Welcome back once more to our historical guide to the lesser-known ladies, gents and events of burly-q. This week’s blog invites you along to the frivolous ‘40s and the fabulous ‘50s, as we take a look at burlesque and its stars once they were forced from the theatres of Broadway and out onto the backstreets of New York and other US cities.
EARL CARROLL & GEORGE WHITE
Whilst hosting a burlesque show in a nightclub would by no means be an innovation in the modern day (many contemporary burlesque shows use nightclub venues), back in the late 1930s and early 1940s nightclubs offered a new stage for burlesque. The move of burlesque shows from the big theatres into nightclubs in the USA was a crucial step in the history of the art-form. As burlesque was being forced out of legitimate, higher-end venues due to crackdowns on striptease and performers began working in touring carnivals, they also looked to other places to stage their shows.
Both Earl Carroll’s ‘Vanities’ and George White’s ‘Scandals’ took their shows to the nightclub stages, as burlesque saw itself reinventing and adapting as an art-form once again. Many of these venues had started out as cabaret restaurants in the early years of the twentieth century, before evolving into underground speakeasies in the 1920s and eventually becoming nightclubs in the 1930s. They became home to many of the burlesque shows of the day, allowing burlesque to continue, albeit in a changing format.
As burlesque settled into its new home on the nightclub stages, so the styles of performance adapted. Working with smaller stages and much more closely to their audience than they had been in the grand theatres, performers were forced to scale down their performances but still retained the need for a wow-factor that would draw audiences in. Stars of the 1950s like Blaze Fury incorporated large, dazzling props into their shows, in an attempt to boost their fame and draw. Blaze had a number of big props, including a large devil head and a palm tree prop.
A legend in her own right as a performer and one of burlesque’s biggest stars, Ann Corio also played another crucial and innovative role in the historical course of burlesque. She did what no other producer had managed to do, which was to bring back burlesque to a New York theatre. Having been banned from theatre stages during the 1930s, burlesque had continued as previously discussed, going underground into nightclubs and hitting the road with touring carnivals but it had lost its grip on the legitimate stages long ago.
In 1960, Ann Corio’s legendary show ‘This Was Burlesque’ first took to a stage on the Lower East Side, before eventually securing a stint on Broadway a few years later. Many argue that this was the last true glimpse of classic, historical and ‘pure’ burlesque; whether true or not, it was an innovative and important step in burlesque’s journey through the years.
We’ll be back next week, with another slice of burlesque history, but in the meantime, if you’ve missed any of the series, catch up via the links below.
(Research credit: Striptease – From Gaslight to Spotlight by Jessica Glasscock, Harry N Abrams Publishing, 2003.)