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
JUDGE I’m taking a closer look at the case. I’m recapitulating.
WOMAN Just be careful what you recapitulate.
JUDGE Now, you say, when the trailer began, his hand was here [ placing his own hand on her calf ]. And then he slipped past the cartoon [ knee ] and into the newsreel [ thigh ]. And when the feature started, your money was gone from up here. Just one question concerns me.
WOMAN What’s that?
JUDGE When you felt his hand on your calf, on your knee, and your thigh, why didn’t you scream? Why didn’t you stop him?
WOMAN How did I know he was after my money?
Foster and Hagan often acted together, and both were nostalgic about the old Columbia days, although only Foster had actually played the number one circuit. Both of them had contempt for the strippers who shared the latter-day bill with them. “Send them back to the laundries where they belong,” Hagan once said to me. The biggest female star in 1949 burlesque was a stripper named Virginia (“DingDong”) Bell. She was a slight woman who, before the time of breast-enhancing surgery, had a 48-inch bust. I asked Hagan to describe her act. “She crawls out on the stage,” he said, “and tries to stand up.”
You can understand the bitterness of the comedians. Bell could earn thousands of dollars a week and Hagan only $300. Moreover, the audiences of the late forties and early fifties came to the theater to ogle, not to laugh.
The history of the decline of burlesque was much talked about by the men who had suffered through it. The Troc successively played host to the shows of the Columbia Wheel, then to those of the Mutual Wheel, organized by I. Herk and merged with Columbia in 1927; and then in the late forties, the Bryant and Engel shows. Bryant and Engel were two entrepreneurs who owned the Old Howard Theatre in Boston, and in 1949 they were sending out traveling companies to theaters like the Troc in cities such as Youngstown, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Newark, St. Louis, Detroit, Toledo, and Union City. Union City was the closest these truncated companies (principals only; the chorus stayed in its home theater) came to New York, from which burlesque had been banned by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
During the years when the comic was king, there was no such thing as striptease. No one really knows the name of the first woman to remove her clothes in burlesque, but the event occurred sometime around 1930. In the fateful year of 1929 the stock market crashed just as sound movies were making their ominous appearance and radio was bringing free entertainment into the home for the first time. Under this triple pressure the big vaudeville circuits collapsed, and the burlesque producers kept their theaters open by offering the kind of erotic performances that neither the radio nor the movies could or would provide. In the short run the policy was profitable, but in the long term it led to the persecution of burlesque by municipal authorities and its eventual extinction as a comic entertainment.
When the comic was king, there was no such thing as striptease. No one knows the first woman to remove her clothes in burlesque, but it happened around 1930.
So when I came to the Troc in 1949, I saw the last practitioners of a style of comedy that in the twenties and thirties had been one of America’s most popular forms of amusement. Conditions at the Troc were appalling by the time I started going there. Monday through Saturday there were 4 two-and-a-half-hour performances every day (matinees from noon to five and evening shows from seven to midnight). Because of Philadelphia’s blue laws, Sunday was free, but every Monday at 12:01 A.M. there was what was euphemistically called the midnight matinee.
For three years I went to every change of bill, usually at the first show on Saturday. The only constant in the shows was Hagan. He was the house comedian and had to perform his sketches every week with a different traveling straight man.
In 1951 I went to college in New England and visited the Troc only during the Christmas holidays. The un-air-conditioned theater closed every year on Memorial Day, and the crew and orchestra repaired to the Globe in Delaware and the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, also not air-conditioned but cooled by the ocean breezes. When I returned to Philadelphia in 1955, I started haunting the Troc again. The choruses had been abandoned, but my favorite comedians were on the bills, now providing brief interludes between the ubiquitous strips. I began to think about writing a history of burlesque before those comics retired or died. With that in mind I started to patronize the bar next to the theater and contrived to meet the performers.