Derived from elements of Victorian burlesque, music hall and minstrel shows, burlesque shows in America became popular in the 1860s and evolved to feature ribald comedy (lewd jokes) and female striptease. By the early 20th century, burlesque in America was presented as a populist blend of satire, performance art, music hall and adult entertainment.
Today's burlesque performers may be male, female, or any gender, but most of them use adult humor, and many of the strippers in today's burlesque shows incorporate comedy and variety into their numbers, serving more than one function. The showgirl remains the headliner, but burlesque striptease now offers a whole new venue and a higher level of appreciation for performers who would have been viewed only as novelty performers in twentieth-century burlesque shows.
Burlesque performers today have new intentions and objectives from their predecessors, and a revival of this performative art form has taken place in both New York and Los Angeles beginning in the mid 1990s, Mara Gaye Collection growing into a worldwide movement in recent years. Contemporary burlesque performers draw upon the craft of their ancestors to create art that centers on the sexual body, using the removal of clothing to make social and political commentary, celebrate creative self-expression as well as promote a culture of female sexual empowerment and body appreciation.
Opponents of burlesque articulated a logic of male sexuality that reflected the economic conditions and political imperatives attending the Great Depression and the wartime boom. During times of economic crisis they described an escalating trajectory of male sexual danger, as they moved from asserting that burlesque attracted men who were likely to harass female passersby to arguing that it incited them to rape and murder. With the Depression's end burlesque opponents abandoned the effort to link burlesque to aggressive male sexuality, instead contending that burlesque drained masculine virility and therefore undermined the war effort, endangering in new ways the women and children entitled to protection.
When Ann Corio, a former burlesque queen of the 1920s and 1930s, called her 1960s revue "This Was Burlesque", she was publicly declaring what the masses already knew was true: burlesque was dead. It had lost the charm and comedy of its early days and had devolved into rough and artless nudie shows, the predecessor to the modern strip club. Corio was a star during what is known as the "Golden Age of Burlesque". In those days every major city had multiple burlesque venues and burlesque stars toured, playing to packed houses and commanding top dollar.
Burlesque continued on for years following the raid of Minsky’s, but antiburlesque legislators finally succeeded in outlawing it in New York City beginning in 1937. The very next year, in his book Strip Tease: The Vanished Art of Burlesque, H.M. Alexander observed that “the heart is out of burlesque” but “it will be back” (118), and his prediction proved correct. Burlesque has lived on throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first in several incarnations. Today, there is a growing neo-burlesque scene, populated by performers who are determined to bring back the retro glamour of the strip and the tease, but with their own modern twist. The burlesque of today bears little resemblance to the performances of Lydia Thompson, but it remains a significant means of sexual self-expression for women.
Unfortunately, the bright lights of uptown shone a harsh spotlight on the naughty underbelly of burlesque. Once the censorship cuffs had been removed when Scribner lost power, burlesque became racier and racier with each passing year. Producers encouraged their performers to make their dancers more risque and their comedy more vulgar. The city took notice and sent out warnings that burlesque needed to tame it down. But despite operators' best attempts, they couldn't clean up their shows. They'd spent too many years proving to the girls and the comics that pushing the limits brought in the dough.
Dita Von Teese is one of the popular American-Armenian burlesque artists. She is famous for her classic retro style and fascination for 1940s cinema. She is a classically trained ballet dancer and also a trained costume designer. At the age of 18, she began her career in a local strip club. In 1993, she started performing burlesque and her famous acts have involved a giant powder compact, a carousel horse, a claw foot bathtub with a working shower head, and a filigree heart. In 1996, she published her first book about the history of fetish and burlesque, Burlesque and the Art of the Teese/Fetish and the Art of the Teese.
In the 1930s, with the onset of the Great Depression, the popularity of burlesque underwent a brief revival: "the poor man's theatre", as it was dubbed, represented inexpensive entertainment in a society that deperately craved distraction from economic woes. There were plenty of out-of-work chorus girls prepared to take off their clothes if necessary to making a living. by the 1930s, Boston's Old Howard, with its motto "Always something doing from 1 to 11," was already a legend--attracting patrons ranging from out-of-town businessmen to poet T. S. Eliot, future president John F. Kennedy, and Mayor James Michael Curley himself.
From the 1880s onwards, burlesque comedy was built around settings and situations familiar to lower and working class audiences. Courtrooms, street corners and inner city schoolrooms were favorites, as were examining rooms ruled over by quack physicians. Sexual innuendo was always present, but the focus was on making fun of sex and what people were willing to do in the pursuit of it. Some examples –
(Injured Man crosses stage in assorted bandages and casts.)
Comic: What happened to you?
Injured Man: I was living the life of Riley.
Injured Man: Riley came home!
The difference between burlesque and the modern gentleman's clubs that it evolved into is that burlesque was all about putting on an extravagant, comedic, and witty display. While they were still sexual, that sexuality relied more on dialogue and glamour than explicit nudity or sexual display.
The literal meaning of burlesque is to "send up" and the term is derived from the Latin word burra. In 14th century Britain, Geoffrey Chaucer’s satirical The Canterbury Tales popularized burlesque in verse and prose. In 16th century Spain, poet, Miguel de Cervantes, popularized burlesque in his many satirical works. In 17th century France and Italy, burlesque became a widely known term and popularly known as the grotesque imitation of the pathetic or dignified.
Seeing that men had a weakness for glamour, true American burlesque shows evolved. The first respectable burlesque show was the Rentz-Santley Novelty and Burlesque Company. It was the creation of Michael B. Leavitt, a forceful producer with a flair for substituting female performers in male roles. He visualized combining lady minstrel shows, vaudeville, and musical parody into one format he called "burlesque". A broad range of traveling shows toured cities from New York to St. Louis with soaring acceptance. Prices to see one of Leavitt's splashy revues ranged from fifteen to fifty cents. The Rentz-Santley shows lasted around ten years.
Like vaudeville, burlesque owed much of its beginning to the circus, minstrel shows, beer and dance halls, and honky-tonks. From the circus came its first producers, managers, and actors; and from the minstrel shows, burlesque derived its songs, gags, and the chorus. Known legitimate players, along with attractive women performing without a hint of nudity, were often featured to bolster these productions.
In May, Marie Longmore starred in a production of Robinson Crusoe at Wood's, which featured, according to the New York Clipper, one of the most elaborate processions ever seen on the American stage: "First come twenty-four girls as Amazon warriors, with shields and armor, followed by six negro minstrels, who sing 'De King Am Coming', accompanying themselves first on the banjo, then on the bones, then do a wooden shoe dance. Six more savages appear as ostriches, followed by six negro guards, six female savages, six with bells and fans, six native warriors, and twenty-four female cymbal dancers, who dance and keep good time with their cymbals. The king brings up the rear in his alligator chariot, attended by six negro guards."