Linking your favorite traveling artists across the globe
Lydia Thompson, the audacious British showgirl who's troupe of blonde beauties made burlesque a sensation in America.
Most people think that "burlesque" means female strippers walking a runway to a bump and grind beat. But that only fits the form in its declining years. At its best, burlesque was a rich source of music and comedy that kept America, audiences laughing from 1840 through the 1960s.
Some sources try to wrap burlesque in a mantle of pseudo-intellectual respectability. Yes, it involved transgressive comedy and songs, but the primary attraction of burlesque was sex . . in the form of ribald humor and immodestly dressed women. Although many dismissed burlesque as the tail-end of show business, its influence reaches through the development of popular entertainment into the present.
Without question, however, burlesque's principal legacy as a cultural form was its establishment of patterns of gender representation that forever changed the role of the woman on the American stage and later influenced her role on the screen. . . The very sight of a female body not covered by the accepted costume of bourgeois respectability forcefully if playfully called attention to the entire question of the "place" of woman in American society.
- Robert G. Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (Univ. of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1991), pp. 258-259.
In the 19th Century, the term "burlesque" was applied to a wide range of comic plays, including non-musicals. Beginning in the 1840s, these works entertained the lower and middle classes in Great Britain and the United States by making fun of (or "burlesquing") the operas, plays and social habits of the upper classes. These shows used comedy and music to challenge the established way of looking at things. Everything from Shakespearean drama to the craze for Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind could inspire a full-length burlesque spoof. On Broadway, the burlesque productions of actor managers William Mitchell, John Brougham and Laura Keene were among Broadway's most popular hits of the mid-19th Century.
By the 1860s, British burlesque relied on the display of shapely, underdressed women to keep audiences interested. In the Victorian age, when proper women went to great lengths to hide their physical form beneath bustles, hoops and frills, the idea of young ladies appearing onstage in tights was a powerful challenge.
Suggestive rather than bawdy, these shows relied less on strong scripts or songs than on sheer star power. When Broadway's The Black Crook became a massive hit in 1866, its troop of ballerinas in flesh-colored tights served notice that respectable American audiences were ready to fork over big bucks for sexually stimulating entertainment. All it took was a daring producer to take things to the next level.
The original program to Ixion, Broadway's first burlesque hit.
In the late 1860s, Lydia Thompson's British burlesque troupe became New York's biggest theatrical sensation. Their first hit was Ixion (1868), a mythological spoof that had women in revealing tights playing men's roles. In the Victorian age, when proper women went to great lengths to hide their physical form beneath bustles, hoops and frills, the idea of young ladies appearing onstage in tights was a powerful challenge.
Underdressed women playing sexual aggressors, combining good looks with impertinent comedy – in a production written and managed by a woman? Unthinkable! No wonder men and adventurous wives turned out in droves, making Thompson and her "British blondes" the hottest thing in American show business. Demand for tickets was such that Ixion soon moved to Broadway's most prestigious musical house, Niblo's Garden – the same theatre where The Black Crook had triumphed two years earlier. All told, Thompson's first New York season grossed over $370,000.
Thompson and her imitators did not bother with such mundane matters as hiring composers. Instead, they used melodies from operatic arias and popular songs of the day, incorporating them into the action for comic or sentimental effect. To prevent unauthorized productions, the scripts from these early burlesques were not published. In fact, the material changed so often (sometimes from week to week) that a written script would serve little purpose. We can only guess at the exact content and staging of these shows, but it is clear that audiences were delighted.
At first, the American press praised burlesques, but turned vicious under pressure from influential do-gooders. But the cries of the self-righteous had an unintended effect. Editorials and sermons condemning burlesque as "indecent" only made the form more popular! Demand was such that copycat burlesque companies soon cropped up, many with female managers.
Mabel Saintley became America's first native-born burlesque star, leading "Mme. Rintz's Female Minstrels" from the 1880s onwards in a stylish burlesque of all-male troupes.
Burlesque left little to the imagination. The popular stage spectacle Ben Hur inspired "The High Rollers" troupe to produce Bend Her, with scantily clad chorines as Roman charioteers.
Any stage hit could become a target for humor. The popular melodrama Trilby was spoofed in 'Twill Be.
