<< Go Back up to Theatre Research

Dictionary of Vaudeville

Dictionary of Vaudeville

The Dictionary of Vaudeville was first published by The Daily Times of Davenport in Iowa, in December 1923. Many of the terms defined are still relevant to theatre directions today.

Vaudeville English, as compiled by Frank J. Kingsley of the New York Times in late 1923:

Skip to: A | B | C | D | E | F | H | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

Vaudeville Dictionary newspaper clipping


AD LIB STUFF: Speeches or business improvised in the course of an act.

AGENT: Business representative of acts who sells to booking agent.

ALL WET: An artist without unction or “selling” power.

AND CO: The other person or persons in an act with a headliner.

ANNIE OAKLEYS: Any kind of a pass.

APPLE SAUCE: Hokum that fails soggy like a wet towel.

ARRANGEMENT: A classical masterpiece of music syncopated and jazzed and played with incidental effects.

ARTIST: General term which has supplanted performer.


^^ Return to top


BIG SMELLS: Trained seals.

BIG TIME: Major vaudeville, two performances a day, nine-act bills.

BILLTOPPER: Same as Topliner.

BLACK OUT: Turning out the lights to force an act to leave the stage.

BOOKING MAN: Expert who buys acts for vaudeville theaters.

BOTTOMLINER: Second feature on the bill.

BOUQUET: A critic’s praise of an act.

BOW MUSIC: Special music for the happy moments when artists take bows. A little goes a long way.

BREAKING IN: Playing an acceptable act off the main stem for a few weeks to give it needed “work,” in preparation for the big time.

BULL: Performing elephant, also applied to praise from one artist to another back stage.

BUST: Just a flog [sic - flop?], followed by closing.

^^ Return to top


CATCHING AN ACT: Watching a vaudeville performance for professional reasons.

CATS: Trained lions, leopards, panthers and the like.

CLOSING IN: Dropping the Olio curtain to close in One.

CLOSING INTERMISSION: The spot on the bill just before intermission.

CLOSING THE SHOW: Going on last.

CONTINUOUS: Vaudeville presented seriatim all afternoon and all evening, the bill being repeated over and over again.

CRABBING THE TURN: Gumming the act with malicious intent.

CRASHING THE GATE: Getting by the doorman without pass or ticket.

CROSSFIRE: Fast gag lines between comedians.

CRUMB: A very bad act or actor.

^^ Return to top


DUCATS: Passes secured by artists.

DUMB ACT: An act using pantomime and action entirely without speech.

^^ Return to top


EXCLUSIVE MATERIAL: Acts or songs written to order for artists for their sole use and “protected.”

EXIT GRAND: The $1,000 life insurance in the N, V, A.

EXTRA BLACK: Brunt cork used by a colored artist to accentuate his complexion.

^^ Return to top


FAKE: A pass secured by false representation.

FAKING A DANCE: Dancing to a counterfeit orchestration whose phony music permits cheating on the difficult steps.

FAMILY HOUSE: Vaudeville theater catering especially to community homes.


FLUFFING: Being just too sweet and unctuous to live in the two-a-day.

FLYING THE WIPE: Acrobats tossing handkerchiefs from one to another.

FOUR: That section of the stage six or more feet back of Three.

FULL WEEK: The policy of playing the same bill all the week long.

^^ Return to top


GAGGINGL Putting jokes not in the routine.

GAUZE FLUFFER: A spring song dancer.

GETTING THE BIRD: Having dislike made audible in various forms by the audience.

GETTING THE PINK SLIP: Being canceled, which notice comes on pink paper.

GRAVY: Comedy with a suggestion of the improper.

GUMMING THE ACT: Going up in lines or forgetting business.

^^ Return to top


HEADLINER: Most important artist on a bill, featured in advertising and given star dressing room.

HEALTHY BEND: Taking a bow to big applause.

HIGH HATTING: One artist patronizing another.

HOKUM: Rough and ready comedy, stereotyped sentiment, time-trial appeals to laughter or tears – the old basic stuff of the theater.

HOOFER: A dancer.

HOLDING DOWN THE SPOT: Making good in your position on the bill.

^^ Return to top


JASBO: Out and out vulgarity.

JITNEY JUMPS: Playing one Keith house after another in New York on a nickel carfare – very welcome after paying heavy railway transportation charges.

JOCKEYING: Trying to force applause.

JUICEMAN: Electrician in a vaudeville theater.

JUMP: The necessary travel to reach the next town booked.

^^ Return to top


LAYIN’ THE SKIDS: Either gumming or crabbing.

^^ Return to top


MAKES GOOD IN ANY SPOT: Vaudeville’s highest praise.

MIDDLELINER: Third feature on the bill.

MOVED UP: Being given an earlier spot, which is no compliment.

