A DEFINITION OF BURLESQUE:
BY BEN URISH

Burlesque

What is recognized as American burlesque theater had come into being in the first third of the nineteenth century. However, it was not until 1866 that a popular stage parody, The Black Crook and an all female revue show, Lydia Thompson and Her British Blondes, both began touring the United States in the growing burlesque arena. Their popularity paved the way for the formation of the theatrical form which came to be known as "classical American burlesque."

Burlesque touring companies soon formed, fusing the elements of the earlier hit shows: broad comedy and attractive women. Star comic performers in often ribald parodies of classical works and female chorus lines became a staple. Audiences could count on conventions being mocked and authority being ridiculed. Over time, a basic revue format developed and certain skits became standard.

There was cross pollination between vaudeville and burlesque, each serving as a training ground for the other. Many comics, singers, and dancers rose through the ranks of both entertainment forms. Vaudeville booking agents began to solidify their power and attempted to "clean-up" vaudeville at the turn of the century, while burlesque retained and even enhanced its raucous reputation. The White Rats, a vaudeville performers union, called a series of strikes in 1916-1917, and eventually lost. Many strikers were blacklisted by vaudeville bookers and theater owners, and found haven in burlesque.

This helped to precipitate the next age of burlesque which began in the twenties and extended until the end of World War II. It is this latter age that most think of when the term "burlesque" is mentioned, because this period marked the first generation of striptease performers.
Burlesque folklore relates several stories pertaining to the birth of modern striptease, most tracing it to an occurrence involving a vigorous shimmy dance by Hinda Wasseau who incorporated her accidental disrobing into future performances. Regardless of how the modern striptease started, it became a burlesque fixture by 1930.

Nudity on stage though, was nothing new. Many burlesque shows and uptown revues featured "living statues" and tableaus which featured the unclothed, usually female, form but movement was prohibited. Such shows had begun in New York in 1847. The Ziegfeld Follies, really just a burlesque-based revue show, highlighted such tableaus.

One of the most publicized events of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 was the sensational dance by a woman billed as Little Egypt. Such "exotic" dancing became the rage and during the next decade was eventually incorporated into burlesque. The 1920's saw a new type of exotic dancing, the most famous examples being Sally Rand's Bubble and Fan dances.

Scantily clad dancers had also been featured since the start of burlesque's first golden age, but usually in a formalized chorus setting. Olios (specialty numbers, often performed in front of the curtain while scenery is changed) also featured star female singers and dancers. Each of these elements coalesced into the striptease. Striptease individualized it (individualism being a strong cultural trait of America), and added a more explicit level of provocation (tease caused by process of strip). In time, the specialty (olio) dancers, who had been subordinate to the comics and variety performers, became their equals. As the second world war ended and classical burlesque began its disintegration, the striptease performers gained preeminence.

Just as many stories are associated with the birth of striptease, many stories are associated with its decline. Burlesque in New York, the theatrical capital, was largely controlled by the Minsky Brothers. Stars of Minsky Burlesque could tour burlesque circuits throughout the country. Striptease performers, in order to comply with laws were not allowed to perform completely nude. Many wore G-strings, pasties, body-suits, or wraps and covers at the close of their performances. Wearing a wrap of some sort enabled to performer to "flash", or maneuver the wrap to quickly expose that which was covered, and just a quickly recover the area. Performers had to refrain from both excessive flashing and flashing too slowly during a performance. The final banning of burlesque in New York City in 1942 is traced to performers who flashed too often and too long, particularly Margie Hart. With New York burlesque a thing of the past, burlesque as a theatrical form began a slow death.

At the same time, live theater itself as a popular entertainment form was on the decline due to the double punch of radio and motion pictures. With the pinnacle of the theatrical world, New York City, removed from burlesque's grasp, the top comics began to abandon burlesque for revue shows and nightclubs. This only increased burlesque's reliance on striptease to secure an audience. As television took hold during the fifties, burlesque all but vanished, with only a handful of nightclubs carrying burlesque-style reviews. The ensuing decades would see burlesque return as nostalgia, either cleaned up for television or presented as regional theater and Broadway shows.

Sources

Allen, Robert C. Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque And American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1991.
Corio, Ann with Joseph DiMona. This Was Burlesque. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1968.
Lee, Gypsy Rose. Gypsy: A Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986 (1957).
Minsky, Morton and Milt Machlin. Minsky's Burlesque. New York: Arbor House, 1986.
Sobel, Bernard. Burleycue: An Underground History of Burlesque Days. New York: Farrar and Rhinehart, 1931.
Sobel, Bernard. A Pictorial History of Burlesque. New York: Bonanza, 1956.
Ziegfeld, Richard and Paulette.The Ziegfeld Touch: The Life and Times of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. New York: Henry N. Abrams, 1993

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