I’ve dithered about this post for a long while, but ultimately decided it can’t go in my Stars of Vaudeville series, for the simple reason that there’s no way in hell that you could ever call this act “vaudeville”. The reason for the quandary: the word appears next to their name wherever it is rendered on the internet. In typical fashion, once an error like that gets out there in gets replicated ad infinitum, and then bounced around forever like a pinball in a machine.
Here’s the thing: the Danish born Barrison Sisters (Lona, Sophia, Inger, Olga and Gertrude) had a dirty act. Like many sister acts of their day, they performed cute musical numbers. But the Barrison Sisters were said to have discovered the path to success through sexy double entendres. Their most notorious routine is said to have consisted of the girls asking the audience “Do you want to see my pussy?” — at which point they would flip up their skirts to reveal kittens strapped to the front of their vajayjays. In the 1890s. Though the great vaudeville circuits were just in the process of being created the tone of the industry was already well established by Tony Pastor, Keith and Albee, F.F. Proctor, Sylvester Poli, Percy Williams and others. Vaudeville was clean. If you did an act of this description in vaaudeville you’d be shown the door before your act was even finished.
So this act can only be said to have been in vaudeville in the broadest, broadest possible use of the term. Perhaps as they might use it in some place like Paris or Moscow, to mean something equivalent to “varities”. In fact, it even sounded too dirty for 1890s burlesque to me. My guess would have been saloon variety, as it might be seen at Koster and Bial’s or on the Bowery or someplace, or your local wild west saloon. But then I went to my go-to reference for early burlesque, the must-own Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture, by Robert C. Allen. There, he mentions a strip act by Lona Barrison in burlesque, being reported on in the Police Gazette in 1896, in which she disrobed completely, which back then meant down to her underwear. And really that’s all you gotta know, friends. The Barrison Sisters were not vaudeville but burlesque, friends, and were even getting busted there.
To learn more about vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.