The art of Burlesque
A contradiction in terms? Is there any art in burlesque? Some say Yes. Others – probably the majority – vehemently deny it. Presumably the early perpetrators of this unique form of entertainment definitely considered it art, for burlesque has severely high-flown origins. Its name, for one. Originating in Spain, burla travelled to Italy and became burlesco and thence to France for the word we know. Its literal translation is ‘to send up’. Wasn’t burlesque American in origin, a product of the ‘silent’ era of Fatty Arbuckle, the early Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Keystone Cops, glamour courtesy of Mabel Normand? In 1954 Phil Silvers starred as the comic in a film about the subject, Top Banana (old American show-bis term for ’principal comedian’) graphically presenting a no-holds-barred view of theatrical touring. Other ‘names’ at times involved include Mae West, Ed Wynn and Bert (‘Cowardly Lion’) Lahr. No! Burlesque evolved in Europe, centuries earlier, as a presentation of ‘parody and gross exaggeration`, the prime example being Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, its exaggerated action and dialogue mocking the original. Irish and British writers, including William Makepeace Thackeray, later produced satirical verse and prose. In Spain in 1615 Miguel de Cervantes penned Exemplary Novels and Eight Comedies and Eight New Interludes. In Italy the writing emphasised the grotesque, poking fun at the dignified or powerful. By the eighteenth century writers throughout Europe were creating musical and dramatic pieces in which opera and classical drama were guyed but retained their original stage conventions.
In London slightly later the Olympic and Gaiety Theatres drew capacity audiences for similar productions aimed at a middle-class audience familiar with the original, able to appreciate the humour. As this restricted audience-appeal, to attract the ‘working class’ music-halls offered much broader shows, lampooning political figures and satirising social activities. The Victorians rejoiced in ridiculing the upper classes and this ‘cutting the great and the good down to size’ is a lynch-pin of cabaret clubs acts to this day. In France theatres and clubs began featuring strip-tease.The Moulin Rouge and the commercialised on this exotica, billing it as ‘performance art’. It became the model for American burlesque, which they declared titillated without falling foul of the censor.
The star performer was of course Gypsy Rose Lee. During her London Palladium stint a colleague of mine working backstage as a ‘meeter-and-greeter’ remembers her as a charming homely lady totally divorced from her stage persona. The tradition survived throughout the early twentieth century, not in the headlines, but with exotic dancing and saucy lyrics in downtown cabarets and back-street bars. In Germany this between-the-wars era was so nostalgically evoked in Cabaret. Suddenly this changed when ‘quality’ acts took centre stage with fabulous costumes, top designers creating the settings,and lush orchestral backing.This was the hey-day of Lili St Cyr and the original, unforgettable fan-dancer Sally Rand. Burlesque became high fashion. By late 1950’s all this vanished. Servicemen who had stamped and whistled in 1939-1945 had become respectable family men. Burlesque was relegated to booths at Coney Island and, excepting only such as Phyllis Dixey, the seamier side of Blackpool’s `Golden Mile`. This coincided with the proliferation of the Nudes of all Nations-type touring revues offered by desperate try-anything-once commercial producers, resulting in the closure of many Nos.2 & 3 previously ‘family’ theatres. Only during the 1990s in the US did there erupt such scene-shattering performers as Billie Madley, Ami Goodheart in Dutch Weismann’s Follies in New York City and the Shim-Shamettes in New Orleans.
Their appearance spawned multitudinous by-products, burlesque clothing, burlesque shoes, burlesque fitness clubs (?). This up-turn in theatrical and commercial fortunes is considered as responsible for today’s regeneration. The craze spread to Far East clubs. Scandinavia revels in it (in those cold countries?) Finland holds a February Burlesque Festival, the imagination boggling at exponents Satan’s Angels, Queen of the Tassels, the Blue Bunny and Vivienne VaVroom and Scotty. A braw laddie in a kilt or an Aberdeen terrier? Of course ‘Jane of the Daily Mirror’ had borzois. Or was it Salukis? Not to be outdone, London this year, despite one (nameless) council declaring it ‘on a par with stripping and lap-dancing,’ sponsored its Burlesque Festival. Such tongue-in-the-cheek artistes as Immodesty Blaize, Ursula Martinez and the quaintly-titled Miss Polly Rae and her Hurly-Burly Girls established a loyal following, summed up by one critic as ‘cheeky rather than tacitly explicit.’ The Café de Paris, remembering past performers and patrons, the subsequent Edward VIII, Cole Porter, No‘l Coward, ‘Hutch’, Princess Margaret, Sinatra, Grace Kelly et al, features established burlesque performers with supporting acts emulating variety bills of former days. A recent hit was a Barber’s Shop trio, Scales of the Unexpected who include movement. The film Moulin Rouge with Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor is credited with creating much of the interest. Arts critic Michael Billington sub-titles Burlesque ‘a refreshing alternative to Ibsen’, citing such high-profile venues as the CafŽ Rouge and the Wam Wam Club, which on Saturdays annexes the CafŽ de Paris, offering, for those fancying it, pre-performance instruction in the art. Claiming that burlesque appeals equally to women, and fronted by the hostess-with-the-mostest Lady Alex, they proclaim this ‘a glittering show playing host to political figures, dazzling pop stars, captains of industry, super stars of the silver screen and even Royalty.’ Nor are the provinces forgotten. Producer Michael Taylor advertises his country-wide one-nighters as ‘combining musical and theatrical parody with the art of strip-tease, magic, comedy and dance, compered by the delectable Kiki Kaboom and the cream of British burlesque talent, Miss Hotcake Kitty, Amber Topaz, Ginger Blush …etc etc. and the Kalki Hula Girl.’ Some bill! All because the New York Times in 2008 declared that Burlesque has made a comeback as performance art. I rest my case.