A Brief History of Burlesque
This is a photograph of a burlesque house in South State Sreet, Chicago, dating back to July 1941. (Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)
Burlesque started as the lower class portion of the standard Vaudeville variety act. It was at first a bawdy theatrical experience making fun of Shakespearean plays, operas, politics and humorous theater in general; nothing was serious about the act itself. Then in the 1860s, The Black Crook debuted and caused a sensation because of the outrageous nature and exposure of the showgirls' legs. This was in addition to other performers entering the scene such as Lydia Thompson showing off her legs in burlesques such as "Ixion" and "Evangaline". Opinion of burlesque came in the form of activism on both ends of the spectrum, government interference and the written journals. A source found at the Library of Congress American Memory website is Richard White Grant's The Age of Burlesque from Volume 8, Issue 2, of periodical The Galaxy dated August 1869 when burlesque was changing to more comical operas, and scantily clad women, as judged by the day. White's point of view however, is negative and positive with scathing remarks about the early burlesques and their destruction of theater, but finds charm in Lydia Thompson on stage. The following is a quote from page two hundred and sixty of The Galaxy:
"This gayety of heart and overrunning glee, Miss Thompson shows even to a
Adah Isaacs Menken's act started with her portaryal of "Mazeppa", a play based on a Lord Byron poem where the nobleman Mazeppa falls in love with a woman engaged to a count. Mazeppa and the count to a duel; upon his victory he only requests that he's protected on his journey to the count's castle. Instead of following Mazeppa's request the count has him bound to the back of a horse nude, leaving the animals in forest to find the victim. In the end, however, Mazeppa gets the girl. This play was controversial because of the nude scene and a real person was never used. Menken chose to be a part of the group that braved the scene herself, but wasn't naked, instead she wore a body stocking so that it was hard to distinguish if she really was baring all on stage. The first performance was in Albany, New York; then in New York City. "Mazeppa" was a successful show, running for eight months, but the real success in Menken was that it was pure self- promotion. She wasn't showing off her legs as a part of a sensual act, but was using them to exhibit bawdy humor and elements of genuine theater. Menken was known to say "I am an artist"(Shtier, 26); while she crossdressed and played only male roles, but not always by choice. Her life off- stage sparked rumors all because she smoked on the sidewalk and wore red lipstick, so more feminine roles were off limits (Shteir, 25). Other descriptions of "The Menken" as she would later be known were said by her friend and press agent Ed James. While editor of the theatrical newspaper the The Daily Clipper he described her appetite as follows:
"with the gusto of a working man." James continues by stating that "Before the theater, she devoured "a dish of raw clams, a thick soup of chicken, a hearty steak and a deep dish pie, and a compote of fruits." "She followed her performance with three portions of Charlie Ptaff's New Orlean's stew, which contained prawns, oyesters, and vegetables, and after that, a "slab" of roast beef ""Her gluttony was implied 'mascualinity ," and the contrast with her voluptuous body swept audiences in"(Shtier, 25).
The Black Crook
The Black Crook really set the stage for the changing attitude towards burlesque. It was an over the top ballet about two lovers in a medieval village named Rudolph and Anima. The character of Count Wolfenstein takes Anima as his bride and it's up to Rudolph to gather the money to try and save her. The remainder of the story is the part that caused shock in the 1860's. The ballet troupe exhibit their legs as part of the entertainment, but the story contuinues with Rudolph enlisting the help of the wizard of sorts named Stalacta. It's a happy ending and the couple is reunited. Reviews of "The Black Crook" had high praise from critics. The New York Tribune said the following after stating that it was "rubbish""Scenic art has never, within our knowledge, been so amply and splendidly exemplified" (Allen, 110). The dancers were the real stars of the burlesque and were even written about by critics as well. One of the main dancers Marie Bonifanti had such an impact that there was a poem written up in the Clipper.It goes as follows:
"O, who could be better,
Than Marie Bonifanti?
Tho'her clothing is scanty,
She's the card to a letter
For any establishment.
Ah, who could withstand her
Light foot and white hand, her
Every soft blandishment?
