From the 1870s to 1920s, American entertainment included Vaudeville shows featuring families who danced and sang, who partnered as acrobats and jugglers, and who performed at circuses and theaters across the country. They were talented individuals who entertained Americans before the rise of film, radio, and television. Interested in the history? Try this site: University of Arizona Vaudeville Museum Special Collection Dancing acts by women became popular like the Ziegfeld Follies in the 1910s and 20s. Burlesque performers were racier and included stripping onstage or tease acts with flowing gauze, swinging tassels, and creative patches placed on private parts. In the early years, most girls were background transitions to male comedians in a 90 minute show performed several times a day. Top exotic dancers earned upward to $1,500 a week.
Leslie Zemeckis wrote and directed the documentary Behind the Burly-Q (2010) revealing the sub-culture of the exotic dancer during the first half of the twentieth century. Interviewing the grand dames long retired, their recollections show a complicated life representing the “improper” side of feminine identity. On the upside, the women share stories of camaraderie of ensemble traveling, the lucrative possibilities money brought them, self-sufficiency, adoration from fans, in short, it was the best years of their lives. On the downside, exotic dancers dealt with derogatory reputations which conflicted with their roles as daughter, mother, and wife. They were a big part of a mafia-driven industry. Leslie Zemeckis juggles these two sides with sensitivity. As grandmothers, they shared “war stories” and there was nothing of which to be ashamed.
From straight man/silly man partnerships like Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers, or acts starring James Cagney, W.C. Fields, Red Buttons, and Milton Beryl, their talent was cultivated as Vaudeville and Burlesque performers. They became icons which influenced all later generations in entertainment. Consider the great Alan Alda, for example, who starred in Behind the Burly Q. Alda grew up surrounded by topless show girls because his father was a Vaudeville and Burlesque entertainer. Robert Alda was a talented singer and dancer. He starred on Broadway and won the 1951 Tony Award for Best Actor in Guys and Dolls. If you’ve seen the 70s television series M*A*S*H, Alan Alda starred in every episode (1972-1983) and wrote and directed several of them. The slap-stick, puns, goofy antics, and burlesque-stripping nurses reflects the large influence Vaudeville/Burlesque had on Alda’s creative genius.
Explaining the sub-culture of exotic dancing included former stars Tempest Storm, Blaze Starr, Dixie Evans, among others who shared similar motivations. They were pretty young girls with blossoming bodies. They were poor and they were hungry. Exotic dancing was a means to earn fast cash, and they liked being a celebrity. This “hush-hush” but prevalent part of American culture affected the entertainment industry for the rest of the century. Enjoy the following trailer:
A woman’s identity is a conflicted one. In the Western tradition, she vacillates from Eve the corrupter to holy mother, the Virgin Mary. Fast forward to the 1920s and 30s. Because of Mass Consumerism, women were expected to buy time-saving appliances. She was expected to maintain a clean home, support her husband, and raise the children. However, we are a visual society and many men prefer their women beautiful, childless, and preferably naked. Conflicting expectations escalated when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and sparked a resurgence in the women’s movement for a voice without a man’s interference. The dueling expectation of sex object vs. virtuous female feels neverending.
Today, homemakers are not defined by gender and that is great. Also, I am not suggesting a woman who prefers to stay at home and raise her child and manage a home is “letting down” feminists any more than exotic dancers are. It’s no fun being Super Woman, either, who merges traditional male and female roles and feels utterly exhausted. Defining gender roles is rarely representative and frequently confining.
What are your thoughts about the Burly Q?