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Processes of Spatialization in the Americas

Configurations and Narratives


Edited By Gabriele Pisarz-Ramirez and Hannes Warnecke-Berger

Where do the Americas begin, and where do they end? What is the relationship between the spatial constructions of «area» and «continent»? How were the Americas imagined by different actors in different historical periods, and how were these imaginations – as continent, nation, region – guided by changing agendas and priorities? This interdisciplinary volume addresses competing and conflicting configurations and narratives of spatialization in the context of globalization processes from the 19th century to the present.

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Americanization of Show Business? Shifting Territories of Theatrical Entertainment in North America at the Turn of the 20th Century

Antje Dietze

Americanization of Show Business? Shifting Territories of Theatrical Entertainment in North America at the Turn of the 20th Century1

Abstract: In the period from the 1880s to the 1910s, Canada experienced a strong wave of Americanization of its theatrical institutions. Taking a closer look at these transnational theatrical relations, this chapter revisits the role of the Canadian connections in the process of drawing the boundaries of modern entertainment industries in North America. The first part argues that these developments do not fit in national frameworks or in the concept of Americanization as the transnational export of American cultural products. The consolidation of theatrical industries such as legitimate theater, vaudeville, and burlesque ran along regional lines that crossed national borders and covered parts of both the United States and Canada, including Montreal. Taking the example of large-scale business conflicts in the field of burlesque, the chapter then investigates how entrepreneurs in the city not only actively integrated their businesses into wider North American theater networks, but also challenged the dominance of US-Americans in the industry. These changing spatializations of theatrical entertainment did not only include the transcontinental expansion and subsequent drawing of new regional boundaries within the emerging industries. They also entailed new forms of organizing space, as the business evolved toward increasing centralization, rationalization, and exclusive territorial control.


“Canada is the only nation in the world whose stage is entirely controlled by aliens,” claimed the Montreal-based theater critic B. K. Sandwell in 1911 (23). Those aliens, of course, were from the United States. While Sandwell overstated the situation in order to advance the cause of the national development of the ←193 | 194→Canadian stage, it is true that Canada had experienced a very strong wave of Americanization of its theatrical institutions. At the turn of the 20th century, many of Montreal’s large theaters belonged to one corporation, the J. B. Sparrow Theatrical and Amusement Company (Limited), which booked most of its shows in the United States and was thus one of the principal agents of cultural Americanization in the Canadian metropolis. At a time when live theater reached mass audiences and profoundly shaped urban public spheres, this was far from a marginal issue. Taking a closer look at these transnational theatrical networks in the period from the 1880s to the 1910s, this chapter seeks to revisit some historiographical narratives on Americanization by focusing on the role of the Canadian connections in the process of drawing the boundaries of modern entertainment industries in North America.

Most of the academic literature on the Americanization of popular entertainment focuses on the transnational expansion of US-American culture—the ways and mechanisms in which modern cultural formats that had been developed in the United States were exported and appropriated in other countries around the world. The foundations for growing transnational cultural activity were laid not only with the rise of the United States to the status of a world power, but also with the industrialization of popular entertainment at the turn of the 20th century (Rydell and Kroes; Bakker). Research on cultural Americanization has to take into account these profound changes of US-American culture itself, as noted by the American studies scholar Winfried Fluck:

… the Americanization of modern culture did not begin with these exports. Before an Americanization of other cultures could set in, it first had to take place in American society itself. Or, to put it differently: The process of cultural transformation, for which the term Americanization is used today, does not start with American cultural exports after World War II. It starts with the emergence of a new urban entertainment culture around the turn of the century. Its first “casualty” is therefore American culture itself, at least in the form of 19th century American Victorianism. (242)

Placing the Canadian connections in this framework is challenging, as US–Canadian relations in theatrical entertainment have persistently remained in the background. The research literature on the formation of US-American entertainment industries often takes the national framework as given and almost completely neglects their Canadian (and Mexican) extensions. Some literature covers Mexican, US-American, and Canadian theatrical developments, but treats them mostly separately (Londré and Watermeier). The literature on the history of Canadian theater, while acknowledging transnational entanglements, is more preoccupied with the emergence of specifically Canadian or Quebecois theatrical forms and institutions. Attempts to build an integrated transcontinental ←194 | 195→perspective and to analyze US–Canadian theatrical relations in detail are rare (Conolly; Vickery). However, accounts by the historical actors themselves often tend to transcend national perspectives (Leavitt).

Against this background, this chapter takes up the debates about the integration of transregional, trans-American, and transnational perspectives in American studies and in historical research on the Americas and especially Canada (Hoerder; Charles and Wien; Siemerling and Casteel; Dubinsky et al.). There is also a broad debate about the continental integration and the Americanness (Americanité, also in the larger sense of the Americas) of Quebecois culture and identity (Bouchard and Lamonde; Lüsebrink; Bahia). These approaches open the way for taking into account the plurality of spatial entanglements that historical actors created and to reevaluate how these challenge and reshape existing research narratives and methods that often privileged national frameworks.

