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A brief history of burlesque

She is the undisputed Queen of Burlesque. But Dita von Teese is just the latest in a line of great performers stretching back over centuries. Here, she tells the extraordinary story of this most unusual art form

Saturday 25 March 2006 01:00 GMT

The things people tell me! After a show I like to chat with fans, so I put on my hat and gloves and walk out there, shaking hands and listening to my new - and returning - friends. "Dita," they will say, "did you know that burlesque has been around for hundreds of years as political satire?"

I cannot help but do a little shimmy in response. "What do you mean?" I ask, teasingly. "No striptease?"

They're right, these fans, and a little bit wrong too. The thing about burlesque is that it has led two lives - one in ancient Greece and then all over Europe, where it was a bawdy form of theatrical satire; the other in America, where it was otherwise known as the striptease. But of course, nothing is so simple, as you know.

Some like to tell me that America guttered burlesque, that it was a well-intentioned visitor to New York City promptly debased by horny blue-collar workers with drinking problems. But if you look more closely, you'll find that the father of burlesque was really a playwright of 5th century BC Athens, who had his head in the proverbial gutter long before there was anything but forests and teepees in America.

Aristophanes was the playwright, poet and reformer who penned Lysistrata, the sexy masterpiece in which the wives of the Athenian soldiers hole up in the Acropolis, depriving their husbands of sex until the termination of the Peloponnesian War. The play set the stage for centuries of ribald drama - and the way I read it, these women are teasing their husbands, guiding their minds towards sex, then locking it away.

Of course, like all good teases, they take their act to the next level. "We'll just be up here, together," I can hear them whispering into their husbands' ears before they climb the steps, swinging their hips carelessly... Think of what this simple notion - women locked inside the castle, waiting for sex - does to the male psyche. Wonderful isn't it? Mind you, since men acted the roles of women back then, the story was probably sexy in idea alone. But then - as we shall see - idea is the art of the tease.

The Scandal of the Tights

The Victorian era was not so kind to flesh - the softer and lovelier the skin, the more fabric they dumped on top of it. Thus, when a group of young Englishwomen bleached their hair and donned flesh-coloured tights for the stage, they scandalised - and thrilled - Britain. The tights were an ingenious coup, giving the impression of naked flesh while remaining covered. What was the Queen to say? Who cared? Aristophanes was hooting from his grave.

The credit for this first onstage tease goes to Lydia Thompson, the ambitious music-hall darling behind the peroxided burlesque troupe called The British Blondes. The public was outraged - and bought tickets galore.

When Lydia and her Blondes arrived in New York in September 1868, the city was waiting, pleading to be ravaged ... by tights. Isn't it astonishing what a hundred years will do? Anyway, the anticipation may have had something to do with an early mastery of publicity and the art of the fabricated story - as one report that preceded Lydia's New York début shows: "Captain Ludoc Baumbarten of the Russian dragoons took some flowers and a glove belonging to Miss Thompson, placed them on his breast; then shot himself through the heart, leaving on his table a note stating that his love for her brought on the fatal act."

I have no idea whether the tale is true - after all, illusion is the nature of burlesque. However, stories like these so inflamed the men in America that they all seemed willing to die for Lydia - if only she would be kind enough to dash their hearts out herself. Suddenly, men were behaving as if they had never seen ladies' lower limbs in their lives, which was a curious thing since opera houses had been serving up "leg shows" since the Civil War. Was it Lydia herself who inspired such fervour, or the cheapie tickets and a frisson of sex? Whatever the reason, for the rest of the century, burlesque flourished, developing into a full-night's entertainment that included chorus girls, comedy routines, and song and dance.

Moonbeams, Gelatin and Showgirls

Miss Thompson was a smart businesswoman, and surely helped break down America's prudish morals. However, my personal brand of burlesque owes more to the fabulous showgirls of la belle époque in Paris.

Henry James described the Paris of the late 19th century as "a massive flower of national decadence, the biggest temple ever built to material joys and the lust of the eyes ..." For while England and America were scandalised by tights, here it was the age of the cancan, the Folies Bergère and the Moulin Rouge - and a time when any girl, no matter her background, could transcend class by lighting up the stage. The very best "dancers" consorted with kings, artists and writers. Take Minstinguett, my favourite showgirl of the day, who was linked romantically with Alphonso XIII, the King of Spain, and the Russian Prince Orloff, while socialising with Jean Cocteau and Oscar Wilde.