Americans began creating their own burlesques, and some proved extremely popular. Composer Edward E.Rice teamed with actor Henry Dixey to create Adonis (1874), the story of a statue that comes to life and is so disgusted by human folly that he finally chooses to turn back into stone. The show ran over 500 performances in New York and toured for years, making the handsome Dixey the top matinee idol of his time.
As male managers took over the form in the 1880s, feminine wit was gradually replaced by a determination to reveal as much of the feminine form as local laws allowed. But obscenity and vulgarity were avoided – the point was to spoof and (to a limited extent) titillate, not to offend.
Burlesque underwent a crucial change when Michael Leavitt produced burlesque variety shows using something similar to the three act minstrel show format –
ACT ONE: The ensemble entertains with songs and gags, dressed in formal evening clothes.
ACT TWO: An "olio" of variety acts (singers, comics, skits, etc.).
ACT THREE: A complete one-act musical burlesque. These ranged from Shakespearean take offs like Much Ado About a Merchant of Venice to a Gilbert and Sullivan spoof called The Mick Hair-Do.
By 1905, burlesque theatre owners formed vaudeville-style circuits of small, medium and big time theatres. Because big time burlesque companies played these theatres in regular rotations, the circuits came to be known as wheels -- the largest being the Columbia (Eastern U.S.), Mutual, and Empire (Western U.S.) wheels. Unlike vaudeville performers who sought weekly bookings as individual acts, burlesquers spent an entire forty week season touring as part of one complete troupe. For three decades, this system made burlesque a dependable source of steady work.
The biggest burlesque star of the early 20th Century was dancer Millie DeLeon, an attractive brunette who tossed her garters into the audience and occasionally neglected to wear tights. Such shenanigans got her arrested on occasion, and helped to give burlesque a raunchy reputation. Although vaudevillians looked down on burlesque performers, many a vaude trouper avoided bankruptcy by appearing in burlesque – usually under an assumed name, to avoid embarrassment.
Long before his "Cowardly Lion" days, Bert Lahr polished his comic skills in burlesque. Note the outlandish costume and exaggerated make-up, required attire for burlesque comics.
In time, burlesque bills began and ended with "burlettas," extended skits that made fun of hit shows and popular topics. In between came a variety olio where singers, comics, jugglers, magicians and specialty acts were all part of the mix. Herb Goldman points out in Fanny Brice: The Original Funny Girl (Oxford: NYC, 1992, p. 28-29) that burlesque – not vaudeville – was the real "break-in ground" where amateurs could prove if they had the talent and determination to survive in show business. By the time most performers reached vaudeville, they were already experienced pros.
While it was common for burlesque stars to graduate into vaudeville, vaudevillians considered it a fatal disgrace to appear in burlesque, insisting that only those who were "washed up" would stoop so low. However, many a vaudeville veteran hit the burlesque wheels during dry spells, appearing under an assumed name.
Burlesque's richest legacy was its comedy. The lead comic in a burlesque show was referred to as the "top banana," and his sidekicks were known as the second, third, etc. – supposedly because they would resort to slipping on banana peels in order to get a laugh. The lower you were in the "bunch," the more likely you were to suffer the worst of the physical humor (pies in the face, seltzer in the pants, etc.).
Some wondrous comedians learned their craft working the burlesque wheels, including future musical comedy stars Jackie Gleason, Fanny Brice, Leon Errol, Bert Lahr, W.C. Fields, Bobby Clark, Red Skelton, Phil Silvers, Joey Faye and Bob Hope . All used the same basic routines, but no two played them the same way.
From the 1880s onwards, burlesque comedy was built around settings and situations familiar to lower and working class audiences. Courtrooms, street corners and inner city schoolrooms were favorites, as were examining rooms ruled over by quack physicians. Sexual innuendo was always present, but the focus was on making fun of sex and what people were willing to do in the pursuit of it. Some examples –
(Injured Man crosses stage in assorted bandages and casts.)
Comic: What happened to you?
Injured Man: I was living the life of Riley.
Injured Man: Riley came home!
(A buxom Girl drops her purse, and a Comic tries to return it.)
Comic: I beg your pardon.
Girl: What are you begging for? You're old enough to ask for it.
(Minister walks up to a beautiful young woman.)
Minister: Do you believe in the hereafter?
Woman: Certainly, I do!
Minister: (Leering) Then you know what I'm here after.