If we were to marry,
No longer we'd tarry,
We'd take such a fairy
As you, charming Marie;
For, being perfection,
You must have affection,
And your salary is sufficient to run a fashionable retaurant every week. "
The Tribune added to the coments by stating, "large number of female legs"(Allen, 111). The dancers were so controversial because the tight fitting pantaloons stoppped in the middle of the thigh. There was a sleeveless bodice, which made sense in these conservative days when the Times reviewer said "no clothes to speak of'" (Allen,112).
This was the beginning of the expansion of different types of theater in America.Then Four British Blondes troupe came to America and even great literary figures of the time had a strong opinion about this new theatrical development.
As its stated in Striptease the Untold Story of the Girlie Show, Mark Twain wrote,
"The scenery and legs are everything. Girls- nothing but a wilderness of girls, stacked up , pile on pile, away aloft to the dome of the theater, dressed with a meagerness that would make a parasol blush",
this eagerness and enthusiasm towards more revealing theater indicated the sensibilities of the age, the performers themselves obviously disagreed.
Fame and Burlesque of the 20th Century
"Dance, then, whether represented in the innumeraable paintings of frolicking maidens or in performance, could be seen as authorized expression of feminine sexuality "
The quotation is added to when the following is said by Ellis from a writing of Bram Dijkstra's, another critic of burlesque during this time:
"turn- of- the -century men adored the stage spectacle of a woman who lapsed into self- induced fits of orgiastic transport - and all in the name of art [or ethnology]. What could be more intriguing than to watch a woman, safely isolated from the audience, revert publicly to the 'savage' source of her being"
To Be Famous, or Not To Be Famous
The Minsky brothers started their careers in the theater through a series of burlesque houses in the 1920's and 30's. The greatest difference between the Minsky brothers and the other burlesque producers was that they took off and were able to join the ranks of Broadway. Their efforts to make burlesque more classy, more like a show on Broadway. The theaters were elegant, but the entertainment was still just as reminiscent of vaudeville variety acts as ever. It was a distinctinctive mixture of sex appeal in burlesque, humor in the other acts and sophistication in the venue.
The shimmy and the striptease became a trademark of burlesque after Billy Minsky incorporated them in his productions, these were scenes of everyday life, but with beautiful women stripping. The decade of the 1920s brought the first real strippers and teasers to the stage and out of that came important figures such as Gypsy Rose Lee in 1929, extending into the thirties with Sally Rand's debated stolen fan dance and Mae West's overt attitude about her body, sex and society . Films from the 1920s, such as the 1929 picture Applause , gave way to the negative attitudes towards burlesque dancers, which extended all the way into the 1940s films like Dollface in 1945. The biggest exception were the films, plays and books written by Mae West and Gypsy, two cultural icons of the age that would endure the test of time.
The twenties and thirties, however, did bring some variety to burlesque:there were all black, Latin and Chinese clubs that became popularized. The only issue was that there often wasn't much integration within the circles of ethnicities.
Off With Your Clothes, and Off To Court the 1940's Onward
Burlesque was thought of in the 1940's as a poor career choice, a demeaning profession for the performer and a questionable form of entertainmnt for the audience to partake in. This was not just because of burlesque's bad reputation over the course of history, but also from the local law enforcement agencies in the areas where women performed. In 1942, Paul Moss the commissioner in charge of licenses in New York City forced the burlesque theaters to close; in response to this action the owners of the Gaiety Theater sued Moss. The end results were a Supreme Court trial where the judge ruled in favor of the state. Trials like this weren't uncommon, nor were trials over anti-obscenity laws concerning burlesque dancers that the government deemed too revealing.
The Gaiety Theater in New York City was closed down by Paul Moss. The defenders saw their reactions to burlesque as something controllable, the activist groups, some working for up to ten years on the theaters saw otherwise. Vaudeville was a safe form of theater with more comedians, and family friendly acts, but they were becoming increasingly focused on the female form and to reformers and the government that’s what was ruining the moral fiber of America. Striptease in a burlesque theater as of the 1930's was a female performer singing a song, enticing the audience by removing a strap or undoing a button, then going backstage, only to come out with one less article of clothing. Then there was another type where there might not be singing and the undressing occurred onstage. At this time, even if a woman seemed nude, she really wasn’t. The demand for censorship was clear in the 1933 bestseller, Our Movie-Made Children, gave proof to the dissenters of burlesque that the culture of today was ruining the future. Which was entwined with the underlying factor of the men who waited in line to see burlesque shows.
Changing Times and Burlesque