- Historic Sites
Its last impresario tells why it is the most American of all entertainments. (It’s not because of the strippers.)
June/July 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 3
As I looked back on that moment years later, Hagan’s secret pleasure seemed to me the distilled essence of burlesque humor. Billy’s tramp gave silly hope to all of us. Perhaps we, too, might be mistaken for a Dr. Plummer, or draw five aces in a pocket game, or win the favors of a luscious lady by waving a magic poppy underneath her nose. Not all our aspirations are heroic, and we should not despise those shabby comforts that lead to transitory moments of joy.
That first night at the old music hall had a profound influence on me. The Troc in 1949 was 79 years old. It was shopworn and musty, its paint peeling and its stock scenery badly in need of refurbishment. It had been built in 1870 as the Arch Street Opera House. For several decades it had offered minstrel shows; then, around the time the first big burlesque circuits were organized in the 1910s, it changed its policy and became the home of the traveling companies of the Columbia Amusement Company, also known as the Columbia Wheel.
The Columbia shows were the burlesque equivalent of big-time vaudeville. They borrowed their tone and style from the Western honky-tonk, that curious nineteenth-century institution that featured variety entertainment of the most vulgar sort. But they took their structure from another native form of entertainment, the minstrel show, which William Dean Howells called “the only genuinely indigenous form of American drama.”
The minstrel show was a piece of folk entertainment that had no relationship to the folk whose lives it was supposed to depict. Created by white men for white men, the stock character of the blackfaced comic, his complexion not the product of heredity but of burnt cork, represented what was once white America’s vision of the plantation Negro—carefree, cunning, greedy, and perpetually optimistic. Transmuted into putty nose and clown white, Tambo and Bones, as the minstrel clowns were called, became the tramp comics of the burlesque stage.
The man who combined the atmosphere of the honky-tonk with the patterns of the minstrel show was Michael Leavitt, the Ziegfeld of the tenderloin, who began a long and profitable career as a producer well before 1870, when he borrowed without much alteration the stock format used by the minstrel impresario E. P. Christy: a three-part performance consisting of banter between the white interlocutor and black face comedians; an olio of variety acts; and an afterpiece or concluding farce. Leavitt’s principal innovation was the substitution of attractive women for the black-faced “end men” or clowns.
Columbia circuit shows at first imitated Leavitt’s extravaganzas but restored the comics to a central place in the performance.
Between 1905 and 1935 the troc played host to all the subsequently famous performers who served their apprenticeships in burlesque: Bert Lahr, Leon Errol, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, W. C. Fields, Red Skelton, Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason, Barbara Stanwyck, Rags Ragland, Red Buttons, Bud Abbott, and Lou Costello. I was too young to have seen any of them there, but the comics I was privileged to see, like Hagan, were extremely clever and talented, even if they had chosen to spend their whole professional lives in the slum music halls.
One of my favorites at the Troc was Billy Foster, who had been a headliner for many years in the Columbia shows. When he began his career, the comics were the stars of the troupe, and while the sex appeal of the chorus and the female principals was always a feature of the program, it was men like Bert Lahr, Leon Enrol, and Foster himself who had top billing and were the main attractions.
When I first met foster, he was well into his eighties and very frail. His energy occasionally ebbed after the first two minutes of a scene. But he had a remarkable wit and a wicked smile, and you could see the ghost of the performer he had been in earlier years, when he headed one of the Columbia shows. In his latter days he was best when silent. In one memorable courtroom scene he was a defendant accused of molesting a woman in a movie theater. The principal comedian (Hagan) was the examining judge.
WOMAN That vile brute [ indicating the frail and apparently harmless Foster ] sat next to me in the theater. And when the trailer was on, I felt his hand touching me here [ indicating calf and raising skirt ]; then, when the cartoon began, he touched me here [ knee ]. As soon as the newsreel began, I felt his hand right here [ thigh ]. And when the feature started, I discovered that my money was missing from my money belt up here [ indicating slightly below her waist ].
During her testimony Foster had a sly smile on his face, admitting proudly his guilt. The incongruity of an attack by such a slight and unthreatening man was the most amusing aspect of the scene.
JUDGE [ getting on hands and knees and staring at woman’s leg ] Now, let me see.
WOMAN What are you doing?