Many burlesque routines spoofed social conventions and linguistic idiosyncrasies. The most famous was Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's glorious "Who's On First," which had fun with the sometimes confusing nicknames given to popular baseball players. It was the descendant of several earlier routines that involved two men exchanging an intricate series of misunderstood words.
Another popular bit was aimed at the convoluted names of nepotistic businesses and law firms –
Man at Desk: (picks up phone) Hello, Cohen, Cohen, Cohen and Cohen.
Caller: Let me speak to Mr. Cohen.
Man at Desk: He's dead these six years. We keep his name on the door out of respect.
Caller: Then let me speak to Mr. Cohen.
Man: He's on vacation.
Caller: (Exasperated) Well then, let me speak to Mr. Cohen.
Man: He's out to lunch.
Caller: (Yells) Then let me speak to Mr. Cohen!
Many routines showed the underdog getting the best of a confrontation. One skit involved a man pushing a baby carriage. The baby screams until the man takes a beer bottle and beats the unseen tyke into silence. Papa then proclaims, "That ought to show the little sucker," whereupon a stream of yellow liquid flies out of the carriage and hits him square in the face. Talk about justice!
Burlesque performers developed a unique backstage language of their own. Some examples found in H. M. Alexander's Strip Tease (Knight Publishers, NY, 1938, pp. 120-123) –
Jerk – audience member
Yock – a belly laugh
Skull – make a funny face
Talking woman – delivers lines in comedy skits
Cover – perform someone's scenes for them
The asbestos is down – the audience is ignoring the jokes
From hunger – a lousy performer
Mountaineer – a new comic, fresh from the Catskill resort circuit
Boston version – a cleaned-up routine
Blisters – a stripper's breasts
Cheeks – a stripper's backside
Gadget – a G-string
Trailer – the strut taken before a strip
Quiver – shake the bust
Shimmy – Shake the posterior
Bump – swing the hips forward
Grind – full circle swing of the pelvis
Milk it – get an audience to demand encores
Brush your teeth! - comedian's response to a Bronx cheer
"Somethin' Wrong With Strippin'?"
In the 1920s, the old burlesque circuits closed down, leaving individual theater owners to get by as best they could on their own. The strip tease was introduced as a desperate bid to offer something that vaudeville, film and radio could not.
There are a dozen or more popular legends as to how the strip was born – telling how a dancer's shoulder strap broke, or some similar nonsense. In fact, it had been around since Little Egypt introduced the "hootchie-kooch" at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and had always remained a mainstay of stag parties. Burlesque promoters like the Minsky brothers took the strip tease out of the back rooms and put it onstage. While stripping drew in hoards of randy men, it also gave burlesque a sleazy reputation. As moralists once again expressed outrage, male audiences kept burlesque profitable through most of the Great Depression.
Strippers had to walk a fine line between titillation and propriety – going too far (let alone "all the way") could land them in jail for corrupting public morals. Some gave stripping an artistic twist and graduated to general stardom, including fan dancer Sally Rand and former vaudevillian Rose Lousie Hovick – better known as the comically intellectual Gypsy Rose Lee.
The strippers soon dominated burlesque, and their routines became increasingly graphic. To avoid total nudity but still give the audience what it wanted, the ladies covered their groins with flimsy G-strings and used "pasties" to cover their nipples. This was usually enough to keep the cops at bay, even though pasties were far more vulgar that a plain naked breast.
Legal crackdowns began in the mid-1920s, including a now legendary raid on Minsky's in Manhattan. Burlesque managers relied on their lawyers, who kept coming up with legal loopholes for more than a decade. Reform-minded Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia closed New York's remaining burlesque houses in 1937, dismissing them as purveyors of "filth." He was not altogether wrong – by this time, most burlesque shows had degenerated into a series of bump and grind strip routines interrupted by lifeless comic bits. Burlesque managers were so resilient that LaGuardia outlawed the use of the words "burlesque" or "Minsky" in public advertising!
Some sources praise the burlesque comics of the 1920s and 30s, but by this point, men went to burlesque shows to watch women strip -- period. The more the gals took off, the more the audiences liked it. At a time when fear of personal scandal and sexual disease were rampant, burlesque was a relatively safe source of titillation for married men and youngsters alike. The comedy was no longer a key attraction.
Without New York City, which had been the hub of burlesque's universe, the remaining promoters around the US presented increasingly tacky strip shows. The best burlesque comics segued into radio, film and television, taking many classic routines with them.
