Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531
Early nineteenth century burlesque shows, such as those at New York’s Olympic Theater under William Mitchell, mocked fashionable drama, events, and people. During the mid-nineteenth century burlesque shows increasingly featured female entertainers. In actress and manager Laura Keene’s Seven Sisters (1860), for example, almost all roles were played by women dressed in costumes considered highly revealing at the time. This evoked criticism, which increased in 1868, when Lydia Thompson brought her troupe, the British Blondes, to New York to present Ixion, generally considered the first modern burlesque show.
Initially favorable reviews gave way to condemnation when Thompson’s show moved to New York’s fashionable Niblo’s Gardens. Newspaper editors, members of the clergy, legislators, and women’s rights advocates were disturbed by the show’s suggestive language, impudent interaction among performers and audience, music associated with African American culture, and abundant displays of female bodies. The women performers were condemned as unnatural. When Thompson’s group went on tour, the criticism published by the Chicago Times was so vicious that Thompson and members of her troupe horsewhipped the newspaper’s editor.
Controversies such as that apparently helped burlesque to gain in popularity. Variety show entertainments (later known as vaudeville) that were developing during the same period attracted increasingly middle-class audiences. Burlesque shows—which by the 1870’s were often using the format of the minstrel show and the earthy material of the concert saloon—appealed more to the urban working class and poor. “Clean” burlesque continued, especially with such performers as Joe Weber and Lew Fields, and regained some popularity during World War I.
By the 1890’s, however, burlesque was usually as “hot” as local law enforcement allowed, especially after cooch dancing—the forerunner of the modern striptease—was borrowed from the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893. Herbert, Billy, Abe, and Morton Minsky—the most famous early twentieth century burlesque producers—introduced a signal system to warn performers of the presence of police in audiences so that they could switch to their clean material. Police raids were frequent. The most famous occurred on April 20, 1925, after a complaint by John Sumner, secretary for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. (It became the basis for a 1967 novel by Roland Barber and the 1968 film The Night They Raided Minsky’s.)
The 1920’s brought increasing regulation. After the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent Depression, many legitimate theaters failed. As burlesque moved into empty Broadway theater buildings, property owners, fearful of declining values, joined religious forces and legislators in attacking burlesque and blaming it for Times Square sex crimes. New York City banned strip acts in 1933. The Minskys’ establishment closed in 1935; they reopened temporarily after an appeal, but that same year managers had to sign an oath, promising to refrain from indecency. Finally, on May 2, 1937, New York City refused to renew the licenses of the city’s fourteen burlesque houses. Legal appeals failed.
Burlesque vanished from New York. Elsewhere it remained marginalized as questionable entertainment and eventually was best known through reviews and revivals featuring striptease artists, such as Gypsy Rose Lee’s appearance in Mike Todd’s 1942 Star and Garter, Ann Corio’s 1962 This Was Burlesque, and Tempest Storm’s 1973 Carnegie Hall performance.