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)


1860's Burlesque

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
greater degree in Sinbad than in its predecessor. What an overflow of mirth
and humor breaks from her when she takes the auctioneers stand, at the wife-
market, to set forth her own qualifications as a Girl of the Period ! With
what a radiant outbreak of fun does she announce we are aware of our own
awarishness ! and how thoroughly she seems to enjoy that queer word thunk,
which the author has given her for I/iou gut / I must confess, with proper con-
trition, that I liked her performance in this part better than much high tragedy that
I have seen better,"

"The Menken"

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. "

(Allen 110-111).

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
The advent of the 20th century brought early forms of modern Broadway musicals. Undressing acts were now considered somewhat a form of real entertainment. The Ziegfeld Follies were following the law when they made their debut at the turn of the century. A New York City law stated that one could undress as long as one was standing still (Striptease the Untold Story of the Girlie Show, 51). Burlesque on Broadway the way the follies did it was seen as a joke, fun, still something to find humor in. Their opposites were cootch acts that stayed in smaller vaudeville and Burlesque theaters (56). "Cooch acts" were essentially belly dancing; a multiculutral aspect of burlesque that was first demonstrated at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This was a more wordly act that was met with interest and curiousity. In 1894 Havelock Ellis wrote this in reaction to "cootch acts in Man and Woman:

"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"

(Allen, 229).

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.

Burlesque during wartime was difficult for the newer strippers of the day. There were fewer opportunities for them to work because it was becoming less of a legitimized choice according to society. There were Gypsy Rose Lee literary copies, where there was recitation of a poem, joke, or references to cultural facts on art and literature in an intelligent, sexy and funny way. However, slowly as the United States entered in World War II, burlesque started to lose the comedy and sophistication that it once possessed only a decade or two before. It was more about sex,and clubs were closed down more often. Girls entering the world of burlesque now couldn't go on Broadway or move to Hollywood, because there was a sharper divide. Burlesque didn't transform much from its state in the 1930’s, but new dances and dancers were coming out of the woodwork as the years went on.

Changing Times and Burlesque
As burlesque entered the fifties and sixties, the fun and frivolity of burlesque was still around, along with the striptease aspect. Family, however, became the center of concern as it had always been; when it came to burlesque. Acts such as Sally Rand, Gypsy Rose Lee, and others were competing with more tawdry forms. The Ziegfeld Follies were still around but they too had changed with the times. Bettie Page was one of these girls becoming known through her work in S&M films and pictures. Soon enough, in order to be a successful burlesque dancer, by this time there needed something special to your act in order to become renowned or earn a living. Burlesque became more of a striptease in the 1960s, but it was still fun a flirty; gradually clubs started to close down again, and film took over for that part of the entertainment industry. A last attempt was made in This was Burlesque which had a long run on Broadway, but it wasn't the same; the fate of the play
Gypsy on Broadway was dealt the same hand, but made into a movie in 1962. As of 1969 the last vestiges of burlesque, at this point burlesque closed down after much legal and social objection throughout the decades, and more seedy theaters opened in their place over time.