This reorientation helps to uncover complex spatializations both within and beyond the nation, and can also serve to revisit the notion of Americanization in entertainment history. Scholars in this field have already pointed out that the development of modern entertainment industries was not necessarily restricted to a national framework and that the internal transformation of US-American culture and its cross-border expansion were deeply entangled processes. Taking the example of Broadway theater, Marlis Schweitzer has shown that “at the very moment that the commercial US theatre industry was cohering around Times Square and spinning a network of spider web-like strands throughout North America, it was also reaching aggressively across the Atlantic to establish new connections, partnerships, and business ventures” (5). In a similar vein, Abel et al. have suggested to rethink the role of the nation and the national in early cinema history, making them the object of research and asking how they related to other frameworks and orientations, such as global or imperial ones (2).

This chapter reevaluates the development of theatrical entertainment in North America at the turn of the 20th century, investigating how the business was organized across space and how relevant historical actors perceived and steered this process. Starting with the theatrical situation in Montreal and the role of the Sparrow company in integrating the city into North American theater circuits, it analyzes how the US–Canadian theatrical networks evolved at the time. The first part gives an overview of the industrialization processes in the theatrical field in North America, focusing on legitimate theater, vaudeville, and burlesque. Theatrical entertainment was increasingly centralized and consolidated at the turn of the 20th century. This process resulted in fierce conflicts between competing combinations and trade associations, which are usually understood in terms of the emergence of national entertainment industries. However, the ←195 | 196→consolidation of entertainment markets and booking territories in different theatrical genres followed their own spatial logic. They ran along regional lines that crossed national borders and covered parts of both the United States and Canada, including Montreal.

As a result, all of the territorial transformations and conflicts in the North American theatrical field also played out in the city. They are analyzed in more detail in the second part, using the example of large-scale business conflicts in the burlesque field in which the Sparrow company and its representatives took a very active role. The focus shifts to the ways in which the historical actors themselves understood the relevant spatializations of their business and how they strategically engaged in territorial conflicts. This story is practically unknown—burlesque as a “low” form of theatrical entertainment has remained on the sidelines of entertainment historiography. While it has attracted some attention as a female spectacle that allows insights into the transformations of cultural hierarchies and gender representation in the United States, its business side has hardly been studied.2

2The Theatrical Scene in Montreal and Its Integration into North American Theatrical Circuits

Montreal had been part of North American touring routes and had hosted European and American stars for a long time. Anglophone and francophone theater companies came to the bilingual Canadian metropolis, sometimes directly from Great Britain or France, but most often from or via New York or New Orleans. From the 1880s onward, when more and more theatrical troupes and stars toured extensively across North America, Montreal became part of consolidated touring routes (Lamonde; Hare; Godin; Saddlemeyer). The city grew quickly at this time, from more than 140,000 inhabitants in 1881 to almost 268,000 in 1901 (and up to over 618,000 in 1921) (Linteau 40, 160), and its entertainment sector expanded as well. While the rapidly increasing number of theater houses in Montreal were mostly owned by Canadians or Montrealers, some of the management lay in the hands of representatives of US-American companies and most of the booking was done through the dominant booking offices in New York and other big US-American cities (Barrière, “Montréal,”La societé; Larrue; Bourassa; Graham). As a result, the majority of theatrical offerings in the ←196 | 197→city were anglophone and came from the United States, although at the time, the francophone population had become the majority in the city (Linteau 45).

This led to the widespread complaints at the time about the Americanization of theatrical live entertainment. The most relevant promoter of modern industrialized forms of American popular entertainment in Montreal was the local theatrical entrepreneur John Bolingbroke Sparrow (1852–1914) (Barrière, “Sparrow”). Beginning in 1879, he had taken over most of the city’s large theaters and integrated them into the North American theatrical circuits. From 1884 to 1898, he had joined the circuit of the American entrepreneur Henry R. Jacobs, which included cities in the northeastern United States and Eastern Canada. Jacobs, together with F. F. Proctor, was the pioneer of highly successful forms of popular prized melodrama and vaudeville, and was also among the first to establish theatrical circuits dominated by one owner or lessee (Bernheim, ch. 8; Wertheim 100; Marston). After the dissolution of his partnership with Jacobs, Sparrow took over the Canadian part of the circuit. During the 1890s and 1900s, he acquired or leased most of the important theaters in the Canadian metropolis: the Theatre Royal, the Academy of Music, the Théâtre Français, Queen’s Theatre, and Her/His Majesty’s. He also for a while controlled the Toronto Opera House and the Grand Opera House in Ottawa (Barrière, La societé, ch. 4; Dufresne; Larrue). In 1903, he incorporated the J. B. Sparrow Theatrical and Amusement Company (Limited) together with his general manager William A. Edwards and the local merchant David S. Walker (“Public Notice”). The company acquired many of the shows for its theaters from theatrical agencies and cartels in the United States.

