Entertainment in early 19th century North America was centered in the home. While the upper classes might attend opera, the theater, and the symphony; the middle class, minstrel shows or plays; and the working classes, saloon variety shows, most people were entertained at home by family and friends, and the development of amateur musical or theatrical talent was considered a mark of social grace. In rural areas and among the poor, folk music and dances developed. Immigrants of high artistic achievement usually represented in their performances the European elite culture routinely copied in America and Canada, playing in productions of Shakespeare or in classical symphonies. Popular immigrant entertainment was usually associated more narrowly with immigrant folk culture—German church hymns, Irish ballads, and local Ukrainian folk troupes, for example. Prior to the 20th century, the vast majority of immigrants were either unskilled or semiskilled laborers or agriculturalists, who wished to fondly remember their homelands in their entertainments. Sometimes these nostalgic longings developed into rich performance communities in the large cities, including an extensive repertoire of Yiddish-language adaptations of both classics of the stage and melodrama. Though most ethnic performers never joined the mainstream English stage, they nevertheless served large audiences. The first phase of immigrant entertainment then was self-consciously fashioned by performers for their own ethnic groups and had little impact on society at large. Immigrants themselves were scarcely included in the songs and plays of the mainstream culture, and when they were, it was usually as a stereotype, such as the drunken Irishman or the Jewish shylock. It usually took immigrants many years to acquire an understanding of American art forms; once they did, however, they played a powerful role in defining the cultural landscape.
Two closely related developments in the entertainment industry at the end of the 19th century opened doors for many immigrants. The rapid growth of cities during the Industrial Revolution, particularly after 1880, led to the creation of a variety of venues that were an extension of the British music hall and designed specifically for mass popular entertainment, thus marking the beginnings of American vaudeville. In the 1890s, the music publishing industry was transformed by the deliberate search for composers and lyricists to supply the new mass market. Tin Pan Alley, the collective name given to the New York music publishing district, was constantly searching for clever lyrics and great tunes and was willing to take on anyone who could write to meet a popular style. Together, vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley ushered in a new age of mass entertainment.
P. Mohyla Ukrainian Institute Drama Group, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, 1919. Ethnic drama troupes like this were common in Canada and the United States, helping to maintain ethnic identity and solidarity. (George E. Dragan Collection/National Archives of Canada)
Perhaps the most representative talent of the period was singing star Sophie Tucker, born to a Russian-Jewish woman in Poland in 1884. She came to the United States as an infant and grew up in Connecticut. At the age of 10, Tucker was singing in the family café. In the first decade of the new century, she was performing blackface, before joining the Ziegfeld Follies in 1909. Billed as the “Last of the Red-Hot Mamas,” she starred on Broadway and on film. As vaudeville faded in the 1930s, she continued to pack nightclubs and performed on radio and television. She was one of the first recording stars, when primitive Edison cylinders were being used, and produced albums into the 1950s. An even bigger star, Al Jolson was billed during the first half of the 20th century as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer.” Born Asa Yoelson in Lithuanian Russia in 1886, Jolson came to America with his Jewish family in 1894. Attracted to the latest ragtime craze, he became deeply immersed in American popular culture. He sang in the circus, performed on the comedy stage, developed a comedy act, and began to perform in blackface. He debuted on Broadway in 1911. Around 1918, he began writing lyrics. With The Jazz Singer in 1927, he helped usher in the era of talking films; in it, he sang “Blue Skies,” the tune of another Russian immigrant, Irving Berlin. Though the vaudevillian style was waning in the 1930s, Jolson made the transition to radio, became wildly popular entertaining U.S. troops, and continued to entertain until his death in 1950.
The entertainment industry enabled immigrants both to transcend their ethnic backgrounds and to help transform the perception of immigrants. Tucker was famous for her trademark song “My Yiddishe Momme.” Others, such as George M. Cohan and Chauncey Olcott, of Irish descent, did much to dispel stereotypes with songs like “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “You Can’t Deny You’re Irish,” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” America’s best-loved popular composer of the first half of the 20th century, Irving Berlin, was prolific, writing more than 900 songs for Tin Pan Alley, the vaudeville stage, film, and Broadway musicals. Born Israel Baline in czarist Russia in 1888, he composed dozens of classic American songs, including “God Bless America,” “White Christmas,” “Easter Parade,” and symbolically, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
From the early days of the film industry, immigrants found a niche for their talents and capital. Jews were among the first movie theater owners, and most of the early Hollywood studios were either started or controlled by Jewish immigrant businessmen, including Samuel Goldwyn (born in Poland), Harry Warner (born in Poland), and Carl Laemmle (born in Germany). Italian-born Frank Capra became one of America’s best-loved film directors, promoting mainstream American ideals in movies such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1947). Charlie Chaplin, born in England, was considered by many to be America’s great comic genius of the early 20th century. Elia Kazan, born Elia Kazanjoglou in Constantinople, directed some of the most culturally searching films and plays of the century, including On the Waterfront (1953) and East of Eden (1954).