By the 1960s, hard core pornography became readily available. Men no longer needed strippers to feed their fantasies. The few remaining burlesque shows were campy soft-porn, with even the strippers aiming for "yocks." An article in Esquire (July 1964) describes how Blaze Starr played her strip for laughs. After one of her breasts "accidentally" bounced out of her costume –
Blaze tripped to the microphone. Looking down at her exposed breast, she said, "What are you doing out there, you gorgeous thing?" Then she covered herself. "You got to tell them they're pretty," she said; "it makes them grow" . . . Then she flung herself on the couch and quickly stripped down to a transparent bra and black garter pants. She produced a power puff and asked rhetorically, "Who's going to powder my butt?"
Revivals: "Chorus Girls, Jugglers and a Sentimental Tune"
Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller in the Broadway revue Sugar Babies (1979).
Over the decades, several revues tried to revive the burlesque format – usually with a well-known stripper like Ann Corio heading the cast. Corio and others penned books about the genre, always giving inordinate attention to the strip tease. Many graduates of burlesque became familiar faces on television – and the likes of Red Skelton, Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason recycled many an old "burly" gag on their comedy telecasts. It took a tribute to the pre-stripper era to restore burlesque's fading reputation.
The Broadway hit Sugar Babies (1979 - 1,208 perfs) starred MGM veterans Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller. With mildly raunchy sketches, period songs and lovely chorus girls, this lavish show caught the comic spirit of 1930s burlesque's comic spirit while making it look classier than it had ever really been. The only striptease routine in the show ended when a chorus girl removed her brassiere – unleashing a floor-length evening gown! The key to the show's success was the comedy. During more than a decade of research, Professor Ralph G. Allen identified more than 1,800 basic burlesque comedy sketches that performers had "borrowed" and recycled for decades. These skits formed the basis for a college revue that eventually grew into Sugar Babies.
A burlesque comedian always plays the child of nature. He represents man stripped of moral pretense, lazy, selfish, frequently a victim, but never a pathetic one, because in nine bits out of ten, he blunders into some kind of dubious success . . . The jokes are classy or corny, depending on your point of view. But most of us love jokes we know. They reassure us, and therefore the earth does not yawn at our feet . . . If only we too could make the law an ass, or win five aces in a poker game, or receive an invitation from a lovely lady to meet her 'round the corner for unspecified delights.
- Dr. Ralph G. Allen, from the Sugar Babies souvenir program, 1980
Legacy: Burlesque Today?
While the "golden age of burlesque" is long gone, its legacy is very much alive. Every time a comedian does a "spit take" or tells a joke with a double-meaning, or whenever Saturday Night Live skewers politicians and movie stars, you are watching burlesque in action.
Big screen spoofs such as Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs, and the Austin Powers films are clearly carrying on the tradition of early burlesque -- making fun of well-known entertainments, social mores, etc. Shrek 2 (2004) is a superb example of the kind of comedy that Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes offered in the 1860s, getting in good natured jabs at a wide variety of comic targets while challenging audiences to look beyond appearances -- finding true beauty and bravery in unlikely characters.
The tawdrier burlesque tradition lives on too. Every time The Jerry Springer Show airs a digitally obscured set of bared female breasts, it is a classic burlesque tease -- and Springer audiences are eerily reminiscent of those who sought tacky thrills at bump and grind houses a few decades ago. All of these entertainments have their righteous critics, and all appeal to a nation-wide audience.
In the early 2000s, a spate of "new burlesque" shows are cropping up on both sides of the Atlantic, featuring comics, strippers and specialty acts that offer a new spin on the old "burly-q" mix. Is it too early to fully assess this trend, but the fact that such shows have spontaneously sprung up in places as diverse as Manhattan, Montreal and Oslo suggests there is a widespread interest crossing all sorts of physical and generational barriers.
Why? I would suggest that there is a natural human need for the bold comic challenge that burlesque poses to the social, cultural and sexual status quo. The word "burlesque" was seriously tarnished by the mid-20th Century, when it was linked to witless soft porn strip revues in seedy venues. Now, a new generation is open to re-evaluating both the word and the format, recognizing the spirit of spoofery that made burlesque a potent form of entertainment back in the 1860s. At the dawn of a new millennium, burlesque is still alive and giggling.
By the time vaudeville and burlesque were in full swing, Broadway was already home to several thriving forms of musical theatre.