MOVED DOWN: Getting a better spot and marking at least one act happy.

^^ Return to top


NEXT TO CLOSING: No. 8 spot on a nine-act bill – the act preceding the last.

NUT COMIC: Comedian who says and does ridiculous things often impromptu – Bert Fitzgibbon is the perfect type – a daffy guy.

N, V, A.: National Vaudeville Artists.

^^ Return to top


OIL CAN: A bad act or actor.

OILING UP: Refining an act and cutting out rough stuff.

OLIO: Drop curtain across the stage working flat against the tormentors – the background for artists “in One.”

ONE: The front section of the stage between the tormentors and the proscenium arch – it is backed by the olio drop when acts work “in One.”

OPENING INTERMISSION: Having the spot right after intermission.

^^ Return to top


PENCILED IN: A tentative booking.

PERFORMER: Once a general term, but now applied only to great artistic technicalities with true showmanship.

POP-HOUSE: Theater charging popular prices.

^^ Return to top


RAPID-FIRE COMICS: Fast chattering teams of comics asking and answering gag questions.

RASPBERRY: Criticism by the outspoken in an even more than outspoken manner.

RIOT: A complete success.

RISLEY ACT: Acrobats who lie on their backs and balance and cast with feet and hands – named after its great exponent.

ROUTE: The line-up of vaudeville players for which an artist holds contracts.

ROUTINE: The playing order of an act, especially one with song and dance.

^^ Return to top


SAP: An unfriendly critic.

SAX: A saxophone.

SCOUT: Expert who spend his time looking for new acts, new personalities and possibilities for vaudeville.

SERIO-COMIC: Singer who can “sell” both dramatic and comedy numbers.

SIDEWALK COMEDIANS: Comics working in the eternal street set.

SONG PLUGGER: A retiring representative of a song publisher planted in the audience to call for songs, whistle refrains and applaud.

SIKE: A cyclorama drop dear to interpretive dancers.

SINGLE: An artist working alone as an act.

SITTING ON THE HANDS: Report made by flops to the act following them.

SKULL: A pass secured by persuasive talk.

SLAPSTICK COMEDY: Getting laughs by physical methods.

SLOUGHED: Having a bad press on Tuesday.

SMALL TIME: Minor vaudeville, fewer and cheaper acts on bill, two or more a day.

SONG BOOSTER: A song plugger not a bit nicer under another name.

SPLASH TUB: Tanks used for aquatic acts.

SPLIT-WEEK: The policy of changing vaudeville bills every Monday and Thursday, thus giving two programs a week.

SPLITTING THE HEADLINE: Two headliners dividing topline honors – rare.

SPOT: An act’s position on a bill.

STOPPING THE SHOW: Making the audience encore an act to the exclusion and delay of the next on the bill.

SURE-FIRE: An act, a gag or bit of business that appeals to all audiences.

^^ Return to top


TABLOID: A musical show or play condensed into one act for vaudeville.

TEAM: Two artists working together.

SISTER TEAM: Two women in a team.

THREE: That section of the stage six feet or more back of Two.

TIME: The playing dates offered by circuits and theaters.

TOPLINER: Same as headliner.

TOPMOUNTER: The lightweight acrobat at the apex of a human pyramid.

TOPPING LAUGH: Making laughs follow one another so closely that they overlap – an infrequent phenomenon.

TO TEAM UP: To work as a duo.

TRAMPOLINE ACT: Bouncing and doing acrobatic stunts, mostly comedy, on a suspended wire mattress.

TRYOUT: An experimental hearing of a new act, usually far away from Broadway.

TWO-A-DAY: Vaudeville presented one at the matinee and one at the night performance.

TWO: The section of the stage between One and the set of wings six or more feet back of the Olio drop.

^^ Return to top


UNDERSTANDER: The husky guy at the base of a human pyramid or similar acrobatic structure.


^^ Return to top


VAMP TILL READY: Play introduction music until act starts routine.

VARIETY: What vaudeville used to be called.

^^ Return to top


WINGING A PART: Forgetting one’s lines.

WISE GUY: A friendly critic.

WORDS AND MUSIC: Team composed of composer and song writer.

WORKING FULL STAGE: Using the entire stage – One, Two, Three and Four – for an act.

WOW: A sensational hit or a gag that wins uproarious laughter.

^^ Return to top

@HistoricTheatrePhotos on Instagram

Historic Theatre Photography

Photographs copyright © 2002-2024 Mike Hume / Historic Theatre Photos unless otherwise noted.

Text copyright © 2017-2024 Mike Hume / Historic Theatre Photos.

For photograph licensing and/or re-use contact me here Contact Us.

Follow Mike Hume’s Historic Theatre Photography: Follow Historic Theatre Photos on Instagram Follow Historic Theatre Photos on Facebook