Burlesque

PrintPrintEmailEmail
Burlesque’s celebration of disorder was contained in an orderly structure, and so its anarchy seemed always exhilarating, never threatening.

I don’t suppose that in my high school days I could have justified my fondness for burlesque in such pretentious terms. But those days and nights at the Troc served me well; I learned to love low comedy there, and that love in turn became a vocation. Burlesque has vanished completely now, but I’m happy to say that the Troc has not. The Old Howard in Boston, the Roxy in Cleveland, and the Empire in Newark were torn down to make room for office buildings; the Gayety in Baltimore is a fire-gutted shell. But the Troc lives on. The theater was landmarked and pressed into service first as a Chinese movie house, then as a discotheque, and now as a nightclub.

I returned to Philadelphia recently after an absence of 20 years. The Reading Terminal Market, where I had lunch before my Saturday matinees, is still operating, although there is no terminal for the Reading Railroad, and indeed no Reading Railroad. Everything about the neighborhood has changed except the Troc. The bar where I used to meet Billy and Maxie after the show is a seafood market. The Pennsylvania Convention Center occupies the north side of Arch Street from almost Thirteenth Street to Eleventh Street, replacing the small disreputable retail stores of my youth.

With the help of a city grant, the Troc has been restored, and there it stands, an oasis of nineteenth-century elegance in a desert of contemporary concrete. It has now recaptured its full title and is called the Trocadero Theatre. The building is owned by the Pang family, and they arranged for me to tour the facility with their youthful manager, Gordon Joines, as a guide. The seats have been removed from the ground floor, and new, level flooring rests over the old raked auditorium. But the proscenium arch is the same one that I remember, and the seats are still in place in the first balcony.

The Trocadero hosts concerts nearly every night, mostly rock bands but also such veteran performers as Bob Dylan. It is one of the most successful nightclub venues in the city. The owners have even carved out a second performance space adjacent to the first balcony, so on some nights two bands perform simultaneously.

I sat with Joines in the first row of the balcony, and in the theater of my mind I was 15 again, and the stage was haunted not by the showgirls of Sondheim’s Follies or by the voluptuous strippers of my youth, but by Billy, Maxie, Billy, and Bert.