This integration of Montreal into larger North American production and distribution networks was made possible by the industrialization and centralization of theatrical entertainment in North America in the late 19th century. New theatrical genres emerged and circulated across the postwar United States and the newly founded Dominion of Canada.3 Simultaneously, a fundamental transformation of business organization was pushed forward by a growing need to organize the expanding industry: the introduction of traveling combination companies and the establishment of theatrical circuits and booking combines.

The first step in that direction had been the increasing mobility of theatrical companies. Until the 1860s, North American theater had consisted mainly of resident stock companies, meaning more or less permanent theatrical troupes ←197 | 198→that remained attached to a house or went on small-scale tours in a region, and were only occasionally visited by a foreign theater troupe. With the establishment of both the transcontinental railway system and the traveling star system in theater, this model was gradually replaced by traveling combination companies. In his classic account of the economic history of American theater, Alfred L. Bernheim gave a concise definition of the new system:

The traveling combination system is composed of temporary producing units, each organized for one play only, none organically connected with any specific theatre, and the great majority without control over the theatre in which they happen to be playing. Combination companies, instead of being localized as were the stock companies, are organized in a producing center, generally New York City, where they remain while they can attract profitable audiences, after which they visit the available theatres throughout the country. (26)

While these shows were generally put together in the metropolitan centers, most of the money was made on the road. However, the theaters at the stops along the tour were not independent production units any more. House management and show production were now separated from each other, and the business became horizontally integrated across larger spaces (Bakker 23–27).

This process affected not only the field of so-called legitimate theater (play-based, highbrow theatrical performances) and first-class revues and musicals (Bernheim; Poggi; Schweitzer), but also the theatrical genres in the sphere of popular entertainment. The most widespread form of theatrical entertainment at the turn of the 20th century were vaudeville shows. They differed from legitimate theater in that they were not based on a play, but were arranged as a series of short acts that typically included a variety of attractions: song and dance, acrobatics, comedic acts, animal acts, strongmen and strongwomen, magicians, blackface and male or female impersonators, and later also moving pictures. Vaudeville was a very flexible form of performance suitable for wide circulation as the shows could be easily packaged, recombined, and transported (Snyder; Wertheim; Cullen et al.). It had also gained wider audiences after a process of “cleaning up”—meaning the strategy of vaudeville entrepreneurs since the 1880s to elevate these entertainments from their disreputable origins in concert saloons and variety halls with mostly male audiences and turning them into “polite,” inoffensive family entertainment that they renamed “vaudeville.” Making these shows attractive for women, children, and middle-class patrons in general represented a breakthrough that turned them into an actual mass entertainment.

A third branch of theatrical entertainment which will be looked at in more detail here was burlesque. Originally meaning a parody or caricature of a well-known play, story or genre, such as classical plays, historical dramas, or opera, ←198 | 199→it became a distinct form of comedic musical performance. Its aesthetics relied on the transgression of cultural boundaries, the inversion of cultural and social hierarchies (such as high/low, in travesties of the classics or mock-heroic plays), and the grotesque (Allen, Horrible Prettiness 26, “The Leg Business”). This form, like the others, originated in transatlantic exchanges. Victorian burlesque shows came to North America from Britain (Clinton-Baddeley; Schoch; Booth 196–98). They became especially popular and scandalous in the late 1860s, when they had developed a strong emphasis on visual spectacle and on the central role of women who not only comically inverted gender roles and often cross-dressed, but also displayed their bodies, usually their legs in skin-colored tights (Dudden; Allen, “The Leg Business”; Buckley).

During the 1870s, burlesque was Americanized, as it was blended with another American form of entertainment, the minstrel show, which changed its mode of circulation and internal structure. North American burlesques were presented mostly by traveling combination companies that took over minstrelsy’s tripartite structure, which consisted of an ensemble introduction followed by a series of individual olios (short acts like in vaudeville) and then a collective finale, often a farce. Instead of featuring men in blackface and playing with racial stereotypes, burlesque now featured women and distorted gender roles, becoming a form of female minstrelsy (Allen, Horrible Prettiness 163–78; Leavitt 308–21; Toll, Blacking Up). The genre, which typically included a chorus line of girls, became more and more suggestive over time, including raunchy jokes, belly dancing (cooch dance) and, from the late 1910s and 1920s onward, striptease. It was less respectable than the other theatrical genres and catered mostly to male and working-class audiences, but there were also attempts of presenting more “cleaned up,” opulent shows, similar to the developments of polite vaudeville, to attract a wider and more mixed audience (“Burlesque”; Allen, Horrible Prettiness 185–93, 221–25; Ashby, ch. 4).

