A History of The Musical
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Many burlesque routines spoofed social conventions and linguistic idiosyncrasies. The most famous was Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's glorious "Who's On First," which had fun with the sometimes confusing nicknames given to popular baseball players. It was the descendant of several earlier routines that involved two men exchanging an intricate series of misunderstood words.
Another popular bit was aimed at the convoluted names of nepotistic businesses and law firms
Many routines showed the underdog getting the best of a confrontation. One skit involved a man pushing a baby carriage. The baby screams until the man takes a beer bottle and beats the unseen tyke into silence. Papa then proclaims, "That ought to show the little sucker," whereupon a stream of yellow liquid flies out of the carriage and hits him square in the face. Talk about justice!
Burlesque performers developed a unique backstage language of their own. Some examples found in H. M. Alexander's Strip Tease (Knight Publishers, NY, 1938, pp. 120-123)
"Somethin' Wrong With Strippin'?"
There are a dozen or more popular legends as to how the strip was born telling how a dancer's shoulder strap broke, or some similar nonsense. In fact, it had been around since Little Egypt introduced the "hootchie-kooch" at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and had always remained a mainstay of stag parties. Burlesque promoters like the Minsky brothers took the strip tease out of the back rooms and put it onstage. While stripping drew in hoards of randy men, it also gave burlesque a sleazy reputation. As moralists once again expressed outrage, male audiences kept burlesque profitable through most of the Great Depression.
Strippers had to walk a fine line between titillation and propriety going too far (let alone "all the way") could land them in jail for corrupting public morals. Some gave stripping an artistic twist and graduated to general stardom, including fan dancer Sally Rand and former vaudevillian Rose Lousie Hovick better known as the comically intellectual Gypsy Rose Lee.
The strippers soon dominated burlesque, and their routines became increasingly graphic. To avoid total nudity but still give the audience what it wanted, the ladies covered their groins with flimsy G-strings and used "pasties" to cover their nipples. This was usually enough to keep the cops at bay, even though pasties were far more vulgar that a plain naked breast.
Some sources praise the burlesque comics of the 1920s and 30s, but by this point, men went to burlesque shows to watch women strip -- period. The more the gals took off, the more the audiences liked it. At a time when fear of personal scandal and sexual disease were rampant, burlesque was a relatively safe source of titillation for married men and youngsters alike. The comedy was no longer a key attraction.
Without New York City, which had been the hub of burlesque's universe, the remaining promoters around the US presented increasingly tacky strip shows. The best burlesque comics segued into radio, film and television, taking many classic routines with them.
By the 1960s, hard core pornography became readily available. Men no longer needed strippers to feed their fantasies. The few remaining burlesque shows were campy soft-porn, with even the strippers aiming for "yocks." An article in Esquire (July 1964) describes how Blaze Starr played her strip for laughs. After one of her breasts "accidentally" bounced out of her costume
Revivals: "Chorus Girls, Jugglers and a Sentimental Tune"
Over the decades, several revues tried to revive the burlesque format usually with a well-known stripper like Ann Corio heading the cast. Corio and others penned books about the genre, always giving inordinate attention to the strip tease. Many graduates of burlesque became familiar faces on television and the likes of Red Skelton, Milton Berle and Jackie Gleason recycled many an old "burly" gag on their comedy telecasts. It took a tribute to the pre-stripper era to restore burlesque's fading reputation.
The Broadway hit Sugar Babies (1979 - 1,208 perfs) starred MGM veterans Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller. With mildly raunchy sketches, period songs and lovely chorus girls, this lavish show caught the comic spirit of 1930s burlesque's comic spirit while making it look classier than it had ever really been. The only striptease routine in the show ended when a chorus girl removed her brassiere unleashing a floor-length evening gown! The key to the show's success was the comedy. During more than a decade of research, Professor Ralph G. Allen identified more than 1,800 basic burlesque comedy sketches that performers had "borrowed" and recycled for decades. These skits formed the basis for a college revue that eventually grew into Sugar Babies.
Legacy: Burlesque Today?
Big screen spoofs such as Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs, and the Austin Powers films are clearly carrying on the tradition of early burlesque -- making fun of well-known entertainments, social mores, etc. Shrek 2 (2004) is a superb example of the kind of comedy that Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes offered in the 1860s, getting in good natured jabs at a wide variety of comic targets while challenging audiences to look beyond appearances -- finding true beauty and bravery in unlikely characters.
The tawdrier burlesque tradition lives on too. Every time The Jerry Springer Show airs a digitally obscured set of bared female breasts, it is a classic burlesque tease -- and Springer audiences are eerily reminiscent of those who sought tacky thrills at bump and grind houses a few decades ago. All of these entertainments have their righteous critics, and all appeal to a nation-wide audience.
In the early 2000s, a spate of "new burlesque" shows are cropping up on both sides of the Atlantic, featuring comics, strippers and specialty acts that offer a new spin on the old "burly-q" mix. Is it too early to fully assess this trend, but the fact that such shows have spontaneously sprung up in places as diverse as Manhattan, Montreal and Oslo suggests there is a widespread interest crossing all sorts of physical and generational barriers.
Why? I would suggest that there is a natural human need for the bold comic challenge that burlesque poses to the social, cultural and sexual status quo. The word "burlesque" was seriously tarnished by the mid-20th Century, when it was linked to witless soft porn strip revues in seedy venues. Now, a new generation is open to re-evaluating both the word and the format, recognizing the spirit of spoofery that made burlesque a potent form of entertainment back in the 1860s. At the dawn of a new millennium, burlesque is still alive and giggling.
By the time vaudeville and burlesque were in full swing, Broadway was already home to several thriving forms of musical theatre. For the details . . .