The Burly Q

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.

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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.

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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:

Post 1950

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?

16 thoughts on “The Burly Q

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  1. Behind the Burly Q looks really interesting, I’ll have to watch it some day. When in London this past summer my husband and I had planned to take in some of the burlesque shows but we had previously booked evening events that fell on the nights these clubs were open. Which was too bad as I view burlesque as an art form and you don’t see much of it in Canada & US.

    1. Hi June! Thanks for stopping by. I’ve only seen them advertised in the big city. Paris, of course. Chicago, Berlin, NYC, Las Vegas. As a performance of art, that’s awesome. Last summer there was an exotic dancers’ club on a corner in Munich by my hotel, and I walked by it nervously. I had no idea what went on inside the red and black door, and I didn’t want to know, either.

      1. I’ve actually been in a few of those clubs however to no one’s surprise they bear no resemble to burlesque. Mind you I have seen the odd exotic dancer who had the talent to transition there. 🙂

  2. Your post inspired me to do a bit of background reading and it sounds like many of the stories the women share in the film are tragic. Either coming from abusive and broken homes or suffering from crippling addictions. Much like boxers and other performers it seems many of the burlesque dancers used their profession to escape from poverty. I’ll have to look out for this one.

    1. Thank you, Paul, for taking the time to comment 🙂 It was a balanced juggling act for Leslie Z. The women interviewed were the ones who not only survived, they enjoyed that chapter of their lives. Not all did, for sure. The 20s,30s,40s were tough years to live through and they found an outlet for shining.

  3. Hi, Cindy:

    Nicely researched and presented perspective. 🙂

    Vaudeville was all about timing, stunts and pratfalls. Which meant team. And the Marx brothers ruled that roost. Though Abbot & Costello picked up whatever slack there was afterwards. W.C. Fields was a stand alone. Who taught himself to juggle and fill time between acts. Very much like Danny Kaye did in the Catskills ad “Borscht Belt” decades later.

    While Burlesque was seamier, raunchier and more adult. Slowly coming to an end as Lenny Bruce was making a name for himself in this new genre called “Stand Up”. Where Mort Sahl is still its classiest, purest purveyor.

    1. Hi Kevin! Thanks for commenting. I don’t know anything about Mort Sahl, and I’m glad you mentioned the straight man transitioning to stand up. That deserves a post all by itself as do the influence of Vaudeville to variety shows (Doris Day, Carol Burnett, my favorite Laugh-in) and tonight shows. An interesting topic! Thanks for adding. 🙂

      1. Hi, Cindy:

        Jackie Gleason was another son of Vaudeville who transitioned well into the Variety arena. Predating Carol Burnett by a few decades, though her show was far superior!
        Never cared much for Milton Berle or Phil Silvers. Though, Ernie Kovaks was a real pioneer with the magic an optical illusions of television. While ‘Laugh-In’ was more of a ‘black out’ (short skits) show. 🙂

        Benny Hill via BBC and You Tube was along the same lines, but baudier and naughtier.

        Mort Sahl would show up in chinos, loafers, a V-neck sweater and the New York Times. And make his routine from the paper’s headlines and stories. Very clean and sophisticated for the mid 1960s. And well worth looking up on You Tube.

  4. Interesting tidbits here Cindy. I have never seen this one and I didn’t know that about Alan Alda.

    “On the downside, exotic dancers dealt with derogatory reputations which conflicted with their roles as daughter, mother, and wife.” I’d imagine that, though for some it might’ve been the only choice they had because of monetary reasons.

    1. Hi Ruth 🙂 I’m a big M*A*S*H fan. He’s one of the only few who has won Emmys for directing, acting, and writing. He’s won a Golden Globe and nominated for an Oscar (The Gladiator). I think he’s a comedic genius and it’s crazy childhood and icons before him who molded him for the 70s, 80s and 00s.

  5. The historian, Thaddeus Russell, has written a provocative book called ‘A Renegade History of the United States’. In it Russell claims that prostitutes were in large part the model for today’s independent urban women, as they were often the richest people in their towns and cities, frequently owning their own businesses, not getting married until they were older, wearing flamboyant clothing and cosmetics (that is now accepted as normal), and pushing many other boundaries. From your description of ‘Behind the Burly Q’ it seems that exotic dancers may also have become a role model for independent urban women in a similar way.

  6. What a Time that was! What an experience that must have been!
    A hidden universe/era that seems to be almost lost and forgotten.
    I’m downloading ‘Behind the Burly-Q’ right now.

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