In sum, this step in the development of popular theatrical entertainment included the emergence of new genres, some of them specifically North American. They were more suitable for transcontinental touring and were able to target mass audiences. The increasing differentiation into separate genres resulted in largely different touring circuits and forms of business organization, often with separate houses that catered to different audiences, although interrelations remained.

The third step in the process of industrialization, after the emergence of the traveling combination system and the differentiation of new genres, was the centralization of the theatrical business. With the growth of the theatrical touring networks, competition had increased and booking became more and ←199 | 200→more complicated. To avoid cutthroat competition and booking chaos, house managers banded together to form circuits—groups of geographically related theaters that together formed a favorable touring route. Acting as a group gave them more bargaining power in the negotiations with show producers, and it reduced transaction costs for all involved. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, many regional circuits developed, often with dominating managers that owned several houses in different cities. These circuits in fact delineated theatrical booking territories, often with exclusive representation of the houses and cities by the circuit (Bernheim 36). These did not align with political borders, but were business territories with very dynamic boundaries. They were not primarily defined by ownership of land or real estate, but were running along the lines first of regular touring activities and then, increasingly, coming under tighter control through booking.

From there, it was only a small step to further integrating and centralizing these circuits by merging the controlling interests of different territories. The field of legitimate theater pioneered this process when a group of powerful US-American circuit leaders, show producers, and booking agents formed the Theatrical Syndicate in New York City in 1896. They agreed on exclusive and central booking across their respective territories, taking control of most of the first-class theaters in North America. The original circuit included 33 theaters from coast to coast, but over the next 15 years it gained direct control or booking dominance over reportedly up to 700 theaters in the United States and Canada (Bernheim, ch. 11). They had followed the examples of the great trust wave in the North American economy at large and of retail chains that had been established to rationalize the sale of consumer goods. The Syndicate was also commonly called the Theatrical Trust although it was not actually organized as a trust. According to Bernheim, it was not incorporated, but a temporary unlimited liability partnership. It only handled booking, while the houses and shows remained in ownership and under the control of the partners (ch. 7). The Syndicate was a highly controversial organization and did not remain uncontested, entering into conflicts with independent producers and managers, with artists’ organizations, and soon with an equally strong rival in its field, the Shubert Organization (McNamara; Hirsch).

Similar centralization processes occurred in vaudeville, where ever larger and increasingly integrated circuits were formed. Vaudeville managers from the most powerful circuits in the western, midwestern, and eastern parts of the United States came together to form the Association of Vaudeville Managers (AVM) of the United States, a trade association, in 1900. In contrast to legitimate theater however, the vaudeville field was characterized by a lasting division ←200 | 201→into eastern and western sections, each with a board of managers and its own booking office. The line dividing their territories shifted slightly through the years, but most of the time it was drawn through Chicago or Cincinnati. In 1902, the AVM had represented 62 theaters, while in 1907, its successor, the so-called Combine, included over 200 theaters and booked many more through the eastern and western branch of the United Booking Office (Wertheim 104, 132). The alliance included a territorial agreement defining the boundaries of the eastern and western sections, but grappled with frequent tensions between those sections. Conflicts also arose with independent agents and producers and with the Syndicate and Shubert Organization, who despite their competition undertook attempts together to make inroads into the vaudeville field by opening opposition houses and forming a rival circuit with their own booking system (Schweitzer 20–30; Wertheim 138–48). Just like the conflicts in legitimate theater, the “vaudeville wars” show that while the sector of theatrical entertainment in general had expanded tremendously and became more and more consolidated, it remained highly dynamic and riddled by divisions, business wars, and changing alliances.

Similar to the other theatrical forms, burlesque developed its own forms of business organization, while however remaining a much smaller branch than legitimate theater or vaudeville (Allen, Horrible Prettiness 190–93; “Burlesque”). This included the Traveling Managers’ Association (TMA), a trade association of burlesque show producers that had been founded in 1900, and two dominant circuits. The Cincinnati-based Empire Circuit in the West had been incorporated in 1897 and played more suggestive shows. The eastern, New York-based Columbia Circuit later split from the existing organization. It was incorporated in 1902 and started promoting a policy of cleaning up, following the model of vaudeville, while not always fully enforcing it. To book these circuits, a unique touring principle, called “the wheel,” had been introduced in 1902. Starting positions and touring routes for burlesque shows were assigned by the drawing of lots before the start of the theatrical season, and then the shows moved along the circuits like spokes of a spinning wheel, playing a new house each week during an entire theatrical season. While in its earlier years, the wheel consisted of roughly 30 to 40 shows and houses for a theatrical season of up to 40 weeks, in 1913 the two circuits booked 67 shows. Initially, two of the wheel houses were in Canada—in Toronto and Montreal. As the circuits grew, more houses were opened, and there were also traveling or stock burlesque shows outside of the wheel. Just like in legitimate theater and vaudeville, the burlesque circuits represented territories that spanned the United States and Canada and included exclusive booking and a ban on opposition. However, the field was engaged ←201 | 202→in almost constant business conflicts, consisting of different “burlesque wars” between the Eastern and Western circuits that ultimately resulted in the split of the wheel.

