Tony Pastor (April 26, 1833-August 26, 1908) was known as the Father of Vaudeville for his contributions as a performer and manager of variety entertainment. Pastor began his career as a circus clown, later shifting to comic singer on stage, and finally to manager and entrepreneur. As an entertainer, Pastor was known for his large repertoire of songs, many of which he wrote himself, and his ability to connect with the audience. As a manager, Pastor was known for bringing vaudeville to the forefront of mainstream entertainment, his business prowess, and his congenial and loyal relationships with the performers he managed. Pastor owned several theaters, with his most famous being the Tammany Hall Theater in Union Square that operated from 1881 until his death in 1908.
Pastor was born on April 26th, 1833 in New York City to parents Antony Pastor and Cornelia Pastor (nee Buckley). Various dates for his birth and early career events are reported based on conflicting records from Pastor himself, but the most recent scholarship points to an earlier birth year of 1833 as opposed to the oft cited 1837. Pastor’s father, Antony, was born Antonio Pastor in Seville, Spain and immigrated to New York at the age of 23. He and Buckley were married in 1826. The couple had six children between 1828 and 1842. Tony was the third child. The Pastors began with a comfortable lifestyle with Antony Sr. working as a barber, but a growing family, a cholera epidemic, and the Panic of 1837 and its following economic depression made Antony’s business difficult to sustain. Antony abandoned his business as a barber and became a fruit seller to support the family. Due to their economic plight, the couple apprenticed the two youngest sons to a family member, John Nathans. Nathans was a famous equestrian associated with the circus and the two youngest Pastor boys followed suit. With favorable feedback on the experience from his brothers, Tony followed suit and became Nathan’s apprentice in 1847 at the age of 14. After Tony left for the circus, records of his father disappeared and his mother undertook a disreputable position as a saloon operator to support the remaining members of the family.
Pastor’s personal life was largely out of the public’s eye, leaving few records of his family life. Pastor’s first wife, Anna, died in 1866 at the age of 28 from consumption. Several years later, Pastor met his soon-to-be wife, Josephine Foley, when he was touring in early 1874 and they were married on December 23, 1874. After an illustrious entertainment career, Pastor died in his sleep at the age of 75. Pastor’s second wife was buried at the family plot in 1923.
Pastor claims to have been working in entertainment as young as age 10, such as at Barnum’s American Museum in New York. However, some of these accounts are conflicting and may have been exaggerated. When Pastor became Nathans’ apprentice in 1847, the record becomes clearer. Pastor’s brothers continued their apprenticeships to become circus equestrians and, while Pastor began along the same training, he changed career courses towards being a clown and ringmaster. He excelled at acrobatics, singing, and writing comic songs. Pastor spent twelve years with multiple circuses and traveled the country as a well-known ringmaster and clown.
Eventually, Pastor tired of the circus life and called on Nathans again to help him transition to stage entertainment. Tony then moved to the stage, performing first in Philadelphia and then in New York. He became a very well-known singer, including comedic and sentimental songs, many of which he had written himself. He also integrated patriotic songs into his repertoire, beginning with the night he performed “The Star Spangled Banner” on the eve of the Civil War in 1861. The songs dealt with social issues, political issues, and romance. Some of these songs were published in popular songbooks and sold to the public, like his Great Sensation Songster, that featured songs about the Civil War.
Pastor was a long-time performer at the well-known 444 Broadway Theater, or Butler’s American Theater, owned by Robert Butler. Here, he rose in fame and learned the tricks of the trade, especially how to select promising acts. Many of Pastor’s business choices were modeled after Butler’s management: changing the acts often to encourage weekly visits, inexpensive admission, and encouraging women and children to attend the theater.
After several years on the stage and rising through the ranks of stardom, Pastor decided to begin his own performing troupe. In 1865, he and his partner, Sam Sharpley, began by touring with a troupe and advertising the company before leasing a theater. A few months later, they signed the lease at 201 Bowery and later that year bought the property. This theater, called Tony Pastor’s Opera House, was described as a “family resort” that catered to repeat customers and clean entertainment for all. This small theater had evening and matinee shows that would show at least three hours of variety acts to satisfy customers. Pastor’s business model was successful and Tony’s Opera House flourished. Pastor’s Opera House was a true variety venue, featuring dancers, musicians, singers, comedians, gymnasts, and novelty acts of all kinds, but always maintained a family friendly atmosphere.
