Knock ‘Em Dead! – The Vaudeville Origins of Theatre Slang

Chances are, if you’re not a vintage theatre lover like we are, you don’t know too much about Vaudeville. You’ve likely heard the term thrown around and maybe have a vague image of some old-timey song and dance, cheesy jokes and bad acts being pulled offstage with a hook. You likely know more about Vaudeville from Looney Toons than from the real thing. While Vaudeville may be (sadly) dead, its influence is still alive and well with thanks to the many theatre slang terms the style coined. How many of them do you recognize?

Bugs Bunny gets "the hook".

Bugs Bunny gets “the hook”

Corny Material
Unsophisticated, simple, sentimental, cheesy; all of these describe what many people thought of the humour that came from the small-town country performers in the circuit. Originally the phrase was “stuck in the corn” but as with most slang, it was shortened, becoming the “corny” phrase we know today.

Fozzie Bear's pun-riddled comedy is the epitome of "corny".

Fozzie Bear’s pun-riddled comedy is the epitome of “corny”.

Tough Act to Follow
You want the number before you to warm the audience up, but if they get too hot, chances are you’ll get the cold shoulder. Waiting in the wings would’ve been nerve-wracking for any performer, and if you see a great act just before yours, you know you’ll have a tough time getting the applause you crave.

“Knock ‘Em Dead”, “Lay Them in the Aisles”, “Slay Them”

A little gruesome, sure, but hey kid, that’s showbiz. The theatre world is full of hyperbole which is likely why performers talk about “blowing audiences away” or “knocking them dead” with their stupendous performances. While the exact reasoning behind these rather violent terms isn’t clear, it’s likely due to the fact that in a high-stakes world like theatre, you need an extreme reaction to guarantee you live to play another day. A number that has them laughing so hard they fall into the aisles, or one that gives them a near spiritual experience, knocking them flat, is exactly what any performer would dream of.

Hoofer
Hoofer is the term for a professional dancer, often a tap dancer, whose dance style is close to the floor, emphasizing foot movement over arm or upper body. The term originates from the Vaudeville performers who would pound their feet on the ground prior to coming onstage in order to give the band the proper tempo. This sound, much like a horse pounding it’s hoof, gave rise to the term “hoofers”.

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was one of the greatest hoofers of his time.

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was one of the greatest hoofers of his time.

Blue Comedy
While Vaudeville’s roots were based in low-brow art forms and could get pretty risque, at the turn of the century there was a big push for “polite Vaudeville”, creating a cleaner version that was suitable for women and families. Many theatres took this very seriously and issued warnings to performers who crossed a line. Vaudevillian Sophie Tucker recalls the dreaded blue envelopes that would deliver the news;

“Between the (Monday) matinee and the night show the blue envelopes began to appear in the performers mailboxes backstage . . . Inside would be a curt order to cut out a blue line of a song, or piece of business. Sometimes there was a suggestion of something you could substitute for the material the manager ordered out . . . There was no arguing about the orders in the blue envelopes. They were final. You obeyed them or quit. And if you quit, you got a black mark against your name in the head office and you didn’t work on the Keith Circuit anymore. During my early years on the Keith Circuit, I took my orders from my blue envelope and – no matter what I said or did backstage (and it was plenty) – when I went on for the Monday night show, I was careful to keep within bounds.”

Hence the term, blue comedy.

Give ‘Em The Hook
I found this one hard to believe. Despite having grown up very familiar with the hook trope, the concept of someone actually using a crook to pull a person offstage seems far-fetched. However, there is some evidence to suggest that the phrase and its tradition originates from 1903, at Harry Miner’s Bowery Theatre. Check out some people arguing over the origins here.

Break a Leg

I know everyone and their mother has a theory about where the origins of this line really come from, but the one I tend to go with is one of the simplest, and I think that generally means it’s most likely closest to the truth. Theatre managers would book more acts than they could fit into a show, since audience response would dictate whether or not a bit got to run to completion (we all remember the old Loonie Toons where someone gets pulled off stage with a hook). There was no pay for those who were overbooked and waiting in the wings; you crossed your fingers, hoped the number before you would bomb and that you would break a leg, ie. go past the “legs” (part of the curtains) and get to perform onstage, thereby getting paid. In a business where everyone just wants their shot in the limelights and to make a buck, I’ve gotta believe that’s the right origin.

Red Carpet
This one has a few different origin stories, ranging from Agamemnon walking on a carpet fit for the God’s, to the 20th Century Limited train company rolling it out for its distinguished passengers. But I’ve found a couple sources that link it to Vaudeville, so we’re going to include it in this list. Apparently, headliners and bigger acts often had expensive costumes, and working 8+ shows a week meant they were difficult to keep clean, so a red carpet would be laid down backstage along the path the stars would walk; it was easy to spot if this was clean or not, and so they knew that their costumes were being protected. A little far-fetched? Maybe.

Alley-Oop
A term for a gymnastics routine, often one that involves launching performers into the air. Many of these circus acts were by European performers, and it is likely that the phrase came from the French word “allez” meaning everybody and a vocalization like “hup” to cue when to jump.

The Ziegfeld Follies show off a spectacular acrobatic routine.

The Ziegfeld Follies show off a spectacular acrobatic routine.

In The Limelight
While the phrase today simply means “the centre of attention” this phrase has a very simple origin. A Limelight is better known as a Drummond or Calcium Light and was a popular stage light in the days of Vaudeville. A cylinder of quicklime is heated by an oxyhydrogen flame, creating an intense illumination. Electric lights have long since replaced these, but the term lingers on.

Think we’ve missed any? Tweet them to us at @BygoneTheatre #Vaudeville, and keep posted for more information on Bygone Theatre’s Vaudeville Revue, coming June 2016!

-E.

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