The increasing consolidation, centralization, and rationalization of theatrical entertainments at the turn of the century allowed for a constant supply of the most qualitative and up-to-date theatrical entertainment in Montreal. All of the important circuits of legitimate theater, vaudeville, and burlesque extended into Canada. Canadian managers were members of the trade associations or combinations, and their theaters and shows were advertised and reported upon in the US-American theatrical trade papers. This is what Sandwell meant by foreign control: Canada had become part of the business territories of the American corporations and cartels and was thus another battle ground for their fierce competition:

None of them can get it out of their heads that the theatres of the United States should be one vast monopoly, and that anybody who is trying to get a share of the theatrical trade should be exterminated. … What I am concerned with is the fact that Canada is included in the area for which these vast organizations are fighting; that Ontario is as much tributary to the offices on either side of Broadway as is Minnesota, and that British Columbia is parcelled out like New Jersey. (Sandwell 23–24)

From this perspective, Americanization did not merely mean the export of theatrical fare from the United States to Canada. It entailed the full integration of large parts of the Canadian theatrical landscape into US-American theater networks and organizations, with Canadian provinces having largely the same status as US-American states, all of them tied to headquarters in New York City and some other hubs of the industry. However, this was not the result of a “foreign” takeover, but the local managers in Montreal had actively pursued this strategy of integration, for instance, by becoming members of US-based business organizations and combinations in order to gain access to shows for their houses.

3The “Burlesque Wars” and the Role of Montreal

The representatives of the Sparrow company had joined the Theatrical Syndicate and the Columbia burlesque circuit and used not only the booking office of the eastern section of the vaudeville alliance, but also independent vaudeville agencies. At first, they had pursued these affiliations to gain access to the most up-to-date theatrical shows and to successfully fight their competitors within the city, even to expand their reach beyond Montreal.4 But the increasing integration ←202 | 203→into the North American circuits and booking combines also meant that the business conflicts between the combinations in the different theatrical branches started to play out in Montreal. This resulted in the split of the city’s theatrical scene into rival circuits and the opening of additional theaters in direct opposition to the existing ones. The situation became especially dynamic in the years between 1904 and 1913, when several of these competitive struggles heated up and intersected. The theatrical entrepreneurs and managers in Montreal were not merely recipients of these conflicts, but active participants, as will be further detailed using the example of the burlesque field.

The business of burlesque theater at the time was ridden with rivalries for profit and dominance between house managers and traveling show managers on the one hand, and between the Eastern and Western circuits on the other. Robert C. Allen noted in his standard work on American burlesque that unlike in vaudeville, where a relatively stable oligopoly was formed,

… no single force in burlesque theater ownership was dominant enough to hold its competing factions in line. Furthermore, in vaudeville, power was inherently invested in theaters and in booking agencies, against which any individual act was virtually powerless. Burlesque was comprised of two much more equally matched forces: theater owners and producers. (Horrible Prettiness 191)

As a result of this power balance, the burlesque business was much more volatile than the other theatrical industries. The period studied was characterized by an ongoing search for ways to stabilize and better regulate the burlesque field. The managers not only had discovered a new mechanism of advancing their business through territorialization, but were also struggling to create the means to steer and control the ensuing uncertainties and clashes.

The “wheel” had been established as a booking system between the TMA and the (western) Empire Circuit in 1902 to regulate the rampant competition and bring order into the booking chaos. This very formalized procedure was introduced by the TMA to balance out conflicts between members who now, at least in theory, were restricted from opening additional houses or produce more shows to increase competition. The wheel was, from the outset, explicitly designed to stabilize the existing booking territory and to protect it from both internal conflicts and outside invasions:←203 | 204→

The “wheel scheme” is intended to freeze out any future burlesque shows which may appear on the amusement horizon. … The burlesque houses included in the Empire Circuit, for instance, play a season of thirty-six weeks. What the Traveling Managers’ Association wants is for their shows only to be booked over the Empire Circuit to cover the full thirty-six weeks, so that no other “outside trick,” which may be born in the future, may book time over the circuit. … In this way, it is claimed, thousands of dollars in transportation will be saved, to say nothing of erecting another barrier around the already substantial burlesque trust. (“Novel Scheme”)

But very soon, the conflicts resumed, especially after the establishment of the (eastern) Columbia Circuit that same year which was also booked by the TMA. The almost constant fights provoked the termination of the joint booking for the Eastern and Western Circuits and a split into two rival wheels in 1905, the TMA remaining with the Eastern Circuit. The circuits engaged in a long and bitter competition, fighting for houses and the success of their respective style of burlesque, as was later described in a promotional brochure published by the Columbia Circuit:

