The Vaudeville Circuit

Vaudeville, or variety shows, probably originated in their obvious form in the nineteenth century, coming to the United States via visiting music hall and tavern performers. Originally a feature of saloons and beer halls, by the 1880s several entertainment promoters decided to expand the audience of variety shows by cleaning up the acts and moving them into vaudeville acts featuring light operas, plays, and singing, all completely respectable in nature. By the turn of the century, vaudeville became a staple of middle class existence in the United States, offering respectable thrills to parents and children. Managers and booking agents sent their performers to the over 2,000 small theaters which popped up across the country by 1910. Vaudeville performers awed audiences with high wire and acrobatic acts, dancers and singers captured their attention, comedians made them laugh, and Houdini, as well as lesser-known magicians, amazed them. Of the numerous types of acts and hundreds of performers, trick and fancy skaters became part of the vaudeville circuit.

The End of Vaudeville

Though fancy trick roller skating fascinated audiences during the 1920s Americans became increasingly less interested in vaudeville. By the 1930s, the Golden Age of Vaudeville, which lasted for 50 years, effectively ended. Though movies were not new, in 1927 Hollywood released the first sound motion picture, The Jazz Singer. The new talkies quickly took over the attention and finally the pocket books of Americans. Owners of theaters where vaudeville performers once acted and roller skated turned them into movie houses. Radio also clamored for the attention of Americans, and, like movies, won. Finally the Great Depression sounded the death knell for vaudeville, as people lacked the economic resources to patronize the now barely existing vaudeville. By the middle of the 1930s, the vaudeville circuit had disappeared from the United State.

The Skaters of Vaudville

To the left you will see Jesse Darling.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Jesse Darling learned to roller skate, becoming so accomplished she left her hometown of Providence, Rhode Island to perform in the large rinks up and down the East Coast. Darling, left her spectators with the impression they had just witnessed a fairy floating through the air. Knowledge of her graceful skating beauty even spread across the Atlantic. In 1909, the “Peerless Princess of the Little Wheels” traveled to Europe, performing her fancey act in rinks across England, France, and Germany. Upon her return to the United States, Darling teamed up with Henry A. Simmons to form the Skating Bijouves. The Pair traveled extensively across the United States, receiving consistently rave reviews.

The Center display focuses on The Franks.

Of the many accomplished roller skaters on the vaudeville circuit after 1900, only Charles Frank could claim to be the “Dean of Roller Skaters.” Frank began his skating career in the 1880s during the early years of vaudeville, and insisted on being referred to as “Professor Frank.” Other skaters deferred to his authority as a teacher of early vaudeville skating and credited him with originating, and developing many of the vaudeville roller skater tricks. Though immensely popular on his own, in 1905 he added his five year old daughter Lillian to his act, becoming known as “The Franks.” Lillian followed in her father’s footsteps and as she grew became an accomplished trick and fancy skater. While a majority of their act relied on fancy skating, the younger Frank also performed acrobatics, and skated on stilts 20 inches high as well as on unicycles.

The right display shows Inez Van Horn nee Sibley and Earl Van Horn.

In 1918, sixteen-year-old Inez Sibley began roller skating at the Oaks Roller Rink in Portland Oregon. The manager of the rink was a twenty-one-year old professional skater named Earl Van Horn. Within a year the couple was married and embarking on a successful career in vaudeville and artistic skating. They toured Canada, England, France, Germany, Spain, and Sweden, often performing for royalty. The Van Horns retired from performing in 1934, when the popularity of the “talkies” forced most vaudeville houses to close.

National Museum of Roller Skating Audio Tour - Museum Proper
  1. The First Roller Skates
  2. Patented Roller Skates
  3. The Father of the Modern Roller Skating
  4. Rinking
  5. The "Newest" Craze
  6. The Disco Era
  7. Pop Culture! Skating in Lines: Roller Skating and Comics
  8. Pop Culture! Orchestras, Organs, & Disco: Music in the Rink
  9. Pop Culture! Movies: Roller Skating Across the Silver Screen
  10. Competition: The History of Hockey on Wheels
  11. Competition - Speed Skating
  12. Competition - Dance Skating
  13. Competition - Figure Skating
  14. Competition - Derby
  15. C. W. Lowe's Tent Rink
  16. When Skating Goes to War
  17. Skating for Others
  18. Roller Skating Car Hops
  19. Jam Skating
  20. Extravaganza on Wheels: The Skating Vanities
  21. Vaudeville