Burlesque was one of America’s most popular forms of live entertainment in the first half of the twentieth century. Gaudy, bawdy, and spectacular, the shows entertained thousands of paying customers every night of the week. And yet the legacy of burlesque is often vilified, misunderstood, and left out of the history books.
Behind the Burly Q is a painstakingly researched love letter to the women and men who once made up the community of burlesque. Its dish on backstage rivalries and treasure trove of vintage photographs is enough to make historians and fans of classic erotica swoon. The personal and surprising stories of the women and men who lived it—through their own salty reminiscences—reveal the true story of the golden age of burlesque, even as it experiences a new renaissance.
“This rich history, rife with vibrant quotes and first-hand insights from burlesque’s biggest dancers, is indispensable for fans of the ribald pastime.” —Publishers Weekly
“An affectionate and historically valuable document of an intriguing, little-served corner of American entertainment.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Utterly entertaining . . . Insightful . . . Fascinating.” —Ernest Hardy,The Village Voice
“Charming . . . The present-day interviews with these women are a delight and also poignant, partly because of the contrast between their older and younger selves, though mostly because of the lives they lived.” —Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
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Welcome to the Burly Show
"Audiences — it was always full. Always."
— Mimi Reed
"They were there to have fun."
— Maria Bradley on burlesque audiences
It's been called a variety of names: a girlie show, burly show, tab show, vaudeville, medicine show, strip show, etc. But what was it? Its performers, numbering in the thousands, are now forgotten, anonymous men and women who lived, breathed, and died for it. At its height in the 1930s, there were fourteen shows running on Broadway simultaneously. Some considered it an art form — to others it was second-rate entertainment. It was a burlesque show.
Merriam-Webster gives us this definition: "theatrical entertainment of a broadly humorous often earthy character consisting of short turns, comic skits, and sometimes [emphasis added] striptease acts." Burlesque has been around at least as far back as the Byzantine era. The Greek-born Theodora, who later became Empress of the Roman Empire, began on the stage as a dancer and comedienne "who delights the audience by letting herself be cuffed and slapped on the cheeks, and makes them guffaw by raising her skirts." She was known for disrobing on stage before her audience and reclining naked but for a girdle encircling her nether regions. She was quite controversial in her time. It was rumored she worked in a brothel or two. (The same charges are often made against our modern exotic dancers. Like the "skirt raising" actresses of bygone days, strippers have long been equated with prostitutes.)
Theodora was, perhaps predictably, also the victim of rumors about her voracious appetite for sexual intercourse. In my interviews I found that burlesquers were also frequently accused by the public of being sexually deviant. Was it the nature of the women's costumes — or lack thereof — or the erotic nature of the tease itself?
Former stripper Val Valentine told me, "Everyone thought we were preoccupied with sex. Most of the time when you were on stage, you were thinking, 'Oh, I hope there's a good restaurant in town.'"
Burlesque, as we remember it, was truly an American art form, even though it borrowed much from France's dance halls and Italy's Commedia dell'arte in the sixteenth century. In Paris, beautiful women danced the can-can — flinging their ruffled skirts over their heads, causing a sensation at the Moulin Rouge and other cabarets of the 1830s. The rumor was the girls didn't wear underwear, but there is no evidence of this.
On the London stage, popular shows and operas were "burlesqued," meaning they were mocked or made fun of. This form of entertainment was brought to America in 1866 with The Black Crook, a musical variety show consisting of skits, funny songs, and risqué situations with the women wearing skin-colored tights. It was a huge hit and had a record-breaking run on Broadway. It was a five-and-a-half-hour show and was purported to have brought in around $750,000 during its run. Audiences, both men and women, middle and upper class, loved the one hundred dancers, scantily dressed, parading across the stage. Burlesque had arrived.
Next, in 1868, came actress Lydia Thompson from England with her British Blondes, who introduced New Yorkers to tights and stockings as they sang, danced, exposed themselves, and cross-dressed. The show included parodies of current events, risqué jokes, song and dance, and variety acts. They featured beautiful performers galore and many shows sold out. New York was hooked.
Lydia's planned six-month tour of America turned into a six-year run. Before Lydia Thompson, there "were no big American stars" in burlesque, according to Rachel Shteir, author of Striptease.
Founded in 1870, Madame Rentz's Female Minstrels performed in pink tights to sold out crowds. M. B. Leavitt wrote "decency" into all his ads to get around the stigma swirling around burlesque. The shows became must-see events.