Tony continued to manage the Opera House and several travelling variety companies. In 1875, he moved from the Opera House and became manager of another theater at 585 Broadway, called Tony Pastor’s, or simply 585. This venture was lucrative as variety entertainment continued to become more acceptable and the theater business expanded. 585 was often referred to as a “House of Stars” since so many entertainers began successful careers at Pastor’s theater. At this theater, Pastor coined the term “vaudeville” to describe his variety theater.,
In 1881, Pastor moved to the fashionable Union Square area and opened a theater in Tammany Hall on 14th Street. At this point, Pastor was the leading variety manager in New York City. The 1880’s were the golden age of his managerial career. His Tammany Hall Theater, known as Pastor’s, was open from 1881 until his death in 1908. This theater introduced many theater legends, including Lillian Russell, Edward Harrigan, and May Irwin.
Pastor sang in his theater every evening until his health declined with old age. He took the stage for the final time on his 43rd anniversary as a theater manager on March 23, 1908. His business declined in his last few years, as the neighborhood changed, competition from larger variety organizations, and new forms of entertainment such as moving image projects caused a decline in attendance. While his financial holdings at his death were not substantial, his influence on the industry and creation of vaudeville make him an entertainment legend.
Contributions to Entertainment
In addition to being a renowned singer and performer, Tony Pastor’s career as a theater manager was unparalleled in success and longevity. He changed the reputation of variety theater from a lower-class, bawdy form of entertainment into a respectable, wholesome show. He coined the term vaudeville and selected many of the most famous and influential stars of the day. His loyalty to the performers he managed was one of his defining characteristics; he was quoted defending his orchestra: “I knew they were terrible…. But they’re my boys and they can die here.” His popular theater venues provided entertainment to the masses and shaped an era of entertainment.
Abel, Richard. 2005. Encyclopedia of Early Cinema. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.
Bean, Annemarie. 2010. "Pastor, Tony." In The Oxford Companion to Theater and Performance, edited by Dennis Kennedy: Oxford University Press.
Fields, Armond. 2007. Tony Pastor, Father of Vaudeville. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland.
Marks, Edward. 1934. They all Sang: From Tony Pastor to Rudy Vallée. New York: Viking Press.
Pastor, Tony. 1863. Tony Pastor's Great Sensation Songbook. New York: Dick and Fitzgerald.
Zellers, Parker. 1971. Tony Pastor: Dean of the Vaudeville Stage. Ypsilanti: Eastern Michigan University Press.
Abel, Richard, Encyclopedia of Early Cinema (Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge, 2005), 673.
Fields, Armond, Tony Pastor, Father of Vaudeville, (Jefferson, N.C, McFarland, 2007), 1-2.
Zellers, Parker, Tony Pastor: Dean of the Vaudeville Stage, (Ypsilanti, Eastern Michigan University Press, 1971).
Fields, Tony Pastor, Father of Vaudeville, 3-10.
Ibid., 39, 52.
Ibid., 80, 195.
Bean, Annemarie, Pastor, Tony in The Oxford Companion to Theater and Performance, (Online, Oxford University Press, 2010).
Fields, Tony Pastor, Father of Vaudeville, 3-10.
Bean, Pastor, Tony.
Pastor, Tony, Tony Pastor's Great Sensation Songbook, (New York, Dick and Fitzgerald, 1863).
Fields, Tony Pastor, Father of Vaudeville, 29-40.
Abel, Encyclopedia of Early Cinema, 673.
Fields, Tony Pastor, Father of Vaudeville, 59.
Zellers, Tony Pastor: Dean of the Vaudeville Stage, 61.
Fields, Tony Pastor, Father of Vaudeville, 83
Marks, Edward, They all Sang: From Tony Pastor to Rudy Vallée, (New York, Viking Press, 1934), 12.
Zellers, Tony Pastor: Dean of the Vaudeville Stage, 67.
Fields, Tony Pastor, Father of Vaudeville, 1.
Zellers, Tony Pastor: Dean of the Vaudeville Stage, 99-112.
Marks, They all Sang: From Tony Pastor to Rudy Vallée, 135.