Variety Arts #2: Burlesque

This post is one in a series that defines for the layman the various types of variety arts, and to relate some of my own interactions therewith, all in anticipation of my upcoming show Trav S.D.’s American Vaudeville Theatre 15th Anniversary ExTRAVaganza.

One of the questions I get asked most from readers and folks who attend my talks is “What’s the difference between Vaudeville and Burlesque?” The short answer is that Burlesque is Vaudeville’s “Evil Twin”. The two forms were hatched in the same place at the same time (19th century America) by largely the same people, but whereas Vaudeville presented many more diverse types of acts, which were for the most part “clean”, Burlesque focused on beautiful females who sang, danced, clowned (and in later years stripped), and broad, low-brow comedians. Sometimes the girls would incorporate vaudeville skills (magic, juggling, a musical instrument) into their routines as gimmicks, and the occasional act of another type would creep in (strong men, female impersonators, et al) but that is the general thrust of it (if you’ll pardon the expression).

“Burlesque” is one of those fuzzy words, as fuzzy as a feather boa. It’s really only the theatre historian or buff who cares about its many diverse definitions. But I assume you’re one of those, so I’ll share them with you in a minute.

First, let’s talk about what I assume most people mean and think of when they say “Burlesque”. The vision in my head: a cocktail bar or very small night club. A corny, slightly off-color comic is the host. There is a very small jazz band containing perhaps a piano or organ, a saxophone and a drum kit, playing something like the 1962 hit record “The Stripper”. The drummer works the tom-tom like crazy as a succession of girls in classy evening clothes “take it off”. (Gee, what a pleasant image. I wish I was there right now!) I think this is the classic Burlesque image, and it’s mostly I think what most contemporary neo-Burlesquers are trying to evoke in their work.

This snapshot is of the scene roughly as it existed from the World War II era through the 1960s. It’s the era represented by the remaining old timers in Leslie Zemeckis’s excellent film Behind the Burley Q. (“Burley Q” is of course what “Burlesque” sounds like when you pronounce it in its original langauge, French). This era died out in the late 1970s when more lenient laws (and enforcement thereof) allowed the smut industry and topless bars to overtake it. (By the 1970s, no one bothered stripping anymore. Men went into bars to find already topless women go-go dancing to records. This is the crack cocaine of the art form, but we’ll get to that).

Interestingly, this  faux “classic period” we speak of is actually the chapter that happens AFTER the period considered classic by serious showbiz historians and buffs. The actual classic burlesque era is the period that ended abruptly in 1938 when Mayor Fiorello Laguardia cracked down on New York’s Burlesque scene. In those days burlesque was always getting raided, but had achieved such a level of respectability by that point that two Broadway houses were Burlesque houses, and the Burlesque shows were so lavish they featured rows of chorus girls and entire pit orchestras. It’s the era of Gypsy Rose Lee, glimpsed accurately in the film Lady of Burlesque. (Interestingly, the musical Gypsy which is set during that time period of the 1920s, to me is more evocative of its OWN era, which was the late 1950s). It’s also the era of the Burlesque comedy sketches and its comedians like Abbott and Costello, Bert Lahr, Phil Silvers, Pinky Lee, Joey Faye and Rags Ragland.

While it’s easy to say when this period ends, it’s impossible to say where it begins. It came into being in stages.

One of its ancestors (in a lineage that has largely been disowned) is, believe it or not Aristophanes. This is why we have the odd phenomenon of this art form of half-naked dancing girls possessing a name that also means “parody, satire, travesty, spoof”. Aristophanes is the father of plays that poke fun at other plays (and also society). Long about the 18th century, the form became popular again (Fielding wrote some “burlesques” that I know of). In 1868, a play of this type called Ixion, which tweaked  Greek myths, came to the U.S., starring Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes. In this production apparently lay the germs of what we consider modern Burlesque. There is naturally no film record, so we must rely on the critics of the time who wrote disapprovingly of “free and suggestive manners”, “leering at the audience” and the like. The go-to guy on all things Lydia Thompson and Ixion is Albert Garzon, who’ll be my piano man on my upcoming vaudeville show in August. See his blog here.

But I must take a moment and say I’m rather partial to this Burlesque stepchild, which surfaces on stage and screen periodically. Notable purveyors included Weber and Fields (who devoted an entire Broadway theatre to it). More modern masters of the form have included Charles Ludlam and his Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and Mel Brooks. (I think of Blazing Saddles especially as an example of how both sides of Burlesque, the parodistic and the va-va-voom, can mesh). At any rate, my enthusiasm for this form is one of the reasons I call myself Trav S.D. (“travesty”) and I’ve done many such plays over the years myself.

