by Erin Doane
Burlesque shows were a popular form of entertainment during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, people may think of burlesque as a glorified striptease but the shows were different in the early days. Drawing from vaudeville theater, American burlesque shows included a variety of short skits and performances, comedians, and music, as well as, attractive young women. Many of the burlesques playing in Elmira theaters from the 1890s through the 1920s were even meant for the whole family.
A burlesque was originally a literary work or theatrical performance that would satirize or lampoon another more serious work for comic effect. Shakespearian and classical dramas were commonly parodied. Burlesque shows became popular in Victorian England beginning in the 1840s and quickly spread to the United States. The shows included short theatrical scenes that could be absurd and crudely humorous, comic skits, and dancing girls. By the end of the 1800s, the English were losing interest in burlesque but Americans were still fans. Nudity, sexually suggestive dialogue, exotic dancing, and quick-witted humor were becoming distinct features of American burlesque shows by the 1890s. Many shows became more risqué through the early 20th century until burlesque became almost synonymous with striptease by the 1930s.
While these racier, cruder burlesque shows likely played in Elmira theaters, the shows advertised in the local newspapers tread a fine line between naughty and family-friendly. In 1899, Sam T. Jack’s Own Burlesque Co. played at the Globe Theatre in Elmira. Ads for the show promised “mostly girls” and “truly a great show Tobascoed with spicy decency.” The three day run of the show broke house records. A review in the Star-Gazette praised the ladies of the show as being “young, vigorous and in goodly numbers” and wrote “of the men’s chorus – but who wishes to know much, if anything, about the men’s chorus? – it’s there, so let it go at that.” Despite the blatant focus on the “shapely maidens,” the reviewer pointed out that it was the type of show that elevated the standard of burlesque from the cheaper class of vaudeville houses to theaters that the more refined class of show goers would attend.
By the 1910s, burlesque shows seemed to have fallen out of favor in Elmira. In 1914, the manager of the Lyceum Theater announced that the Reis Circuit Company of New York City had been contracted to perform high-class burlesque shows at the playhouse in August. The shows were to be produced by talented musical comedy companies catering to both ladies and children with clean, up-to-date, attractive performances. Tickets to daily matinee performances cost just 25 cents (roughly $6 today) while evening show tickets ranged from 25 cents to 75 cents (about $18). Unfortunately, people were just not interested in the shows. The theater had barely covered its expenses because of the exceedingly small attendance. By October of that year, it was announced that there would be no more burlesque at the Lyceum.
I found no report on the actual quality of the shows at the Lyceum but other poorly reviewed shows may have turned the public off to further attendance and made them the stuff of open ridicule. In 1913, the Elmira Telegram ran a scathing review of the “Merry Burlesquers” show at the Colonial Theater. The entertainingly acerbic article criticized the age of the chorus girls, lamenting that it was a difficult to see the elderly matrons so scantily clad at their time of life, and called the show’s leading woman the “largest in captivity.” In closing, the reviewer wrote, “a number of our married men were present at both performances without their wives. However, there were no wrecked homes in Elmira because of the ‘Merry Burlesquers’ and all wives should be pleased to have the troupe play here again.”
The Lyceum brought burlesque back to its stage in 1916 to fairly good reviews but the shows were discontinued again in 1921 because they once more proved to be unprofitable. In 1923, the Lyceum joined the Columbia wheel, one of the major burlesque circuits in the northeast. The Columbia Amusement Company organized refined burlesque shows that were not smutty or crude but still featured pretty girls. The Lyceum hosted a regular weekly series of Columbia Burlesques through 1925.
Burlesque shows in Elmira received mixed reviews through the early 1920s. Mediocre shows were said to still have good attendance but critics were lukewarm, at best, in their appraisals. “Big Jamboree” was considered “okay but could be better” and “Hippity Hop” was declared not “the worst burlesque that has visited Elmira.” At some shows, children in the gallery would throw pennies at the actors on stage or cause other disruptions for their own amusement. By the late 1920s, Elmira theaters hosted few, if any, burlesque shows. Audiences found entertainment in other forms such as plays, musical theater, and movies. In January 1930, Elmirans could go to the Colonial Theater to watch “The Broadway Hoofer,” a movie about the romance of life behind the curtain of a traveling burlesque show.
Erin Doane is the Curator at the Chemung County Historical Society. To see more of their blog, go to http://chemungcountyhistoricalsociety.blogspot.com