Antonio “Tony” Pastor was born May 28, 1837 in New York City.
His father was a Spanish immigrant who supported the family as a barber and part-time musician.
Tony embarked on a show business career at a very young age, obtaining a job singing at P.T. Barnum’s Scudder’s American Museum. He also worked in minstrel shows, the circus business, and as a comic singer in variety revues.
Tony then established himself as a popular songwriter during a four-year run at Robert Butler’s American Music Hall, a variety theater located at 444 Broadway in what is now called Soho but was then the heart of the lower Manhattan theater district.
Tony Pastor soon began publishing “songsters”, books of his lyrics which were sung to popular tunes.
His music had no notation, as it was assumed that the audience had a collective knowledge of popular song. The subject matter of this music was intended to be bawdy and humorous.
Though Tony was popular with the nearly all-male variety theater audiences, he knew that his ticket sales would double if he attracted a female audience. Soon he began to produce variety shows, presenting an evening of clean fun that was a distinct alternative to the bawdy shows of the time and more appropriate for middle-class families. Tony was the first to stop the sale of liquor during performances and he kicked prostitutes out of the balconies, thereby legitimizing family entertainment.
In 1865, he opened Tony Pastor’s Opera House on the Bowery in partnership with minstrel showperformer, Sam Sharpley, whom he later bought out.
The same year, Tony organized traveling minstrel troupes who toured the country annually between April and October.. With shows that appealed to women and children as well as the traditional male audience, his theater and touring companies quickly became popular with the middle classes and were soon being imitated.
Then in 1874, Tony moved his company a few blocks to take over Michael Bennett Leavitt’s former theater at 585 Broadway. The theater district was moving uptown to Union Square, however, and in 1881 Pastor took a lease on the former Germania Theatre on 14th Street in the same building that housed Tammany Hall.
Tony began to alternate his theater’s presentations between operettas and family-oriented variety shows, creating what became known as vaudeville.
Years later in the musical Hello, Dolly!, the song “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” includes the line, “We’ll join the Astors at Tony Pastor’s.”
Tony Pastor died in Elmhurst, New York on August 26, 1908 and was interred in the Cemetery of the Evergreens, in Brooklyn.
Tony Pastor was referred to as the “Father of Vaudeville”. The strongest elements of his entertainments were an almost jingoistic brand of United States patriotism and a strong commitment to attracting a mixed-gender audience, the latter being something revolutionary in the male-oriented variety halls of the mid-century.
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