Thursday, December 21, 2023

Tracing the Vaudevillian


If my grandfather was once a vaudevillian—or vaudeville performer—to trace his story back to any particular act, theater, or touring circuit would take a monumental research effort. Setting the stage for my effort, I took in a brief introduction to the live performance genre in hopes its history would guide my search. I'm not sure it will, but here's what I learned.

My grandfather, alternately called Theodore J. and John T., could have been credited for his act—if he had one on stage—under one of three possible surnames. The first, found in his earliest records in his homeland in what is now Poland, would be Puchała. Once having arrived in New York, government records documented my grandfather's surname as Puhalski, or in one instance, Puchalaski. Yet, out of the blue, in 1915 he reappeared with his family under a different surname, McCann. Where did that come from? Perhaps that was the name he used in performances—if he used any name at all.

To think that I can pinpoint his involvement in vaudeville solely by the dates of his lifespan—or even by those few years between his arrival in the United States and the demise of vaudeville—would not be a likely research plan. Though classic vaudeville—according to its history—grew out of a form developed in France in the late 1800s, well within my grandfather's early adult years, its version in North America was actually a combination of several entertainment traditions. Some of these influences, such as the variety shows which existed since the time of the Civil War, certainly predated my grandfather, although coincidentally, one impresario in New York City first began substituting the term "vaudeville" for "variety show" the very year my grandfather was born—1876.

On the other end of vaudeville's history, at least in the United States, some attribute the rise of movies as a leading cause of the demise of the live performances of vaudeville. While some fix that date as the decade beginning in 1910, the date at which one key New York theater shifted from combined entertainment to exclusively cinematic entertainment—16 November 1932—is attributed as the shift which signaled the end of vaudeville.

With a time frame as ample as that timeline, it doesn't provide us any guidance in pinpointing my grandfather's possible participation in that genre of entertainment. That, however, is not the only reason such a search would be difficult. Just reviewing the history of vaudeville's run in America gives us other reasons to wilt at the prospect of researching this question. 

In order to build a successful business model, the live acts of vaudeville needed to tour from city to city. Often, entertainers on these circuits would be on the road for up to forty two weeks out of the year. This could have explained why I never found my grandfather in earlier census records prior to his marriage and appearance in the 1905 New York State census. However, another daunting fact about these vaudeville circuits was that, in their heyday, they employed over twelve thousand people throughout the entire industry. Finding the as-yet-unnamed act of my grandfather would be a formidable task, given such odds.

Still, there are some resources, should I be brave enough to attempt the search. As with all such endeavors, the more I search, the more resources I find. Let's take a closer look at where vaudeville resources can be found in tomorrow's post—just in case you, like I did, encounter a family story about an ancestor who was also a vaudevillian. 


  1. This is an interesting storyline for your family.

    1. It certainly presents as a line off the beaten track of traditional genealogy work. I would never have known about this twist in my family's history if it weren't for a few stories shared verbally by my older relatives. Nothing in writing, that I can find.


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