American burlesque  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

American Burlesque is a genre of variety show. Derived from elements of Victorian burlesque, music hall and minstrel shows, burlesque shows in America became popular in the 1860s and evolved to feature ribald comedy (lewd jokes) and female striptease. By the early 20th century, burlesque in America was presented as a populist blend of satire, performance art, music hall and adult entertainment, featuring striptease and broad comedy acts.

The entertainment was presented often in cabarets and clubs, as well as music halls and theatres. Performers, usually female, often created elaborate tableaux with lush, colorful costumes, mood-appropriate music, and dramatic lighting; novelty acts, such as fire breathing or contortionists, might be added to enhance the impact of their performance. The genre traditionally encompassed a variety of acts: in addition to the striptease artistes, there was some combination of chanson singers, comedians, mime artists, and dancing girls, all delivered in a satiric style with a saucy edge. The striptease element of burlesque became subject to extensive local legislation, leading to a theatrical form that titillated without falling foul of censors.

Burlesque gradually lost popularity beginning in the 1940s. A number of producers sought to capitalize on nostalgia for the entertainment by attempting to recreate the spirit of burlesque in Hollywood films from the 1930s to the 1960s. There has been a resurgence of interest in this format since the 1990s, and it inspired a 2010 musical film, Burlesque, starring Christina Aguilara and Cher.

Contents

Development

While the American form of burlesque has its origins in 19th century music hall entertainments and vaudeville, in the early 20th century American burlesque re-emerged as a populist blend of satire, performance art, and adult entertainment featuring striptease and broad comedy acts that derived their name from the low comedy aspects of the literary genre known as burlesque. Here the term "burlesque" was used loosely to describe these adult revue shows in which striptease acts would perform—often with themes, characters or gimmicks—but classic striptease and "hootchy kootchy" dance were already forms in themselves and not automatically "burlesque" by default.

In burlesque, performers, usually female, often create elaborate sets with lush, colorful costumes, mood-appropriate music, and dramatic lighting, and may even include novelty acts, such as fire breathing or contortionists, to enhance the impact of their performance.

Put simply, burlesque means "in an upside down style". Like its cousin, commedia dell'arte, burlesque turns social norms head over heels. Burlesque is a style of live entertainment that encompasses pastiche, parody, and wit. The genre traditionally encompasses a variety of acts such as dancing girls, chanson singers, comedians, mime artists, and striptease artistes, all satirical and with a saucy edge. The striptease element of burlesque became subject to extensive local legislation, leading to a theatrical form that titillated without falling foul of censors.

The American form also was highly influenced by 19th century English variety and music hall shows as developed in the 1840s, early in the Victorian era, a time of culture clashes between the social rules of established aristocracy and a working class society. Originally, burlesque featured shows that included comic sketches, often lampooning the social attitudes of the upper classes and their music (particularly parodies of opera songs), alternating with dance routines. It developed alongside vaudeville and ran on competing circuits. In Britain, burlesque continued its established position in theatreland and enjoyed its own theatres (such as the Olympic Theatre in London) and was largely a middle class pursuit, where the jokes relied on the audiences' familiarity with known operas and artistic works.

In its heyday, American burlesque bore little resemblance to the earlier literary and musical burlesques of the UK (now known as "classical" or "traditional British" burlesque) which parodied widely known works of literature, theater, or music and did not feature striptease. Possibly due to historical social tensions between the upper classes and lower classes of society, much of the humor and entertainment of later American burlesque focused on lowbrow and ribald subjects.

The popular burlesque show of the 1870s through the 1920s referred to a raucous, somewhat bawdy style of variety theater inspired by Lydia Thompson and her troupe, the British Blondes, who first appeared in the United States in the 1860s, and also by early "leg" shows such as The Black Crook (1866). Its form, humor, and aesthetic traditions were largely derived from the minstrel show. One of the first burlesque troupes was the Rentz-Santley Novelty and Burlesque Company, created in 1870 by Michael B. Leavitt, who had earlier feminized the minstrel show with his group Madame Rentz's Female Minstrels.

Burlesque rapidly adapted the minstrel show's tripartite structure: part one was composed of songs and dances rendered by a female company, interspersed with low comedy from male comedians. Part two was an "olio" of short specialties in which the women did not appear. The show's finish was a grand finale.

The genre often mocked established entertainment forms such as opera, Shakespearean drama, musicals, and ballet. The costuming (or lack thereof) increasingly focused on forms of dress considered inappropriate for polite society. The British form, however, carried on much in the same musical-satirical style of the 19th century and is still so today.

By the 1880s, the genre had created some rules for defining itself:

  • Minimal costuming, often focusing on the female form.
  • Sexually suggestive dialogue, dance, plotlines and staging.
  • Quick-witted humor laced with puns, but lacking complexity.
  • Short routines or sketches with minimal plot cohesion across a show.

