Burlesque Timeline

Devin D. O'Leary
7 min read
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1866 —Prototypical musical comedy The Black Crook becomes a massive success on Broadway, despite a daunting five-and-a-half-hour length. The show’s chorus of ballerinas in flesh-colored tights prove that respectable American audiences are ready to fork over hard-earned dough for sexually stimulating entertainment.

1868 Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes come to the United States. The group’s sexy variety show is believed to be the first American stage performance in which both featured performers as well as chorus girls appear in “nude” tights. The combination of underdressed females and satirical comedy makes for a hit. Thompson’s first New York season grosses more than $370,000.

1893 The World’s Fair Columbian Exhibition opens in Chicago. Among the most infamous performers is Little Egypt, who introduces the exotic “belly dance” to America. A musical cue improvised by Sol Bloom (Doo-doo- doo -doo-doo, doodoo doody -doody-doo) becomes synonymous with the burgeoning art of the “hoochie-coochie.”

1898 —Gold is discovered in the Yukon and Alaska. Burlesque dancers make their way to Dawson to work in the saloons. Performers like Diamond Lil, Nellie the Pig, Diamond-Tooth Gertie and Big Annie become legendary saloon girls.

1907 Florenz Ziegfeld, who just happened to be managing a strongman at the 1893 World’s Fair, opens Ziegfeld’s Follies in New York. The revue’s bevy of elaborately yet scantiliy clad showgirls ensures that the show runs until 1931.

1917 —Having visited the Follies Bergere and the Moulin Rouge in Paris, Abe Minsky suggests installing the first American “runway” in a seedy sixth-floor New York theater owned by Minsky and his brothers. This innovation allows a dancer to walk into the audience. World War I soldiers, well-educated in the “French arts,” soon clamor for this more continental form of entertainment.

1925 —Under New York law, it is permissible for girls in shows staged by Ziegfeld, the Minsky brothers, George White and Earl Carroll to appear topless as long as they remain immobile. In a Minsky show at the National Winter Garden, Madamoiselle Fifi ( née Mary Dawson from Pennsylvania) strips to the waist and then moves. The subsequent police raid inspires the book and film The Night They Raided Minsky’s.

1926 —Mae West mounts her Broadway play Sex and is promptly arrested for immorality.

1926 —Unable to make it in vaudeville on her meager singing talents, Rose Louise Hovick rechristens herself Gypsy Rose Lee, plays her first burlesque house in Kansas City and develops a casual, humorous style of doffing her clothes that brings “tease” to the art of striptease. A famous Broadway musical and Oscar-nominated film are eventually made about Lee’s colorful stage life.

1931 —The increasingly rich Minsky brothers officially open their follies in a “classy” Broadway theater, making burlesque more or less legitimate.

1932 —Thanks to the rise in “talkie” films, the historic Palace Theater in New York converts to a full-time movie house in November, marking for many the official death of the vaudeville circuit. Its raunchier cousin burlesque lives on—thanks in no small part to its endless parade of risqué striptease dancers.

1932 —Responding to growing religious moral fervor, acting Mayor “Holy Joe” McKee closes the New York striptease theaters temporarily.

1933 —Actress-turned-exotic dancer Sally Rand debuts her signature fan dance at the Chicago World’s Fair. Over the course of her long career, she is arrested several times for indecent exposure, even though her act never features any actual nudity, only the illusion of it.

1935 —Fourteen major Broadway theaters are now burlesque houses.

1937 —In front of the House Immigration Committee, the Minsky brothers testify that they will not hire foreign strippers and that the tease is “definitely an American art.” This is believed to be a swipe at Jacqueline Joyce, a Canadian stripper who has come to New York looking for an engagement. Newspaper headlines quote the Minskys from coast to coast. As a result, burlesque attendance climbs to a new high and Jacqueline Joyce gets a job at Mario’s Mirador for $150 a week.

1937 —In April, a stripper at Abe Minsky’s New Gotham Theater in Harlem is allegedly spotted working without a G-string. Spurred on by the New York Society for the Supression of Vice, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia revokes the licenses of all burlesque theaters in New York. The words “burlesque,” “striptease” and even “Minsky’s” are banned from marquees.

1941 —America’s entry into World War II sparks another growth in burlesque popularity. Lonely soldiers energize the pinup industry and popularize overseas burlesque houses like London’s storied Windmill Theatre.

1951 —Canada’s Catholic clergy go after American stripper Lili St. Cyr, who has been performing at Montreal’s Gayety Theatre. In the most blatant censorship, Marie-Joseph d’Anjou, a well-known Jesuit priest, pens a lengthy denunciation of St. Cyr in Montreal’s Le Devoir , calling on city authorities to run her out of town. He writes that whenever she dances “the theater is made to stink with the foul odor of sexual frenzy.” Father d’Anjou’s outcry is echoed by the Public Morality Committee. St. Cyr is arrested and charged with behaviour that is “immoral, obscene and indecent.” She is eventually acquitted.

1955 Jennie Lee (“The Bazoom Girl”) and eight other dancers form the League of Exotic Dancers in Los Angeles. According to a Los Angeles Times article, the girls “mildly threatened” to strike over the low minimum pay that striptease dancers received in the L.A. area. The dancers claimed L.A. was the chintziest of all the large cities at $85 a week; whereas other large cities paid a minimum of $125 a week. The nine dancers present at the initial meeting include: Jennie Lee, “Novita,” Betty Rowland, Rusty Lane, Virginia Valentine, Daurene Dare, Denise Dunbar, Peggy Stuart and “Champagne.”

1957 —Annie Blanche Banks legally changes her name to Tempest Storm. She is already one of the most popular burlesque performers in America. By the end of the decade, her breasts—which she calls her “moneymakers”—will be insured by Lloyds of London for $1 million.

1963 —Former dancer, pinup star and B-movie actress Ann Corio, approaching her 50 th birthday, comes out of retirement and gets headline billing at the Casino East, an off-Broadway theater, in the autobiographical revue This Was Burlesque . The three-year run grosses $1,500,000.

1972 —Fueled by the growth in all-nude strip clubs and the sudden mainstream popularity of X-rated films ( Deep Throat, Behind the Green Door ), burlesque goes into a prolonged hybernation.

1979 Sugar Babies opens on Broadway and runs for 1,208 performances. The lavish hit, starring Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, recreates classic burlesque—complete with scantily clad chorus girls and raunchy comic skits.

1990 —Dixie Lee Evans (“The Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque”) takes over an abandoned goat farm in Helmdale, Calif., filled with burlesque memorabilia collected by retired dancer Jennie Lee. Lee’s longtime dream, Exotic World Burlesque Museum, is born.

1993 —Irving Klaw’s classic ’50s “nudie cutie” films Striporama, Teaserama and Varietease are rereleased on video, introducing a whole new generation to performers like Bettie Page, Tempest Storm and Lili St. Cyr.

1995 —Ami Goodheart’s “Dutch Weismann’s Follies” in New York and Michelle Carr’s Velvet Hammer Burlesque troupe in Los Angeles spur a revival called “Neo-Burlesque”—combining classic “pasties and a G-string” burly-q, swing music, rockabilly, punk rock, tattoos, grrl power, lingerie, fetishism and a healthy dose of humor.

2000 —The Tease-O-Rama Yahoo Groups list is launched, providing the first national forum for modern burlesque performers.

2002 —The first Tease-O-Rama convention is held in New Orleans.

2005 —Shock rocker Marilyn Manson marries New Burlesque performer Dita Von Teese.

2007 Exotic World Burlesque Museum relocates to Las Vegas in June, just in time for the annual Miss Exotic World pageant.
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