"Miss", as she was known, was born Jeanne Marie Florentine Bourgeois, an aptly named member of the new petite bourgeoisie. But her transformation occurred in more than just name. She was not a beauty and so, as she herself said, "the rest had to be created. I had to invent something ... my legs [were called] 'the loveliest legs in the world', [an idea that] came out of my head." And she was convincing. Mistinguett, with her playful personality (once, when she was singing, an audience member yelled "higher!" To which she lifted her skirt!), transcended looks and bourgeois life to become one of the greatest showgirls of all time.

Of course, the term "courtesan" did not then reverberate with the bells of indecency it does today. Though some disapproved, Mistinguett was generally esteemed as a model of beauty and mysterious feminine power. She was a careerist, a society girl, an emulated celebrity. It may be true that she indulged in high-end affairs and accepted gifts, but who wouldn't? Returning a gift to a prince is not equal to returning a sweater to a department store - one simply doesn't do it. But the truth is that this courtesan was not dependent on any man. She made her living onstage. Yes, she was decadent, but is that not the art of showmanship?

As Minstinguett herself put it, "We sell [the audience] a trip to nowhere, canvas landscapes, moonbeams made out of gelatin." The showgirl sells, in a word, magic.

A Time of National Undress

The 1920s were - as I like to think of it - a time of national undress, and not just for showgirls. Out on the street, hemlines were rising, baring first the ankle, then the calf and nearly the knee by decade's end. Alarm consumed America and laws were passed making it illegal to wear skirts more than seven-and-a-half inches off the floor (in Philadelphia) or three inches above the ankle (in Utah). Similar regulations concerned the ever-naughty throat: in Ohio a lady could expose no more than two inches of neck.

In Europe, people were allowed to drink to their heart's content, and women mostly kept their clothes on. In America, where alcohol and too much leg were both deemed illegal, they developed the art of the striptease. Call me crazy, but the connection is obvious. f

I'm not talking merely about the blue-collar clientele. In an exchange that became known as "the silk hat trade", uptown New Yorkers started to haunt downtown speakeasies, following the pack into the National Winter Garden, Billy Minsky's Prohibition-era theatre, where burlesque got its real start. In fact, "slumming" became so much the thing to do that Minsky's saw an assortment of uptown regulars, including the magazine publisher Condé Nast, writers like John Dos Passos and Walter Winchell, and the poet Hart Crane, who wrote a ditty called "National Winter Garden":

"Outspoken buttocks in pink beads / Invite the necessary cloudy clinch / The world's one flagrant sweaty cinch / And while legs waken salads in the brain / You pick your blonde out neatly through the smoke / Always you wait for someone else though, always / (Then rush the nearest exit through the smoke)."

Business was so good at Minsky's that Billy opened two more theatres uptown, including the Little Apollo on 125th Street. But with popularity came trouble with the law. My favourite Minsky raid has a horse-drawn paddy wagon pulling up in front of the Winter Garden, with the officers handcuffing Billy's brother, who was on duty. Once he'd been berated by the blue noses, Herbert Minsky walked them out, innocently inviting them to "drop in any time" with the assurance that they would "never see anything off-colour at Minsky's". To make good on this promise, the brothers rigged footlights from the ticket booth through to the theatre so that when an officer entered, whoever was in the booth would hit a button alerting the cast to switch promptly to what they called their "Sunday School" versions. Before long, theatres all over town had adopted the light rigging.

The Reign of the Headline Honey

Broadway was big billing for a new act, but that was Billy Minsky. If he was going to bet on someone, he was going to bet everything. To ensure that the world embraced his latest star, Minsky planted articles in the newspapers, ignited controversy and even made her début, on 12 February 1931, a black tie affair. He bet and he won. Gypsy Rose Lee was the biggest sensation burlesque had ever seen.

When Minsky got wind of her, Gypsy Rose Lee - or Rose Louise Hovick as her birth certificate reads - was travelling the burlesque circuit with her mother, who'd already taught her a thing or two about the hoodwink. The story goes that wherever young Gypsy performed, she received a thunder of applause and a basket of flowers from "anonymous", while everyone else - even the best talents - suffered booing and poison-pen letters. Gypsy found the abuse of the other performers puzzling, but assumed it was as her mother said: the audience just liked her more.

One day, Gypsy opened her dressing-room door to find her mother preparing the basket of flowers. The girl was devastated - to think she had blushed with every "anonymous" card that arrived. But the older woman simply looked up with relief. "Good," she said, "Now I won't have to go on preparing these myself!" Gypsy had - quite literally - discovered the art of publicity.

Seeing her act in Philadelphia, Billy Minsky invited Gypsy to join his theatre in New York. She was still a teenager when she hired her first publicist, drumming up the most fabulous gossip in town. Opening night at the Met? Gypsy emerged from her limo in a floor-length cape made of real orchids. Worried that her extraordinary jewellery collection would be stolen, Gypsy confided to newspapers that she wore it into the bath and even to bed. Readers loved the decadence of their star and Gypsy became burlesque's first household name.