Charlie Chaplin in his autobiography gives an interesting account of burlesque in Chicago in 1910:

"Chicago... had a fierce pioneer gaiety that enlivened the senses, yet underlying it throbbed masculine loneliness. Counteracting this somatic ailment was a national distraction known as the burlesque show, consisting of a coterie of rough-and-tumble comedians supported by twenty or more chorus girls. Some were pretty, others shopworn. Some of the comedians were funny, most of the shows were smutty harem comedies—coarse and cynical affairs."

The popular burlesque show of this period eventually evolved into the striptease which became the dominant ingredient of burlesque by the 1930s. In the 1930s, a social crackdown on burlesque shows led to their gradual downfall. The shows had slowly changed from ensemble ribald variety performances, to simple performances focusing mostly on the striptease. The end of burlesque and the birth of striptease was later dramatized in the film The Night They Raided Minsky's.


The burlesque show on film

The 1943 film Lady of Burlesque, although a murder-mystery, spends much of its running time depicting the back-stage life of burlesque performers.

The first motion-picture adaptation of an actual burlesque show was Hollywood Revels (1946), a theatrical feature film starring exotic dancer Allene Dupree. Much of the action was filmed in medium or long shots, because the production was staged in an actual theater and the camera photographed the stage from a distance.

In 1947, enterprising film producer W. Merle Connell reinvented the filmed burlesque show by restaging the action especially for movies, in a studio. The camerawork and lighting were better, the sound was better, and the new setup allowed for close-ups and a variety of photographic and editorial techniques. His 1951 production French Follies is a faithful depiction of a burlesque presentation, with stage curtains, singing emcee, dances by showgirls and strippers, frequent sketches with straightmen and comedians, and a finale featuring the star performer. The highlight is the famous burlesque routine "Crazy House", popularized earlier by Abbott and Costello. Another familiar chestnut, Joey Faye's "Slowly I Turned" (famous today as a Three Stooges routine), was filmed for Connell's 1953 feature A Night in Hollywood.

Other producers entered the field, using color photography and even location work. Naughty New Orleans (1954) is an excellent example of burlesque entertainment on film, equally showcasing girls and gags, although it shifts the venue from a burlesque-house stage to a popular nightclub. Photographer Irving Klaw filmed a very profitable series of burlesque features, usually featuring star cheesecake model Bettie Page and various lowbrow comedians (including future TV star Joe E. Ross). Page's most famous features are Striporama (1953), Varietease (1954), and Teaserama (1955).

These movies, as their titles imply, were only teasing the viewer: the girls wore revealing costumes but there was never any nudity. In the late 1950s, however, other producers made more provocative films, sometimes using a "nudist colony" format, and the relatively tame burlesque-show movie died out. As early as 1954 burlesque was already considered a bygone form of entertainment; burlesque veteran Phil Silvers laments the passing of burlesque in the musical Top Banana.

New Burlesque

A new generation nostalgic for the spectacle and perceived glamour of the old times determined to bring burlesque back. This revival was pioneered independently in the early 1990s by Billie Madley's "Cinema" and later with Ami Goodheart in "Dutch Weismann's Follies" revues in New York, Michelle Carr's "The Velvet Hammer" troupe in Los Angeles, and The Shim-Shamettes in New Orleans. In addition, and throughout the country, many individual performers were incorporating aspects of burlesque in their acts. These productions, inspired by the likes of Sally Rand, Tempest Storm, Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr, have themselves gone on to inspire a new generation of performers. Furthermore, the contemporary roller derby revival features elements of burlesque.

Today New Burlesque has taken many forms, but all have the common trait of honoring one or more of burlesque's previous incarnations, with acts including striptease, expensive costumes, bawdy humor, cabaret and more. There are modern burlesque performers and shows all over the world, and annual conventions such as the Vancouver International Burlesque Festival and the Miss Exotic World Pageant are held.

The UK scene is definitely growing with the introduction of the London Burlesque Festival in 2007 and the community/ education oriented Ministry Of Burlesque gaining a seven-figure investment from a major mainstream media company in mid-2008 to also create an IP/TV channel and TV studios which are entirely dedicated to the artform. Club Noir is officially the world's biggest burlesque club according to Guinness World Records, with up to 2,000 people at their events in Glasgow, Edinburgh and London.

Burlesque performers from around the world regularly gather at a myraid of festivals around the world. From Vancouver to Helsinki the art form is gaining popularity. Websites like www.ministryofburlesque.com and BurlesqueCommunity.com help bring performers and producers together to share ideas, tips and resources in an effort to help all advance their craft.


Notable writers, stars and agents


See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "American burlesque" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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