Mae West, Sarah Bernhardt, Ethel Barrymore and Helen Keller are perhaps among the best known women to appear on vaudeville stages. Each came to vaudeville by a different path and with a different offering: Mae West entered vaudeville with a song and dance routine when she was 13 years old. Ethel Barrymore dropped in on the Palace Theater to present one-act plays. Sarah Bernhardt was being celebrated by the British for her fifty years on the dramatic stage when she agreed to appear in the U.S. Helen Keller appeared on the stages of first-class vaudeville houses with her teacher, Anne Sullivan, telling about how she overcame the handicaps of blindness and deafness.
Many other women followed their own paths to become vaudeville headliners. This book tells the stories of 80 who were among the top vaudeville acts in the late 19th century and early 20th century, when entertainment was often live variety shows in theaters across the country. Singers, singer-comediennes, comediennes, dancers, sister acts, actresses, male impersonators and novelty acts are covered as separate categories. Biographies of the performers in each category appear in order of the date they entered vaudeville, an arrangement that allows the reader to trace the history of vaudeville itself. A final section concentrates on the headliners’ heritage, taking a broad look at the group according to ethnic background, socioeconomic background, family life, and other factors, including what happened to them after vaudeville died.