What is Vaudeville? The Brooklyn Experience
What is Vaudeville? The Brooklyn Experience

In a single visit, students in a U.S. history survey course examine historical maps and guidebooks to learn more about early 20th-century Brooklyn theaters.

In a single visit, students in a U.S. history survey course examine historical maps and guidebooks to learn more about early 20th-century Brooklyn theaters.


This single-visit-to-the-archives model incorporates an engaging primary source experience into my very busy survey course. (To learn more about the challenges and benefits of visiting the archives with a survey course, read my article.)

The exercise addresses the topic of mass culture and vaudeville as an extension of our course unit “Cultural Struggles during the Gilded Age.” Groups of four students are assigned one of the following Brooklyn vaudeville theaters: Hyde & Behman’s, Columbia, Orpheum, Gayety, and Novelty. In the archives, students use maps and guidebooks to learn more about these theaters.

To build students’ basic web publishing skills, I assign a follow-up group assignment on a class website. This experience, along with the group work in the archives, reinforces a sense of community and collaboration among my students.


Students should be able to:

  • Locate pertinent historical information about a particular theater in Brooklyn using maps and guidebooks
  • Compile information gathered from archival research to craft a short descriptive entry on a Brooklyn vaudeville theater
  • Write for the web, upload images, and publish a blog post to the course web site


I give an in-class lecture on urbanism and mass entertainment prior to the visit.

Students also read Chapter 18, “Cultural Struggles of Industrial America,” from Of the People (the course textbook) as well as articles on the rise of vaudeville from the website Vaudeville: A History. Students are required to complete a Blackboard quiz based on these secondary readings.


Number of Visits: 1
Duration of Visit: 1 hour


5 minutes

45 minutes
Group research

10 minutes
Wrap up

In the project overview handout, students are given task-based prompts to guide their work in the archives. Groups are encouraged to move freely between two stations during the visit:

Station A: Opera Glass
The Opera Glass was a weekly entertainment guide for New York and Brooklyn which included a chart of vaudeville attractions with prices and advertisements for each theater. In order to have enough material for my students to simultaneously conduct research, at least ten bound volumes from the years 1901 – 1903 are pulled for each visit.

Station B: Transit Maps
This station is comprised of three maps that show trolley, elevated train, and proposed subway lines. Students should note the proximity of theaters to changing mass transit infrastructure between 1896 and 1910.

Wrap Up

Because of limited time in the archives, I conduct a very brief final discussion in which students describe and reflect on the experience of handling original documents.

End Products

The next class meeting is held at a computer lab on campus. During this session, students bring their notes from the archives and begin creating a group post. Students are required to upload an image and integrate it into a descriptive narrative of their theater. This gives students an opportunity to collaborate on their assignments and to become more familiar with the WordPress interface.


The blog assignment is assessed with a letter grade based on the following criteria: observation, historical interpretation, bibliographic skills, and timeliness and style. Students are provided a grading rubric. This assignment counts as 15% of the final grade.

Archival Materials Used

The Opera Glass; closed stacks PN2277.N5 O65; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Guide Map of the Borough of Brooklyn, Kings County, 1898; Flat Maps B A-1898.Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society. click for image

Pocket Map of Greater New York, circa 1896; Flat Maps NYC-1896.Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Rapid Transit and Development Map of the Boroughs of Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens, circa 1910; Flat Maps NYC-1910.A.F; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Further Reading

Oakes, James, et al. Of the People: A History of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

“Vaudeville: A History.” University of Virginia American Studies Group. Accessed December 2013.

To cite this page:
Peter Catapano, “What is Vaudeville? The Brooklyn Experience,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/exercises/vaudeville/.


Peter Catapano
Associate Professor of History
City Tech (CUNY)
view author bio >

Used In

HIS 1111: History after 1865

A survey of the major topics in U.S. history from the Reconstruction era to the Vietnam War. Fulfills general education requirements.

Featured Documents

Course Materials

Print Exercise

Print this entire exercise, including course materials, here.