Twenty years later, in 1893, a Syrian dancer Farida Mazar Spyropoulos with the stage name of Fatima (who would later claim to be the original Little Egypt), introduced the hoochee-coochee dance at the Chicago World's Fair. The hoochee-coochee was something like a belly dance, only America hadn't yet coined that specific term. Fatima performed again in Chicago at the Century of Progress International Exposition in 1933, at the age of sixty-two. (This reminds me of the burlesquers I'd interviewed. Most didn't want to give up performing, no matter their age. In fact, one seventy-something who did a strip at the reunion asked me for the tape because she wanted to shop it around for a job.)
The first Little Egypt might have been Fatima, but because several dancers used the moniker, there has been great confusion as to who danced where and when. Fatima would eventually file suit against MGM for using "her" name in the film The Great Ziegfeld. (Ashea Wabe, another "original" Little Egypt, died by gas asphyxiation in 1908.) In any event, Little Egypt's dance became synonymous with exotic dancing, prestriptease. Clothes weren't removed during the performance at this point.
Another early star was Broadway impresario Flo Ziegfeld's future common-law wife, Anna Held, who in 1905 molted to a number entitled "I'd Like to See a Little More of You." Because of her association with Ziegfeld, she would become "legitimized" despite her scandalous displays of leg.
As the more popular female sensations appeared on the stage, showing a little here and a little more there, louder became the protests from church groups and other do-gooders, which had the effect of making the burlesque shows — and the women stars — even more popular.
The element of taking off one's clothes on the stage was added, accidentally some claim, by a performer who removed a pair of cuffs because they were dirty. Mary Dawson went by the moniker Mademoiselle Fifi (no doubt hoping the French name not only made her appear "regal," but also disguised her true identity). This was sometime in 1925. The audience went wild; from then on, strip teasing was in demand. Burlesque had changed — many would say for the better, some would argue otherwise — again.
Another woman rumored to be the first "accidental" striptease was a Boston dancer whose strap broke during a show — and when her panties (or culottes or what have you), fell around her ankles, the audience howled their approval.
However stripping was introduced, and by whomever, once the striptease shimmied across the stage, it quickly became the lure that packed the houses. Burlesque had changed once again, evolving into what we now think of as a burly show.
Renny von Muchow, who performed with his partner Rudy for twenty-five years in burlesque as a novelty act, called the shows a "variety act with a little more spice." Former journalist, historian of burlesque theatres, and longtime resident of Newark, New Jersey, Nat Bodian said: "Burlesque was essentially a vaudeville show with strippers. They added the strippers to keep the men from going to the movies."
As a society, we like to judge others by what they do and often where they come from. As Dixie Evans articulated about her fellow dancers, "It's actually who you are. It's not what you do. It's how you conduct your life and yourself and your values." That's how the strippers, in particular, and all those that worked burlesque should be judged.
The women I interviewed were survivors. They escaped many things — poverty, abuse, and limited opportunities, including the limitations that prejudice against their own good looks brought on. In response to these, they turned stripping into an opportunity.
Some stumbled into burlesque after a friend or boyfriend suggested it. Some, like Lady Midnight, said, "I just knew I was gonna be a famous movie star." And when that didn't work out, burlesque offered the closest thing to celebrity.
"It was a job," Lorraine Lee said, in reference to stripping as a career. As a young girl whose father had abandoned the family, Lorraine had danced "for a dime or a quarter" with her sister at her mother's boarding house in Texas. Her mother sold beer and Lorraine danced for Bonnie and Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd. "You can be a lady where you want to be a lady," her mother once told her.
"We didn't have books," Blaze Starr said of growing up poor. "We lived in the wilderness. No neighbors that read had any books." Education, let alone material comforts, was not an option for many of these young girls.
Chorus girl Helen "Bingo" Bingler was raised by a "wicked" stepmother. She had four teeth knocked out by a broom handle," explained her daughter Helen Imbrugia. "She was a showgirl. And she had an act herself where she bent over backwards on a chair and would drink water. When she worked with Abbott and Costello, they nicknamed her Bingo. I think what she wanted to do was marry and have children. But it was mainly to get out of the poor situation she was in."
Many of the strippers made something of their lives, earning more than they could have as a secretary or waitress. They traveled, met new people, learned to take care of themselves, and provided for their families. From the beginning, even though they knew they may eventually benefit from being in burlesque shows, the first time they stripped on stage was seldom easy.
"But you get used to it," Lady Midnight told me. She had had an abusive husband she needed to get away from. Her grandfather had been a black-face comedian, her mom was a singer and dancer, and her father a top banana of note. Her father offered her a job working in his club to escape her situation.
"Because I worked in black light," Candy Cotton laughed, "I really truly believed they couldn't see me." She said she "clothed" herself in darkness.
Lorraine Lee added, "I really didn't show anything."
It didn't matter.
For the audience, a burlesque show was a place to forget one's troubles during the Depression and an escape for the troops that packed houses during World War II.