Gypsy was famous for chatting up her punters directly, with an enchanting combination of sweetness and mockery. They say she got the audience so riled up that she didn't have to strip. The youngest Minsky brother, Morton, remembered that: "After all this hocus-pocus, mumbo-jumbo of suggestiveness and promise, there would be the quick flash of a breast and a bare hip bone as [she] slid off chuckling into the wings."

With the ascent of Gypsy into the society pages, the audiences came to adore the "ecdysiasts", as the journalist H L Mencken, a Minsky regular, described them - and by the early 1930s feature strippers could command salaries of $1,000 or upward each week. But even as Gypsy's stripteases lit up the stages of Minskyville, the lights were quietly going down.

In 1932, Billy Minsky died suddenly at the age of 41 from Paget's disease. Burlesque had lost its king and without him, the gelatin castle f would show a new crack every day as local politicians, resentful Broadway producers, real-estate owners and the Catholic Church united in their opposition. Before long, one thing was clear: it was time to go to the movies.

Technicolor Daydreams and 1940s Movies

There were times when I was little - rainy Saturdays or days off sick from school - that my mum would brew a pot of camomile tea and we'd stay in our pyjamas and watch old movies in "the Pink Room". Mum would ultimately go off to work, but I was delighted to stay all day watching old MGM Technicolor movies.

In my mind, the Pink Room was the first scene in any movie. The walls were painted with 1950s-style poodles, the ceiling was sparkly, and best of all, the ground was carpeted in cotton-candy pink shagpile. It was here, sitting in the shagpile, with my too-large shoes in my lap, that I had my first encounter with Betty Grable, my favourite actress of all time.

I loved Betty Grable because she was nice and because would sing and dance, and above all, because she had golden hair in the perfect Forties bouffant. In Pinup Girl, she was the epitome of Second World War glamour; while in one fantastic scene from The Dolly Sisters, Betty and another 1940s beauty, June Haver, got to emerge from a giant evening bag as the cosmetics sing with them. Even today, for a real treat - and real 1940s glamour - I turn on a Betty Grable movie and scoot up until I'm five inches from the television set.

Curvy Corset Cuties

It's no coincidence that the heyday of the pin-up coincided with the end of the Second World War, the era that brought back the live art of burlesque. People everywhere were celebrating Americana of all kinds, and burlesque was as American as baseball.

The new acts' major influences were movies and their curvy queens Marilyn Monroe and, a little later, Brigitte Bardot. With their big blonde hair, ample breasts and fertile hips, these bombshells inspired women everywhere to exaggerate their own voluptuousness, and the corset was reborn. For an insight into this era, just look at Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can't Help It. Except Jayne is so not a girl in this movie! Oh no, she's every inch a woman - and her hourglass curves blew everyone's mind.

The 1950s marked the glorious pinnacle of Hollywood movie glamour. Marilyn Monroe was the most beautiful woman ever to grace the screen. But like Gypsy Rose Lee, Marilyn was a "created" beauty - and the 1950s burlesquers were similarly bent on exaggeration. Their personalities, like their chests and hips, were BIG. Competition was fierce and every girl had a signature. Not just a look or an attitude, mind you - this was the age of the big-time prop. There was Rosita Royce with her fly-away bikini of trained pigeons; Evangeline the Oyster Girl emerging, slow and swampy, from a giant shell; or my favourite, Lili St Cyr, splashing about in her trademark transparent bathtub.

Everything about this generation was big - and I mean the stories, too. Gypsy Rose Lee may have introduced the art of the publicity stunt, but the ladies of the 1950s mastered it. Take Evangeline the Oyster Girl, whose rivalry with an underwater "peeler" - the girl held her breath and disrobed in a tank of water onstage - led her to hack at the glass with a hammer until it shattered; the stripper inside sunk to the floor, and the audience were drenched. Wily Evangeline was thrown off the stage and on to the cover of Time.

Honey, have times changed! If you ask me, publicity stunts are regrettably lacking from today's scene. When I read the histories - and rediscover the stories of burlesque's great characters - I cannot imagine that life was ever so silly, so colourful, so fun. It seems to me that every great burlesquer was at one point arrested on obscenity charges. Maybe it's time burlesque renewed the art of the stunt. The world would be a brighter place.

© 2006 by Dita Von Teese. Extracted from the book 'Burlesque and the Art of the Tease'. Published by arrangement with ReganBooks, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

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