Most people think that “burlesque” means female dancers taking all their clothes off in public and shaking their tassels about a bit to funky songs. But be quite honest, that only really covers the most recent burly years!
At its best, burlesque was a rich source of music and comedy that kept American audiences laughing from 1840 through the 1960s. Of course, burlesque has always had a sexual side to it, but it was mainly applied to a large range of non-musicals and and comic plays.
Burlesque was started in the 1840’s, and was primarily aimed at the lower and middle classes, making fun of (or “burlesquing”) the plays, operas 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 acting 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
About to embark into a new decade, burlesque is still going as strong as ever. If you are lucky enough to live in the UK, there are many fabulous shows to go to! The Slippery Belle in Leeds; Roxy’s Rendevous in Southampton; Burlesk! in Old Hastings Town, East Sussex; HMS Pin-Up in Portsmouth, and far too many to mention in London and Scotland!