Like any industry, though, burlesque was economically driven. "It was a time where people couldn't get work anywhere else," Alan Alda explained. His father was Robert Alda, a popular straight man and singer.
Most performers worked hard, but seldom grew rich. Some headliners (the star strippers) like Lili St. Cyr commanded as much as $5,000 a week in 1950 (before dying broke and in obscurity). But the majority never earned anywhere near that.
Still stripping in her seventies, Tempest Storm boasted that burlesque brought her the ability to travel and a lifetime of "minks, sables, big homes, big cars, Rolls Royces. I have no complaints." She was still able to earn thousands of dollars performing when I interviewed her in 2006.
"It was called the poor man's musical comedy," producer of This Was Burlesque Mike Iannucci told me, fresh off dialysis. I interviewed Mike in the New Jersey apartment that he had shared with his late wife and legendary burly queen Ann Corio.
Mike was my toughest interview. He was very ill in 2006, but had graciously agreed to speak with me. I later discovered Mike was a controversial producer — some vehemently despised him, claiming he took advantage of the performers in his show. There was no denying, however, that he was an expert on burlesque and that he loved and missed his "Annie." During our conversation, he would sometimes stare longingly toward a portrait of his wife by Alberto Vargas, the Peruvian "pinup painter." Mike died two years after our interview.
"During the '20s, '30s, and '40s burlesque was king," said Mike. "At its height, burlesque was the most popular form of entertainment offered across the country. Men and women went to the shows. During the Depression, there was no other affordable entertainment for working-class people."
"It was a clean show," Mike emphasized. Burlesque employed thousands, entertained more, and brought in enough money to keep Broadway alive. When I asked Betty Rowland, the "Ball of Fire," former stripper, and one of the last surviving "Queens," if there had been a stigma when she worked, she said "No. Because everyone was working in it."
"It was fabulous, ... gaudy," said Dixie Evans. When the average man went to a burly show, "he could laugh. And let me tell you, there was nothing to laugh about in the '30s. But to fall into one of those shows ..."
Alexandra the Great "48," a stripper, said, "There was a time when you could fill an opera house with two thousand people, beautifully dressed." Couples and women alone went to the burly houses. Dixie recalled Wednesday afternoons when the strippers had to serve tea to the ladies in the audience.
"Early burlesque was a family entertainment. That's hard to believe, but it was," recalled Alan Alda.
In the 1930s, burlesque branched out into nightclubs and cafés "because of the shutdown [by LaGuardia]," said Rachel Shteir.
Shows were filled with an extravaganza of beauties, fresh-faced showgirls in barely-there costumes. They featured excellent singers, talented comedians, specialty acts, an emcee, and musicians. The large casts sometimes performed as many as four shows a day, seven days a week. "I don't remember a day off," said Alexandra the Great.
"If we have a day off, we're washing our costumes," Betty Rowland added.
They were a group of entertainers who spent the majority of the year traveling together by train. "They were a bunch of people who loved trooping around with each other and making people laugh, making one another laugh," said Alda.
What did a burlesque show consist of? Everyone told me a little bit different version, but the main elements were as follows:
There was an opening act. Usually around fifteen chorus girls of all different shapes and sizes. And there was a "tit singer."
"And that was an official title," Robert Alda's son told me. "I don't know if you had to get a special degree for that or what. But he would sing while the chorus girls would come out, usually with not too many clothes on."
After that, a comic and a straight man would come on.
Then the first stripteaser came on. And mixed in would be novelty acts.
Then another skit by the comedian and straight man, possibly with a talking woman (usually one of the chorus girls making a couple extra bucks).
Then a song or a dance number.
Then there was the middle production, which they called the Picture Act. This was another huge number that lasted ten minutes.
And then the co-feature (another stripper) came on.
And "if there was a chorus line, they usually did a nice build up for the feature," former stripper and talking woman Joni Taylor told me.
Then the headliner or star stripper came out. These were the Betty Rowlands, the Tempest Storms, and the Sherry Brittons — the names that had men and women alike lined up outside the theatre before the doors even opened.
And then there was the finale with most of the cast.
The entire show lasted about an hour and a half.
"It was essentially a dressed-up vaudeville show with bare bosoms and a chorus," said Nat Bodian. "It was a pleasant afternoon." He smiled.
As America changed, so did the format of the shows. Hollywood films showed more and women's hemlines rose. To compete, the burlesque houses kept adding more strippers and the stars demanded bigger salaries. To save costs, owners cut back on musicians and comedians until eventually they canned music and featured one tired, old, baggy-pants comedian barely making it through his routine, with shouts of "bring on the girls" hurled at him. What had started out as a family show had degenerated into a show for mostly working-class men who came for the nudity, as much of it as could be gotten away with. The women "danced erotically to arouse the men. And the men got aroused, right there in the front row," said Alda.