The new company had to grab theatres in a sort of catch-as-catch-can fashion, annexing one here and another there, in the large cities, gradually building up a string of houses in sufficient number to give assurance to producers of a season’s engagement on a circuit. As soon as a theatre advantageously and attractively situated became available the Columbia people would bid for it and, if successful, release a less desirable house for other purposes. (“Sam Scribner’s Long Campaign”)

The so-called burlesque wars raged on until the Columbia Circuit absorbed the Empire Circuit in 1913, only to engage in new conflicts with newly founded rival circuits in the following years (Allen, Horrible Prettiness, ch. 8; “Burlesque”; Gray and Yates).

The Sparrow company became deeply entangled in the constant clashes about booking territories and exclusive control of theaters in the burlesque field.5 Sparrow’s Theatre Royal had played burlesque shows since the 1890s. Manager Edwards had become a founding member of the Columbia burlesque circuit in 1902 to secure a continuous supply of good burlesque shows for the Royal, and ←204 | 205→later the Théâtre Français, as part of the burlesque wheel. Burlesque was highly successful in Montreal, despite continuous opposition by both the Catholic and the Protestant churches, as well as the temperance movement. These protests did in several instances result in arrests of performers and in legal actions against the shows or the theaters, as well as in campaigns of both the anglophone and the francophone press in the name of the protection of the city’s youth (Larrue 627–34, 772–73; Dufresne 89–99). But at the same time, burlesque with its strong musical and visual focus and low ticket prizes provided a form of entertainment that integrated a wide social spectrum of patrons and appealed to both the francophone and the anglophone population in Montreal. It thus solved one of the most pertinent problems the theatrical entrepreneurs that engaged in popular mass entertainments had to overcome—the fragmentation of audiences.

However, with the start of the 1904/05 season, the Sparrow company decided to create its own circuit that would not only include Canadian cities, but also extend into the United States. This was a very unusual endeavor in the theatrical field where expansion usually worked the other way around—from the US metropolises into Canada. The contemporaries also noted this, for instance the trade paper New York Morning Telegraph citing an anonymous insider of the wheel convention in New York City in January 1905:

Edwards became ambitious. He obtained control of burlesque theatres in Boston, Providence, Fall River, Albany, Brooklyn and Newark. All this enterprise was a violation of the ironclad agreement of “The Wheel.” But Edwards was doing a very fine business at the Theatre Francais in Montreal, and he took the risks, which he fully comprehended. He apparently thought that he could invade the United States and have things pretty much as he pleased. (“One Route”)

Edwards had leased the Columbia Theater in Boston and started to acquire other theaters as well. The Sparrow company publicly announced its plan for a music hall circuit playing vaudeville, burlesque, and musical extravaganzas, including Boston, Providence, Montreal, Ottawa, and later Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Brooklyn and Philadelphia, and potentially more cities. Their partners were the Theatrical Syndicate, some agents for vaudeville and melodramas, and one of the most important New York music publishing companies, Witmark & Sons (“The J. B. Sparrow”).

As the Eastern managers of the burlesque wheel got wind of this endeavor, they expelled Edwards from their circuit on the grounds that there were already two burlesque theaters of the Eastern Circuit in Boston. The “Constitution and By-Laws of the Association of Managers of the Eastern Circuit of Burlesque Theatres” from December 1901 included the usual ban on opposition theaters, as stated in article XII: “No member of the Association shall operate any burlesque ←205 | 206→theatre of a temporary or permanent character in any city in which members of the Association are now operating …” (qtd. in Laski 9–10). They also announced that they would refuse to let any burlesque show play at their theaters that had played in Montreal and started to put pressure on the show managers of the TMA to boycott Montreal. The Sparrow company in turn went to court. It sued those managers that did not bring their shows to Montreal individually for breach of contract, and the wheel for conspiracy to intimidate the show managers to break their contracts and ultimately harm the Canadian company’s business, asking for damages of $100,000. It won a temporary injunction in 1905 at the US Circuit Court of the Southern District of Ohio in Cincinnati where the Empire Circuit had its headquarters. However, the Empire officers made it clear that they would not support the ban, instead siding with the Sparrow company that soon joined this circuit. Sparrow in turn took his legal actions to New York City, the headquarter of the Eastern Circuit, where he sued the Eastern Circuit Association and the TMA at the US Circuit Court of the Southern District of New York and many years of legal battle followed. In the years from 1905 until Sparrow’s death in 1914, probably more than a dozen suits were filed and trials held in the United States and Canada on this matter. The whole conflict had also contributed to the split of the wheel, with the Eastern and Western circuits booking independently and entering into a relentless territorial fight over the coming years.

