The Gaiety Theatre, managed by Izzie Herk during its burlesque heyday. If you squint, you can see that the top line on the marquee reads “Girlie Follies”. Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” playing next door dates the photo to 1940-41 just a few months before the Gaiety (and all of New York) ceased producing burlesque due to political pressure
Isadore H. “Izzie” Herk (1882-1944) was one of the principle managers who helped turn old-fashioned “Little Egypt” era burlesque into something modern burlesque-lovers might recognize. He was known variously as “Napoleon”, “the Henry Ford of Burlesque” and “one step above a gangster”.
Beginning his career as Treasurer of the Valentine Theatre in Toledo, he then moved his operation to Chicago, and to the Empire Burlesque circuit. In the late oughts he began to work for the Columbia wheel (the pre-eminent burlesque circuit in the country), eventually running their American Burlesque branch, a faux competitor set up in 1915 to play riskier shows, taking the heat off the mother company. In 1922 he became president of the newly founded Mutual Burlesque wheel, which provided still raunchier stripteases, bump and grind, and low-down jazz, even as Herk insisted to politicians and the press that his were “clean working class entertainments” — and many believed him. In 1942, he co-produced (with the Shuberts, which whom he had collaborated twenty years earlier on Shubert Advanced Vaudeville) a Broadway show called Wine, Women and Song starring Jimmy Savo and Margie Hart. It was advertised to be a mix of vaudeville, burlesque and Broadway revue. Since all three forms were dead or nearly dead by that point, the rationale must have been that the three struggling genres might add up to one healthy show. Unfortunately the burlesque part outraged authorities, and Herk was thrown in jail for three months. The show closed after only seven weeks. The ordeal took a toll on his heart. He died two years later. Martyr to free speech? Or scoundrelly businessman? You decide!
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.