and music-hall have been largely replaced by revue, musical comedy and television variety specials. * However, another important form of this tradition is what Loren Kruger (1999) calls African variety. With this she refers to a range of popular performance forms – mainly concerts and sketches - that she sees evolving in the urban black life from about the 1920’s. This seems to have drawn on such diverse influences as the commercial entertainments of European and American/African American culture, the ingoma and later ingoma ebusuku, Eisteddfodau, missionary choirs, rural modes of storytelling, praises, minstrelsy, “tribal sketches” and other vaudeville gags, and so on. Clearly is an influence on the evolution of the “township musical” and even more serious work such as Woza Albert and Sizwe Banzi is Dead. Among the major figures to work in or be influenced by this tradition she lists Griffiths Motsieloa, Todd Matshikiza, Gibson Kente, Mbongeni Ngema and Walter Chakela. (McM) (See: Gutsche, 1972, ) (See also Music-hall in South Africa , African Variety and Vaudeville above.)

Bio-vaudeville and bio-vaudeville houses in South Africa

Bio-vaudeville houses were specifically built in the early 20th century to present both films and variety acts within the same programme (examples: The Criterion, 1912, Durban; The Palladium, 1913, Johannesburg).

See further Bio-vaudeville

African Variety

Township music hall traditions

See for example African Own Entertainers,

Mid-century music hall

See also Cabaret

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