What at first had looked like a conflict between representatives of US and Canadian entertainment companies was in fact a conflict between members of competing US-based associations and corporations for which national boundaries only played a minor role. Their territorial frictions ran along an East–West division of circuits and booking combinations in a transnational region that extended across the United States and Canada. A closer look at the perceptions and narratives of the historical actors in the trade press, the court depositions, and trials reveals that they not only drew these territorial boundaries according to the logic inherent in their business organization rather than along political borders, but also struggled to understand and control the implications of their own spatializations.

The managers of burlesque houses and touring shows were preoccupied with the expansion and consolidation of theatrical business territories—which they understood as the control of theaters through ownership, lease, management, or booking, combined with membership in the dominant business organizations. The trade press also took this perspective, reporting on the rivalries in the burlesque field as “wars” for territory. A leading officer of the TMA who was quoted in the New York trade paper Daily Telegraph in 1905 even compared the conflicts to the Russo–Japanese War that was being fought at the time:←206 | 207→

This burlesque war was started like the Russo-Japanese difficulty. Each thought the other was encroaching on its territory. Some Western managers tried to break into the East, and some Eastern men were working to get into the Western field. Naturally there was a fight. (“May Close the Burlesque War”)

Another example is Rankin D. Jones, the attorney for the Empire Circuit, who testified in 1907:

A.We never went in in [sic] opposition to anybody, that I know of, or anybody’s business. We are largely holding on to lines of business that existed before this war.

Q.What do you mean by “this war”?

A.This war that arose in the boycott of Montreal. (17)

While this language drew strong parallels to conflicts over political territory, the term “territory” was also current in business and legal language at the time, referring both to the area in which a company did business and to contractually defined territorial limitations of business activities such as in sales territories. Some of the managers as well as the trade press understood the wheel as a franchising arrangement. The period studied saw not only increased experimentation with different forms of the territorial division of markets and the regulation of competition, but also continuous debates about the legal boundaries of these strategies. With the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914, and the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914, restricting competition came under stronger scrutiny and also became a topic of contention in the theatrical business. The legal interpretation of the antitrust laws in general, and their application with reference to the entertainment sector in particular, was only clarified by the courts over a longer period of time. An early prominent case was the one against the Theatrical Syndicate for conspiracy and restraint of trade in the New York Court of General Sessions in 1907, where it was determined that stage shows did not fall under the category of commerce that was regulated by the states’ antitrust legislation (Schweitzer 22–25). In the late 1910s and the early 1920s, the courts determined in several other cases involving legitimate theater and vaudeville that traveling shows did not constitute interstate commerce and thus were also not covered by the federal antitrust statutes (Flood; Wertheim 233–36). As a result, theatrical combinations and booking conglomerates often escaped antitrust regulations, but the matter remained controversial.

However, during the burlesque war in 1905 and the following years, the direction that the interpretation of antitrust law would take for theatrical entertainment was not at all clear yet. All those involved in the conflict operated under conditions of uncertainty as to the legal conditions of their forms of territorial ←207 | 208→organization. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the first suit brought by the Sparrow company in that city alleged a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act and observed: “The real cause of the action is evidently to declare the alleged boycott off, but if successful Manager Sparrow could eventually be able to upset the entire system of booking burlesque shows through the country under the terms of the agreement now in vogue” (“Suit to Break Up”). This might be the reason why in the court depositions, some of the managers that testified—like Rankin D. Jones cited above—tried to downplay those aspects of their agreements that limited competition or their own role in them. The courts, however, did not treat the matter as an antitrust case and did also not place the territorial conflict at the center of attention. Judge Holt in the trial J.B. Sparrow v. Eastern Circuit Association in the US Circuit Court in New York in 1910 called the ordering of the business by way of the burlesque wheel “an entirely lawful and proper purpose to accomplish” and laid the focus on the question whether there had been a conspiracy or an agreement to injure the business of the Sparrow company by intimidating the show managers to break their contracts (“Charge” 64). The verdict of the jury was in the defendant’s favor, but the Sparrow company only received one dollar nominal damages.

The Sparrow company was unable to gain greater influence over the course of the burlesque wars, and did also not succeed in establishing its own music hall circuit. After it had gone over from the Columbia to the Empire Circuit, the Columbia established an opposition house in Montreal—the Gayety Theatre opened in 1912. That same year however, the Eastern and Western burlesque circuits entered into a territorial agreement to reduce the number of opposition houses that had seriously diminished the profitability of the business. As part of this deal, the Empire Circuit agreed to leave the city of Montreal to the Columbia Circuit and its Gayety Theatre, giving up Sparrow and his house. The Sparrow company installed a stock burlesque troupe in the Royal, but soon closed the theater after yet another public campaign against “indecent” performances. In 1913, the Columbia absorbed the Empire Circuit in a $15 million transaction, and Sparrow died in 1914. New burlesque wars raged on between newly founded rivals, but the golden age of American burlesque was slowly waning and ended in the late 1920s.