But for the most part, this side of Burlesque dropped out in the very early 20th century. As we have seen, comedy remained very much a part of Burlesque, but it is more of the short blackout sketch variety with lots of eye-winking and double entendre.

Burlesque is about sex. Hence other immediate antecedents to Burlesque per se in the mid 19th century included, believe it or not, ballet (which shocked Victorians by presenting very simply clad, freely moving females), and the concert saloon, with its hordes of so-called waiter girls and can-can dancers, familiar to anyone who has ever watched a Western.

Around 1870, a man named M.B. Leavitt pioneered large scale organization and the creation of a burlesque industry, putting together lucrative tours of Burlesque shows. At the same time, the form was stealing its format from the then popular minstrel show, becoming now a variety show, instead of a musical play.

The last link in the chain: the introduction of the strip. This came about gradually, starting with the popularity of the hoochy cooch in the wake of Little Egypt’s demonstration at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It was natural for this beguiling dance style to wend its way into burlesque, although stripping all the way did not really happen until the 1920s — which is what prompted LaGuardia’s crackdown.

My little squib in this week’s Villager on the current burlesque scene can be found here. (Apologies to Jonny Porkpie for misspelling his name, and for somehow rendering “Pinchbottom” as “Punchbottom”.)  As I wrote it wearing my journalistic hat, I couldn’t write my own personal experience into the story, but as it’s relevant to the upcoming show, I do that here.

I first presented Burlesque in my American Vaudeville Theatre in 1997. For a movement that is putatively considered to have started in the mid 90s, this was very early indeed, and certainly scads earlier than almost everybody operating on the scene today. (Velvet Hammer Burlesque in LA, which really started the classical burlesque movement, was founded in 1995. Uta Hanna’s Blue Angel in NYC had started in 1993, but was really more allied with the contemporary pole dancing thing. I only went there once, saw that it was very much about getting lap dances in booths, and ran out with the speed of 10,000 Gilligans). Now, I know the Bindlestiffs got the idea before me, because I stole the idea — and the dancer — from them. It was Miss Bonnie Dunn, who now runs Le Scandal. Here’s a snatch of a 1998 performance she did for me at Surf Reality:

Bonnie, Dirty Martini (who I first presented in 2001), World Famous BOB (ditto), and Kate Valentine (ditto) and Murray Hill and another dozen or two are among the few who have any street cred with me in this field.  Each successive wave of newbies feel more like party crashers. I grant that I’m one of those party crashers, but I think I can boast that I am one of the first of the party crashers.)

My thing has always been vaudeville however. At most, it is my preference to have a single Burlesque dancer on a bill that contains several other variety acts of different types. HISTORICAL NOTE: By the way, an  excellent book called Blue Vaudeville: Sex, Morals and the Mass Marketing of Amusement, 1895-1915 by Andrew Erdman makes the excellent point that burlesque and burlesque like acts did make it into the supposedly sanitized vaudeville, Vaudeville was market-driven and the point was to have something for everybody. The key was in how you presented it.

At any rate, there was a period however in the late 90s and early oughts when my identification with Burlesque was a lot stronger: my 1999 Nada show was a collaboration with Miss Trixie and her chorus girls; in 2001, I co-produced an adaptation of the Ed Wood stag film Orgy of the Dead that featured World Famous BOB and others; produced a show at Coney Island USA’s Burlesque at the Beach that year; was profiled in an Adam Gopnick New Yorker piece  about New Burlesque that same year (see here: TravSDNew Yorker article0001); produced and hosted a series called Surf Burlesque in 2001; in 2002 produced Sea of Love in Soho Think Tank’s Ice Factory featuring choreography by Julie Atlas Muz, and burlesque mavens Kate Valentine (a.k.a Miss Astrid of the VaVa Voom Room), Bambi the Mermaid, et al as dancers; in 2004 hosted and booked Floating Vaudeville at Galapagos, which was 95%  burlesque; and presented a special burlesque show at the Brick Theater starring Dottie Lux et al in 2005. In recent years, I’ve picked up the thread again somewhat, producing a special burlesque show hosted by Cyndi Freeman (Cherry Pitts) at Theater for the New City in 2009, Jack the Ripper’s Holiday Spectacular at Bowery Poetry Club in 2010, featuring Foxxx Trot and the Bleedin’ Tarts; and my direction of Angie Pontani’s Burlesque-A-Pades at Soho Playhouse in 2012.

At any rate, lest ye doubt my devotion, I am constantly writing about Burlesque past and present on this very blog, in the “Babes and Burlesque” category. To check it out, go here.

To learn more about the various variety artsconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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