Burlesque in America: From Heyday to Final Shabby Demise




A few hundred years ago, troupes of performers had the holiest of intentions putting on Passion Plays for audiences, recreating the last days of Jesus for the betterment of the audiences.  Trouble is, audiences are composed of people, primarily men, and men are troublesome creatures who want to be entertained with lots of violence and boobs.  Thus, Passion Plays often devolved into bloody spectacles, with any remnant  of the initial holy performance completely sucked out.

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Fast forward a few centuries and nothing’s changed.  We’ve taken a similarly wholesome form of entertainment and transformed it into an excuse for women to take their clothes off.  America inherited the Victorian theatrical burlesque, which basically consisted of parodies of classical subjects.  As close as it came to being risqué was having, for instance, the Macbeth witches in leg revealing tights.  The American burlesque took things up a notch in the late 19th century, often concluding each show with an exotic dancer.  The shows consisted of comedy routines, singing, acrobatics…. but the female bits got more and more center stage.


By the 1920s, it had devolved into being all about the striptease, often supported by a comedian or two.  (Note: a lot of big names got their starts supporting burlesque shows – Jackie Gleason, Danny Kaye, W.C. Fields and Sid Caesar to name a few.)  The alcohol was free-flowing, the inhibitions were down, and good times were had by all.  Gypsy Rose Lee, Blaze Starr, Lili St. Cyr and Tempest Storm ruled the clubs….. American audiences had forgotten all about the singing and magic shows – it was all about the ladies and their lack of clothing.

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But the glory days were short lived.  Prohibition came like a Grim Reaper of Fun, closing down all the burlesque shows.  Sure, many went underground, but the blow was near fatal.  When it reemerged mid-century after the alcohol ban had been lifted and the war was over, it found itself in a very different climate.  The 1950s and early 1960s were a very bi-polar time when it came to illicit entertainment.  Americans liked to portray themselves as The Cleavers, as wholesome and lily white as the wind-driven snow.  The dad is the starched-collar breadwinner, the wife bedecked in pearls as she cleans house, and the kids dutiful creatures, best seen but not heard.


Yet, underneath it all, was a wonderland of adult entertainment which exposed the lie that all was sparkling clean and dandy.  Men hadn’t changed a bit in their choice of leisure entertainment: from the Roman circuses, to the Passion Plays, to the Roaring Twenties Burlesque, the more things change, the more things stay the same.  As we covered in a previous article, girlie magazines proliferated like mad, and in your urban centers, the burlesque was alive and well.

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The trouble is, to keep up the pretense of being Ward Cleaver, attendance to these clubs wasn’t exactly something men would want to broadcast to the neighbors.  Thus, you’d have lines of trench coat wearing gentlemen lining up at night, keeping things on the “down low”, so to speak.

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But things hadn’t gotten seedy yet (just wait until the 1970s arrive); so, there was a degree of acceptance that many today would find surprising.  For instance, Playboy clubs were well-respected establishments, a place you could take your wife without too much discomfort – and many even had a buffet!   If you look at old photographs, it’s evident that audiences weren’t exclusively composed of shamefully disguised men.  Quite the contrary.  There’s a surprising number of women in attendance, and obviously a happening place for an office party.  But all good things come to an end.

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The lethal blow didn’t come from public condemnation or religious crackdowns – it came from movies.  Once movie theaters were permitted to get explicit, the need to have live women on stage drastically decreased.  By the early 70s, movies weren’t just showing a bit of skin – hardcore pornography had exploded, with a surprising level of acceptance (“porn chic”).  So, while movies like Deep Throat raked in unprecedented levels of cash (which quickly found its way into the pockets of organized crime), the once semi-respectable striptease found itself in a terrible quandary.

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It’s a lot more expensive to pay a group of women than buy a movie projector and some rolls of sleazy celluloid.  So, just in terms of cost, maintaining the burlesque didn’t make sense.  On another level, the movies had gotten so explicit, that, in order to compete, the  burlesque show would also have to get X-rated.  So, some clubs transitioned to live sex shows, basically recreating the porn film on stage…. But the spirit of the bawdy burlesque was lost.  It was a far cry from the days when Jackie Gleason or Mae West served as master of ceremonies, and the crowd went wild for the girls who artfully shed their elaborate costumes.  Now, it was just a filthy mess.


By the 1980s, it was still kicking on Sunset Boulevard and Bourbon Street, but the heyday had long since past.  The striptease bore no resemblance to mid-century burlesque, as it continues today.  Perhaps, now that pay-per-view and the internet has all but destroyed the porn theater, a desire for some adult entertainment away from home will rise again.  Who knows?  But I’m not holding my breast…. er, I mean breath.




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