During the late 1910s and the 1920s, US-American agencies and corporations retained their strong hold on theatrical amusements in Montreal. However, in parallel to the American-style burlesque shows that continued touring through Montreal, local production of burlesque started and increasingly switched to French-language performances. While these shows did also go on tour, they were produced by resident companies that were tied to a specific theater house. ←208 | 209→By the 1930s, this new variant of burlesque had developed into a separate and very successful francophone form of popular comical acts, toning down the sexualized display of women and turning more into a Quebecois form of variety theater (Hébert, Burlesque au Québec, Burlesque Québécois). In the ongoing process of the respatialization of North American entertainment industries, another regional variant had thus been established, with its own aesthetic style and audience relations, and relying less on forms of territorialization based on consolidated circuits and exclusive booking.


This chapter argued that the development of theatrical entertainment industries in North America at the turn of the 20th century involved complex spatial logics that do not neatly fit in national frameworks or in concepts of Americanization that focus primarily on the transnational export of American cultural products. It was a multidimensional process involving the creation of specifically North American theatrical genres with particular performance styles, audience relations, and forms of business organization.

When looking at the trajectories of different forms of theatrical live entertainment in North America and at burlesque in particular, instead of a nationalization of the industry followed or accompanied by its cross-border expansion, a different picture emerges. The nationalization, continentalization, and transnationalization of entertainment industries played out in close interrelation. As the example of the Sparrow company in Montreal showed, theatrical managers in Canada were fully integrated into the emerging North American theatrical circuits. Americanization in theatrical entertainment meant the formation of integrated North American theater industries that were organized slightly differently in different theatrical genres due to varying aesthetics, production structures, and audience relations. These did not run along the lines of national or state territories, or of national markets and economies, but formed their own regional geographies of interrelated and competing business territories that spanned across political borders.

The control over these spaces was exercised mainly through booking. The theatrical booking territories were highly dynamic, frequently shifting not only along the lines of the emergence, realignment, and disappearance of the controlling trade associations, corporations, and cartels, but also with every theater that was added to a circuit or taken from it. Many houses were built and acquired; their management, booking affiliation, and the style of shows could change in short order; and the business remained volatile. National borders did at times play a role for the ←209 | 210→North American theater industries—for example, in terms of customs or different copyright regulations in the United States and Canada, and also in widespread references to these circuits as US-American, as they predominantly were on US territory and managed and dominated by US citizens. In this context, a Canadian manager expanding his business to several US cities could temporarily disturb common perceptions. However, in their day-to-day as well as long-term strategic practices, the overall guiding principle of the managers of these circuits lay in the way they balanced out local requirements and the entanglements of transnational regions that extended across the whole continent and beyond.

These changing spatializations of the North American theatrical entertainments did not only include the transcontinental expansion and subsequent drawing of new regional boundaries within the emerging industries. They also entailed changing forms of organizing space, as the theatrical business evolved toward increasing centralization, rationalization, and exclusive territorial control. During this institutionalization process, however, historical actors constantly experimented with different ways to carve out spaces of action and dominance for themselves, operating with a fair amount of uncertainty about the legal basis and strategic opportunities of their activities. Conflicts about any of the theaters on the circuits, or any of the spokes on the wheel, could ultimately lead to profound transformations and reterritorialization processes in North American theater at large.


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1Acknowledgment: The research for this article was carried out during research stays at the Centre canadien d’études allemandes et européennes (CCEAE) at Université de Montréal (2014/15) and in New York City (2016). They were funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) through its program “Postdoctoral Researchers International Mobility Experience” (P.R.I.M.E.) and by the German Research Foundation (DFG) through the Collaborative Research Center “Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition” (Leipzig University).

2The most extensive study on American burlesque theater, including some information on its business organization, is by Allen (Horrible Prettiness). Earlier accounts are from Zeidman and Sobel.

3For general information and overviews of the different popular entertainment genres in 19th- and early-20th-century North America, see Ashby; Butsch; Lewis; Nasaw; Toll, On with the Show.

4Still, Sparrow did not control all of Montreal’s theaters. Several more houses, playing either French or English stock companies or a variety of amusements, existed as well. In fact, his endeavors helped to develop the theater scene in the city and in turn fueled reactions to establish other theatrical genres, which were either completely controlled by locals or obtained their productions and theatrical troupes not from the American market leaders, but directly from France or Britain, or from independent agencies.

5This account of the burlesque war with reference to Montreal is based on press articles from trade papers including the New York Dramatic Mirror, the New York Clipper, Billboard, Variety, and New York Morning Telegraph; on Larrue; and on testimonies and exhibits in court documents. I have reviewed the court documents for those trials that were held at the United States Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York and at the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (National Archives of the United States at New York City).←215 | 216→←216 | 217→