Tirza’s Wine Bath: How a Coney Island Burlesque Enigma Came to Light

So much more is known about Leona Duval and her Coney Island burlesque act “Tirza’s Wine Bath” since her lawyers sent that “cease and desist letter” to Coney Island USA back in 2001. The blonde, statuesque terpsichorean devised the act in the mid 1930s, plucking the name from Greek mythology: “Thyrzha” was the handmaiden to Bacchus. She devised an act in which she took a shower in 40 gallons of “wine” (probably colored water — wine gets expensive).

With a wine company for a sponsor, Tirza premiered the act at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. After that she toured with it, and summered at Coney Island. She got quite a bit of press on the act in the 1940s and 50s. She also claimed to be a union plumber, able to connect and maintain the many pipes involved in her custom-made shower contraption herself. Perhaps this is the career she fell back on after retiring her act in the mid 1950s. There were also set-backs.Authorities closed her down for indecency in 1946.  In 1948, Billboard reported that she and her mother were burned when the cleaning fluid they were using came in contact with the stove in their apartment. But she rebounded — she can be found in national press notices at least through the mid ’50s.

Later, during the burlesque revival of the late 20th century, Coney Island USA began presenting re-creations of the act at their Burlesque at the Beach shows, guided by little more than references to the act in old advertisements. After a few years, Duval became aware of the appropriation and put the kibosh on it, with justification. She’d put considerable creativity and ingenuity into the act, in just the same way young people invest themselves in their neo-burlesque acts to this day. No one would disagree with this, I think. It’s just that no one dreamt that the real Tirza was still alive and kicking at the turn of the 21st century! But, here’s something else she little dreamt of — in her letter, she requested a cut of the profits. In neo-burlesque, there ARE no profits; the producers and artists are lucky to break even. People who do it, do it just because they love it! That ain’t how they rolled in the old days.

At any rate, Duval, who was probably born around 1915, has probably gone on to that great blow-off in the sky. (Difficult to tell — I’m guessing Leona Duval is ALSO  a pseudonym? If it’s not, it sure makes for a great burlesque name all by itself).