A Certain Type of Audience – A short essay written for pin-up artist Melanie Adams

smithburlyhouse

image courtesty of Phyll Smith. Taken at the Slipper Room, NY.

Audiences have always been key to burlesque. Not just in the obvious sense, as the means of financially sustaining the form, but their obvious and vocal presence has been key to the success of many a burlesque act and has very much helped to shape broader perceptions of the form.

Burlesque audiences have historically inspired panic and condemnation because of the sexualised nature of the burlesque form and because of the bad behaviour that it was assumed that this form would inspire or arouse in these audiences, who were often presumed to not know any better. They were too bawdy, too large, too demonstrative. In short they weren’t a polite, middle class audience and this got up some people’s noses.

When burlesque trailblazer Lydia Thompson and her ‘British Blondes’ first appeared at New York’s Wood’s theatre, on September 28th 1868, the novelty of scantily-clad, saucy, subordinate women, who showed their legs, directly challenged the audience and mischievously parodied events and celebrities of the day in the manner of current day British performers such as Abigail Collins or Glory Pearl (AKA The Naked Standup), she attracted considerable critical acclaim and a large, respectable, middle class audience. However, this audience, always hungry for the latest sensation, eventually became bored. Thompson and her Blondes ultimately became a source of vilification and moral speculation and the ‘leg show,’ as burlesque had come to be known, lost its cultural cachet, becoming increasingly associated with working class audiences, in less prestigious theatres and in less prominent and salubrious parts of American cities.

In order to maintain their dwindling, or at least shifting audience, burlesque promoters amended the form. According to Alan Trachtenburg they made it:

‘An increasingly disreputable vehicle for the display of the voiceless female body in stylized erotic gyrating motion, starting with the cooch dance in the 1890s and the shimmy and striptease dances of the early twentieth century.’ [1]

As H.I. Moss, the fictitious burlesque theatre owner in Gypsy Rose Lee’s first novel, The G-string Murders exclaimed: ‘Girls! That’s what the public wants!’ and it is probably for this reason that a misconception still persists to this day that audiences at burlesque shows were exclusively male and dangerously lascivious. However, old black and white photographs often show female patrons enjoying the show too.

Even in the supposedly more restrained social context of Britain, male audience members at the legendary Windmill Theatre in Soho (the subject of the 2005 film Mrs Henderson Presents) were occasionally overenthusiastic, undertaking what the staff referred to as ‘the Windmill steeplechase,’ leaping over the seats towards the stage at the end of a show, (the theatre ran continuous revue from 2.30pm until 11pm, daily) in order to get a better view of the scantily clad dancers, nude fan dancers and nude tableau performers in the next show. Equally the glossy programmes the theatre sold suggest that customers with artificial aids to vision (such as binoculars) were an issue and such items were strictly and necessarily prohibited.

Whilst such accounts may seem amusing with the benefit of several decades distance, this behaviour obviously does have a darker side. Noralee Frankel’s 2009 biography of Gypsy Rose Lee makes reference to homosexual patrons who attended shows to watch other men masturbate in the ‘sexually charged atmosphere.’[2] Sexualised and aggressive behaviour in these spaces was not uncommon and this did not necessarily make for a comfortable work environment for performers or recreation space for less ‘involved’ male patrons or for female patrons more generally.

As for those ‘respectable’, middle and upper class audiences who had tired of the first wave of burlesque and certainly didn’t want to be subject to the kind of audience behaviours mentioned above, they intermittently returned to the kind of pleasures burlesque offered via high end Broadway revues such as the Ziegfeld Follies.

Between 1907 and 1937 Florenz Ziegfeld’s variety extravaganzas ‘glorified the American girl’ rather than sexualising her. In these shows huge, female stars such as singer Anna Held, comedienne Fanny Brice and dance sensation Josephine Baker, starred alongside sparsely clothed showgirls and innovative, awe-inspiring acts similar in style to that of contemporary performers such as Vicky Butterfly. Such shows took place in very specific, safe and distinctly classed and raced venues, and commanded a much higher ticket price than entertainment offered at burlesque houses such as Minksy’s, known as the ‘poor man’s Follies.’

By 1937, having bought theatres previously bankrupted in the aftermath of the Wall St crash, the Minsky brothers had built up an empire of seven legitimate theatres and were successfully drawing middle and upper class clientele but factions of the press, censors, and religious organisations were outraged at the visibility of the burlesque form and its bawdy audiences and prompted Mayor Fiorello H. la Guardia and the NYC government to ban not only striptease and suggestion in burlesque shows but the use of the word ‘burlesque’ in its promotion, effectively killing the form in the metropolis.

As a result burlesque and its audiences were forced back the fringes. Those who craved transgressive female performance now found them in the post-prohibition night clubs and travelling carnivals and state/world’s fairs that were offering patrons increasingly ‘exotic’ attractions. For example at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the ‘Midway’ – the fair’s bawdy, cacophonous entertainment zone – offered a range of titillating attractions including Billy Rose’s Aquacade (featuring provocative ‘aquabelles’ and virile ‘aquadonis’ – star of MGM’s Tarzan franchise and Olympic swimmer, Johnny Weissmuller), ‘the Arctic Girl’s Tomb Of Ice (in which a scantily-dressed woman emerged from a block of ice), Salvador Dalí’s surrealist Dream of Venus pavilion (a high art house of fun, that patrons entered through the gap between an oversize pair of women’s legs and which contained a number of unusual sculptures amongst live nearly-nude performers posing as statues), the Cuban Gardens’ “Miss Nude 1939”’ concession, the Bendix Lama Temple (a full-sized replica of a Manchurian temple that housed a ‘girlie show’), and the Streets of Paris concession that starred renowned striptease artiste Gypsy Rose Lee. However, prejudices against performers and performer communities and against the working class and racially diverse audiences that peripatetic, carnivalesque entertainments attracted, combined with panic about the moral impact upon the communities these attractions visited still persisted. In fact, it could be argued they continue to exist to this day.

The neo burlesque movement of the 1990s onwards, an offshoot of cabaret, circus, rockabilly, swing dance and retro culture, was another direct challenge to the mainstream and to notions of appropriate conduct both in front of and behind the footlights. I remember meeting a very prominent performer on the 1990s American neo scene and her casually mentioning having spent a number of nights in police cells simply for performing during this period. I found it profoundly shocking that this was still happening in America so recently and I often raise this point when people claim modern burlesque passively maintains the status quo.

Put simply, neo burlesque performers were badasses. The movement they were part of was a rhinestoned riot grrrl movement, a subversive form whose audience was a willing and wilful conspirator in the forms’ onstage explorations and critiques of gender, sexuality and identity. Perhaps most importantly though, with a reinvigorated interest in feminism and increasing awareness of LGBTQ rights, neo burlesque was and still is a form dominated by a diverse array of performers and producers and performed in front of a diverse, open-minded, inclusive, reverential, playful, joyful and vocal audience who were and still are invested in and hugely protective of the scene and its performers.

Having been part of the British burlesque community for over ten years now and having hosted, watched and performed in many burlesque shows over that time, it quickly becomes pretty hard work if my audience isn’t bawdy, doesn’t participate and isn’t eager to be challenged. Whilst the performers are great, the audiences’ response to and dialogue with performers is vital and is a big part of why I still love burlesque and consider it such a progressive, permissive form.

[1] Allen,  R.C.  (1991) Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. p. Xii

[2] Nora Lee Frankel (2009) Stripping Gypsy: the Life of Gypsy Rose Lee. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  p. 18

Check out Melanie’s art work

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