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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.
Under dressed 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.