Burlesque

PrintPrintEmailEmailMy father said, “Don’t go To a burlesque show; You’ll see things you shouldn’t see.” And he was right, For the very next night I saw Father in the row in front of me.

 

— OLD SONG BASED ON A BURLESQUE JOKE

This joke has no reasonance for me. My father, an ausere philologist, never would have compromised his dignity by attending a burlesque show. My father disapproved of the theater, didn’t enjoy it or understand modern plays, and, since he was much taken with fantasies of my failure, looked on my youthful fondness for burlesque as a sign that I would never amount to anything.

My mother, on the other hand, loved the theater and took me to nearly every play that passed through Philadelphia in the forties and early fifties. But she, too, had contempt for the variety stage and a puritan dislike for low comedy. (Years later, when Sugar Babies , my tribute to the follies of my misspent youth, was a hit on Broadway, my mother took no pleasure in it. “Well,” she said, “at least you didn’t write The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas .”)

Nevertheless, despite or because of parental disapproval, the theater that mattered most to me in my youth was not the Walnut, the Locust, or the Forrest, in all of which I spent many happy afternoons and evenings. Instead it was an old Victorian music hall at Tenth and Arch in the tenderloin of Philadelphia, the Troc (short for Trocadero). No parent accompanied me to the Troc. I went alone or with some of my high school friends.

 

I was drawn to it initially, of course, by the chance to stare at nearly naked women, an opportunity that, to a student at an all boys’ prep school, had an irresistible allure. I paid my first visit to the Troc on a February evening in 1949, a month after my fifteenth birthday. Several eager classmates joined me that evening, there being no “R” rating for shows in those days to deny us entrance. The female performers were disappointing. The chorus of 10 was a bedraggled crew; none of them were younger than my mother, while the star strippers had seen better days, and their disrobing was both perfunctory and tediously protracted.

However, between the musical numbers a group of hardy but aging comics performed sketches lasting 8 to 10 minutes. Of the comics, one—Billy (“Cheese and Crackers”) Hagan a sad-faced, droll clown then in his late sixties—was particularly engaging. Hagan had a highpitched voice that he could quickly transform into a steamy basso profundo when he wanted to simulate lust. He wore baggy pants and no makeup and had the ability to take any innocent word and give it an obscene connotation.

I remember an exchange that I heard for the first time that night and many times thereafter.

BILLY I had a strange experience on my way to work.

STRAIGHT MAN Really?

BILLY You know that hotel at Thirteenth and Market? Well, it caught fire. I heard someone holler, “Save me. Save me.” There was a woman on the fourth floor Standing on the sill. I looked up and saw her predicament.

STRAIGHT Through all that smoke?

BILLY You’d be surprised to know how far a man will go to spot a predicament. I saw one on the other side of the Schuylkill River once. Almost drowned getting across. Found it was my mother-in-law, the one I don’t like.

This exchange and others like it contained no off-color word or direct anatomical reference. Conversation in burlesque scenes always left room for an innocent interpretation. The audience, not the actors, had the dirty minds; and unlike contemporary comics who use four-letter words to shock the public into laughing, Billy Hagan and his colleagues struck a pose of innocence and pretended to be pained when their guilelessness was misconstrued.

 
Conversations in burlesque scenes always left room for innocent interpretations. The audience, not the actors, had the dirty minds.

Another sketch I saw on my first visit to the Troc was “Dr. Plummer.” As I was later to learn, all burlesque sketches came from a storehouse of traditional material that every performer had to know well enough to play without a rehearsal. In “Dr. Plummer,” Hagan was a bewildered plumber mistaken for Dr. Plummer, the eccentric heart specialist. Tools in hand, he has come to repair a leaky valve in the bathroom. Instead he is invited to scrutinize a beautiful, nearly naked patient to see if she has a leaky heart. “What a break for a plumber,” he says, masking his delight from the straight man but letting the rest of us share it. I’ve never forgotten Billy’s squeaky voice when he said that line and the little smile that hinted at profound delights.