Beautiful dancer Sherry Britton, who started as a stripper in her teens and rose to the top of the marquee, spoke of looking out at the audience as the men masturbated behind their newspapers. "I was a part of that," she said with shame and disdain.
Did things get out of hand in the audience? Rarely. "Guys would be jerking off in the balcony and girls would say 'watch out for the guy with the hat and the over coat.' You expected some seediness," explained Dixie Evans.
By the time musician John Perilli got a call from a conductor friend begging him to fill in for a recently fired drummer, burlesque was not well thought of. The musicians were looked down upon. "It wasn't considered a great art form," said Perilli.
As Alda mentioned, he suspected the men weren't there "to see the comedians" or hear the band. It was girls, and legs, and bosoms. The audience wanted to see how far and how much the girls dared to show. And some dared a lot.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Behind the Burly Q"
Copyright © 2013 Leslie Zemeckis.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Blaze Starr,
Note from the Author,
Cast of Characters,
Chapter 1 Welcome to the Burly Show,
Chapter 2 The Reunion,
Chapter 3 Six Feet of Spice,
Chapter 4 Don't Tell Mama (or the Kids),
Chapter 5 One Glove at a Time,
Chapter 6 Circus Life,
Chapter 7 Tiny Kline,
Chapter 8 Those Marvelous Minskys,
Chapter 9 The Peelers,
Chapter 10 It's a Mad, Mad World,
Chapter 11 The Straights,
Chapter 12 The Tit Singer,
Chapter 13 From A to C,
Chapter 14 Backstage,
Chapter 15 The Censors,
Chapter 16 A Bump ...,
Chapter 17 The Paddy Wagon,
Chapter 18 Little Flower,
Chapter 19 The High Cost of Stripping,
Chapter 20 Family Life,
Chapter 21 All You Need Is Love,
Chapter 22 Florida,
Chapter 23 On the Road Again,
Chapter 24 Sugar Sugar,
Chapter 25 Theatres,
Chapter 26 Legendary Ladies,
Chapter 27 Birds of a Feather,
Chapter 28 You Gotta Have a Gimmick,
Chapter 29 The Swinging G-String,
Chapter 30 Stage Door Johnnies,
Chapter 31 Money,
Chapter 32 Mixing,
Chapter 33 Interlude Before Evening,
Chapter 34 Men Who Made Us Great,
Chapter 35 The Exotic Others,
Chapter 36 Pasties and More,
Chapter 37 The Burly Beat,
Chapter 38 The Mob,
Chapter 39 Texas Justice,
Chapter 40 ... And a Grind,
Chapter 41 The Show Must Go On,
Chapter 42 Gossip,
Chapter 43 Women Who Changed Burlesque,
Chapter 44 A Leap of Faith,
Chapter 45 Bye, Bye Burlesque,
Chapter 46 Blackout,
A Burly Timeline,
Burly in the Sky,
What People are Saying About This
[Zemeckis] has preserved for us a lively, lovely corner of American life.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Thanks for such a complete and comprehensive review of Burly Q from my time as a young adult. Quality interviews, arranged to flow by topics.
Behind the Burly Q is the definitive history of burlesque during its heyday and an invaluable oral history of an American art form. Funny, shocking, unbelievable, and heartbreaking, their stories will touch your hearts. We invite you to peek behind the curtain at the burly show. Includes dozens of never-before seen photographs: rare backstage photos and candid shots from the performers' personal collections. “A privileged front-row seat to the history of burlesque! Glorious ladies in their heyday . . . their long-ago stripteases still pack a sensual, sassy, what-the-hell punch, while juicy anecdotes run from raunchy to touching to funny to flat-out incredible.” (Ronnie Scheib - Variety) Opening the pages of this book is like looking through a huge picture window catching a glimpse into the lives and careers of the remarkable and talented Entertainers who graced the stages of the various Clubs and Theaters throughout the US and abroad. The inserts of 'old time comedy skits' are hilariously funny, plus the mention of a few Neo-Burlesque Entertainers that are emulating the originators is very complimentary to the Art and History of Burlesque. It has the most complete information I've ever seen on the subject and scads of photos, as well. It brings alive a form of entertainment that we'd only heard about. Looking at all the pictures and stories it gives you an idea of the work that went into putting this together. A true labor of love. I recommend this book to anyone who would like to know the true stories of those who were there. This book contains stories that encompass the entire Burlesque era. Leslie Zemeckis tells the good, the bad, and (most importantly) the humorous things that happened to them during their careers.
I enjoyed the book immensely. There were several eye opening areas on who got their start in burlesque. I found the book both funny, witty and ultimately sad as the shows changed and burlesque faded away. Bring back the mystery!