Burlesque: The Forgotten Innovators – Part 3

Roll up roll up, ladies and gentlemen! The show is about to begin. And so we welcome you to the third installment in our series on the little known innovators of historical burlesque. For this evening’s event, we bring you some of the most daring, dazzling and show-stopping performers and events from yesteryear, whose contribution to burlesque as we know it leaves us much to be thankful for. We will resume our tale in the 1930s, a time when the authorities were cracking down hard on nudity onstage and performers regularly found themselves arrested or charged with indecent conduct. But adaptable and clever as always, many performers found loopholes and ways around these laws…

Margie Hart
One such lady was Margie Hart. She began performing with Minsky’s shows in 1934 and quickly gained notoriety for herself, for (allegedly) performing without a G-string on. As she never fully stripped onstage, it is doubtful if the truth of this will ever be known, but it certainly helped pull in a crowd at the time. Margie was also an innovator, in that she was the first performer to coin the term ‘ecdysiast’ to describe her acts. Bestowed upon her by HL Mencken, the word is derived from a Greek term which means to ‘molt’ or ‘shed’. Finally, Margie was also one of the first striptease artistes who took to not actually stripping or removing any clothing onstage. Instead, she played a game of hide and reveal, using her cleverly-constructed costumes and floating panel skirts.

The 1939 World’s Fair, Queens, New York

Stars like Gypsy Rose Lee left the burlesque stages of old and began touring at events like the The World's Fair.
Stars like Gypsy Rose Lee left the burlesque stages of old and began touring across the USA, appearing at events such the The World’s Fair.

Not an individual, but an event which was innovative and important in the history of burlesque, was the 1939 World’s Fair, held in Queens, New York. Throughout the 1930s, burlesque faced an increasing barrage of legal attacks on its legitimacy as an art form. As striptease had become such a large part of burlesque, so it gave the plaintiffs more argument against it. Faced with constant arrests, performers and producers were forced to tone down their shows to the point where they no longer offered the thrill of the taboo and excitement they once did. Burlesque became old hat and audience numbers dropped. Losing their monopoly on Broadway, burlesque promoters looked to their other options and decided; if burlesque wasn’t welcome on the stages in their home towns, they would take their shows on the road. The 1939 World’s Fair in Queens was one of the first venues which wasn’t solely for burlesque to feature striptease on its stage. guinea-bissau Headline acts such as Faith Bacon, Rosita Royce and Gypsy Rose Lee brought their acts to the carnival stages and went down a storm. Burlesque had found a new home, for the time being.

Join us again next week as we head into the era of the fabulous forties.

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