A form of entertainment prevalent during the late 19th century and the early 20th century. It was notable for a variety of acts that were performed on a rotating bill. The variety of acts could include: scenes or acts from famous plays, jugglers, acrobats, animal acts, kiddie acts, whistlers, musicians, minstrel shows, barbershop quartets, comic sketches and live music, all performed twice daily. Many famous entertainers got their start on the vaudeville circuit, including Gypsy Rose Lee, Jimmy Durante, Al Jolson, The Three Stooges, Judy Garland, Fanny Brice, Daws Butler, Edgar Bergen, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Fred Astaire, and Jack Benny. To say nothing of its influence on Looney Tunes and other early cartoon shows.
This form of theatre was eventually killed off by sound films and radio, with many former vaudeville performers going on to work in those two fields. In fact, film screenings were originally part of the vaudeville programming as legitimate as the live acts. However, the theatre owners eventually decided that films were ultimately cheaper, more profitable and more reliable entertainment than the expensive live acts and they were gradually squeezed out.
Although it died out as a national pastime, vaudeville-style theater persisted into the 20th century within certain ethnic groups' traditions, most notably the Jewish Borscht Belt and the African-American "chitlin' circuit". At the time, such groups often found themselves locked out of "white" entertainment venues, leading them to create their own alternatives. The chitlin' circuit, or the "urban theater circuit" as some prefer to call it, still exists, having produced innumerable black musicians and comedians; one of the most recent entertainers to come from here is Tyler Perry.
An example of the type of work done in vaudeville can be seen in the Neil Simon play The Sunshine Boys as well as archival footage of The Ed Sullivan Show, which had numerous acts in addition to the classic rock star appearances. The British version, specifically "music hall" entertainment (which lasted a bit longer than vaudeville did in the US), is best shown with the classic episodes of The Muppet Show. There is a certain amount of overlap between Vaudeville and Burlesque, but the simplest way to remember the difference is that Burlesque is geared for adults.
Vaudeville aesthetics would later be used by Dark Cabaret artists.