Burlesque: The Forgotten Innovators – Part 2

Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen, to our historical guide to some of the lesser-known burlesque and cabaret heroes of yesteryear. We continue our tour through with some more fabulous historical titbits and treats from the 1920s and 1930s…

When we look back at burlesque from a contemporary perspective, it has long been associated with ‘naughtiness’ and ‘indecency’. Indeed, many of the bigger icons capitalised upon this, using it to their advantage to steal the spotlight. One of the first variety performers to be taken to court was a dancer named Beryl Halley. In 1926, she was arrested and taken to court over accusations of being involved in an ‘indecent exhibition’. The reason for the furore? Her costume comprised a small fig-leaf merkin-type garment, a bra, dancing belt and wig. Ultimately the case was dismissed, after the magistrate presiding over it took it upon himself to go and see the revue of which Miss Halley was a part. After which, he compared her performance to painted, marble or statue art and deemed that the minuscule costume did “not necessarily mean that her performance (was) indecent”.

Faith BaconWhen burlesque performers reference the classic act of the fan dance historically, it is most often Sally Rand’s name that rolls off of the tongue. Regarded as an innovative legend, she is paid tribute to in many contemporary acts. However, history’s other famous fan dancing lady is often overlooked.
Faith Bacon was born in California, but began her career as a dancer in Paris during the 1920s. After going back to the USA, she began performing in Earl Carroll’s shows and it was during this time that they devised the concept of the fan dance, in an attempt to get around nudity laws of the day. Faith was arrested in 1930 for violating these laws, but was ultimately acquitted and continued to perform the popular act, although not quite completely nude.

There are various different stories or ‘legends’ as to how striptease came to be a part of burlesque. One of those historically credited with accidentally performing the first strip onstage was a dancer named Mae Dix, who performed in the Minsky shows. According to Mae, one night she decided to take off the collar of her outfit as she exited the stage after her act, so that it wouldn’t get dirty in the encore and require washing. Her attentive audience caught this subtle move and began to holler and cheer, to which Mae responded by going back onstage and taking off her cuffs and undoing her top slightly. So popular was this innovative trick that she was asked to use it regularly in her act (and was compensated accordingly with an increase in her wage packet).

Yet another performer who claims to have invented striptease was Hinda Wassau. Her claim to fame takes us back to burlesque in 1928, and her story is that a clever double-layering of costume, meant to ease a quick change, actually went wrong. As a result, the two costumes became entangled, with one piece hanging off, which Hinda inadvertently shimmied off during the next number, much to the delight of the audience.

Such stories become glorified as time goes by; it may be that we never know the true origin of the first proper striptease, but to whomever it was, neo-burlesque performers owe much gratitude.

We’re going to wrap it up there for this evening ladies and gents. We think that’s quite enough titillation for tonight. Do join us again in our next blog, as we lift the curtain on yet more vivacious vamps and femme fatales of the golden age of burlesque.

If you missed Part 1 of the series, catch up here.

(Research credit: Striptease – From Gaslight to Spotlight by Jessica Glasscock, Harry N Abrams Publishing, 2003.)