In the 1950s and early 1960s, the entertainment industry was conscious of ethnicity and frequently embraced it. Cuban Desi Arnaz was integral to the success of the beloved I Love Lucy television program, and the music of crooners such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Dean Martin— the latter the son of an Italian barber—was freely laced with the sentiments of old Italy. As immigration became more global with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, improved transportation and communications opened the United States and Canada to international trends in entertainment, reinforcing areas already started by immigrants. Though Arnaz and others had helped popularize Cuban music in the 1950s, an interest in a wider world music began to develop, with explorations of the instruments and rhythms of India, Brazil, and Africa. The popular music of the British Invasion of the mid-1960s, spearheaded by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, was deeply rooted in American folk and ethnic music, especially blues and jazz, as well as songs from the old Tin Pan Alley tradition. Ironically, the segregationist mindset of the American entertainment industry was finally changed, in part, with the help of English and Irish musicians who enthusiastically embraced the music of black America and brought it back to the land of its roots.
From the 1970s, the entertainment industry in North America was internationalized by visitors from abroad and immigrants from within. Improvements in transportation and communication enabled filmmakers, actors, comedians, musicians, and other performers to tap the richest entertainment market in the world. The flood of immigrants from non-European countries following the relaxation of immigration restrictions during the 1960s and 1970s created new audiences for all forms of international entertainment. European, Indian, Iranian, Chinese, and Japanese filmmakers worked more frequently in the United States and began to have their films more widely viewed in North America. Non-English-language films were seldom unqualified commercial successes, but they developed dedicated followings, particularly in major urban centers, and were regularly reviewed by critics. Some directors, such as Taiwan’s Ang Lee, studied in the United States and stayed to do much of their work there. Lee’s master’s project, Fine Line, was full of immigrant themes, with an Italian man fleeing the Mafia and a Chinese woman hiding from immigration officials. Opportunities for classical musicians and dancers continued to attract many foreign artists to the large cultural centers of the United States, including New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The 1961 defection of Rudolph Nureyev, Russia’s leading dancer, on grounds of artistic freedom brought international attention to the cultural implications of the cold war.
A wide variety of world music forms were brought to North America, the “music capital” of the world, for sales and exposure. British groups remained the most popular non-American acts, as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, the Bee Gees, and others regularly toured the United States and Canada. Occasionally Australian (Men at Work, Kylie Minogue), Swedish (ABBA), Irish (U-2), and other European performers would enjoy popularity, but no other country consistently produced successful rock and pop music in North America as did Great Britain. Latin music, well known to jazz musicians before World War II (1939–45), became more broadly popular in the 1950s and 1960s, as hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees immigrated to the United States between 1957 and 1981 and Mexico emerged as the number-one source country for American immigration. With millions of North Americans whose first language was Spanish, a specialized Latino music scene developed, with various local forms. Tejano, for instance, combining country and Mexican traditions, became wildly popular among Chicanos in the Southwest, before Texas singer Selena took it into the mainstream with hits in the 1990s. Gloria Estefan, born in Havana, had previously done the same for Cuban salsa, taking her band, the Miami Sound Machine, from Spanish-language dance clubs to the top of the U.S. pop charts in the late 1980s. During the 1970s and 1980s, Spain’s Julio Iglesias became the leading Latin singer in the world and hugely successful in North America. A new generation of Latino artists continued to successfully fuse Latin and pop idioms into the 21st century, including Ricky Martin (Puerto Rican), Enrique Iglesias (Spanish, Julio’s son), and Shakira (Colombian-Lebanese), among others, Some immigrants, such as Carlos Santana, entered the rock mainstream directly. Santana had his own blues-rock band in the 1960s and 1970s, then reemerged in the 1990s to play with a host of new stars.
Not all world music was equally popular. The Indian sitar music of Ravi Shankar became fashionably stylish in the 1960s and 1970s without being commercially successful. The francophone musical tradition in Canada remained highly regionalized, with the exception of the phenomenal crossover appeal of Celine Dion in the 1990s. Reggae, on the other hand, brought from Jamaica and popularized by Bob Marley, was embraced by North American audiences to become part of the musical mainstream. In 2002, Sean Paul’s dancehall reggae united reggae and modern hip hop, whose raps were influenced by the ska and rock-steady precursors to reggae in the 1960s. African musicians became popular in the 1990s when Paul Simon featured a South African backup band, and the Dave Matthews Band of South Africa became one of the most popular acts of the decade. Most often, however, these innovators were only temporary migrants in the United States and Canada, recording music in New York City; Chicago, Illinois; Muscle Shoals, Alabama; or Nashville, Tennessee, or touring to promote their work.
Some entertainers, however, stayed to become permanent residents or citizens, preferring to be close to their biggest market or seeking to evade political turmoil or the high tax rates common in Europe. The Russian classical composer Igor Stravinsky moved to the United States in order to teach at Harvard for one year but ended settling in West Hollywood and becoming a citizen in 1945. Britishborn John Lennon of Beatles fame waged a long battle with the U.S. government in order to win his green card in 1973. Many stage and film stars, including Ingrid Bergman (Sweden), Richard Burton (Wales), and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Austria) came to work in the United States, then chose to remain.
See also sports and immigration.