June/July 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 3
Its last impresario tells why it is the most American of all entertainments. (It’s not because of the strippers.)
— 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
In 1955 Billy Hagan was no longer in seasonal residence at the Troc. He was now on the road and appeared in Philadelphia about once every 15 weeks. The house comic and stage manager that year was a manic little fellow named Maxie Furman, who became one of my closest friends and whom I cast in Sugar Babies in 1980. (He died on tour with the show.)
Maxie was nervous, fast-talking, and brilliantly acerbic in his stage persona, but kind and gentle off the stage. Unlike Foster and Hagan, he had once had a brief flirtation with the big time. Some years before, when he was playing at the Town Hall Theatre in Toledo, Mike Todd, the Broadway impresario, had spent a restless night in the city after his plane made an emergency landing because of bad weather. Todd found his way to the burlesque house and, charmed by Maxie’s performance, hired him to succeed Bobby Clark in Mexican Hayride . As soon as Maxie’s tour in that show ended, he returned to burlesque, preferring the security of 40 weeks’ work a year to the uncertainty of Broadway.
Maxie’s job as stage manager of the Troc meant that he had to be prepared to jump in if one of the comics was drunk or otherwise indisposed. He had a stock routine that he used on those occasions. He would appear on the stage carrying a trumpet. The orchestra would play, and Maxie would lift the trumpet to his mouth as if preparing to blow, then stop suddenly to tell a story. He repeated this routine three or four times. By now the audience suspected that he couldn’t play the trumpet at all. But of course he could, and he finished his act by playing a superb solo with a whole succession of spectacular high notes.
Maxie was a skillful raconteur, and I learned everything I know about the art of joke telling from him. Many of his jokes were about eccentric pet owners, and I adapted one of them for my recent production of Scandals :
I have a pet, but I’m a nonconformist. I don’t have a dog or a cat. I have a duck. His name is Arnie. One day I was walking Arnie, and I passed a movie theater. It was showing a film I wanted to see. I went to buy a ticket. The cashier looked at my duck and said, “You can’t bring that animal in here.”
“Animal,” I said. “He’s just a little duck. He read the book. He wants to see the movie.”
“You can’t bring him in here,” she said, “and that’s final.”
Well, I really wanted to see that film. So I slipped around the corner, opened my coat, unzipped, and put Arnie inside my pants. I closed the zipper, buttoned my coat, went to the box office, bought a ticket, and got inside without any trouble.
I was sitting next to two old ladies. Well, I didn’t want my little duck to stifle, so I opened my zipper a few inches, and Arnie stuck his head out.
“Mabel,” said one of the old ladies to her friend, “do you see what I see?”
“Ah,” said Mabel, “you’ve seen one; you’ve seen them all.”
“Yes,” said the first. “But this one is eating my popcorn.”
Through Furman and Hagan, I met another brilliant comic. He was Bert Carr, a sophisticated and skillful performer who, despite other offers, chose to continue in burlesque even in its sad final days. Bert was an excellent serious actor. He had performed with Boris Thomashevsky at the Yiddish Art Theatre, but in mid-career he traded high art for low comedy. He had a face like a grotesque Hellenistic comedy mask (when he removed his false teeth), but he was a very gentle, understated comedian. He played a good-natured but greedy clown, always hungry. His tag line, “You gotta eat,” was worked into every stage conversation, often in a cunning and roundabout way. Despite his training in the mawkish Yiddish Theatre, there was no pathos in his comic style.
Bert was the first burlesque comedian I ever worked with. In 1962 I put together a revue for the Pittsburgh Playhouse, and Bert was the star. He stole the show in a famous flirtation scene the comics called “The Shedhouse Quartet, or, Meet Me Round the Corner.” This was one of Billy Hagan’s scenes too, and I liked it so much that I adapted it for Mickey Rooney in Sugar Babies .
The sketch is about a quartet of friends who promise to stay together forever but who succumb one by one to feminine temptation. The sketch played for 50 years on the Columbia and Mutual circuits. It has no known source, and it possibly developed improvisationally out of a rehearsal situation.
Early in the scene, as soon as the principal comic appears to complete the quartet, the audience is treated to a series of very naive jokes.
STRAIGHT They need a quartet down at the Gaiety Theater. Can you sing?
FIRST COMIC Sure. I used to sing in a queer.
STRAIGHT No. No. You mean a choir.
FIRST COMIC It was a queer choir.
STRAIGHT A queer choir?
FIRST COMIC Yes. We weren’t even sure about the man who played the organ.
STRAIGHT What do you mean?
FIRST COMIC He played nothing but hymns.
STRAIGHT Let’s sing out of these books [ passing out song books ].
FIRST COMIC What page shall we sing on?
STRAIGHT Sing on page 14.
SECOND COMIC [ looking at book ] There’s no page 14 in my book.
FIRST COMIC Sing on page seven twice. [ Second comic sings a few bars of an operatic aria .] What are you singing?
SECOND COMIC [ showing first comic the page ] See. It says right here Paganini.
FIRST COMIC You damn fool. That’s page nine.
These jokes may seem a little pale on paper, but as performed by a Billy Hagan or a Bert Carr, they have a slyness that makes them irresistible. “Meet Me Round the Corner” is silly and resolutely unsentimental.
The clown in burlesque was never a pathetic figure. He was not the tearful tramp of Chaplin. In most sketches he was represented as a child of nature, the slave of stimulus and response. A girl with obvious attractions appears. He is obviously attracted. The straight man attempts to demonstrate love-making techniques to the comic by massaging the latter’s stomach, whereupon the comic forgets the girl and kisses the straight man. The burlesque-show tramp represents man stripped of his inhibitions, of restraints of all kinds, free of moral pretense, innocent of education, and above all lazy and selfish. He frequently appears to be a victim, but never a pathetic one, because in 9 scenes out of 10 he blunders at the end into some kind of dubious success. Of course, on some occasions he does fail, but even when the comic is left with egg in his hat or pie on his face, the audience feels no pity for him, because it senses his infinite resilience.
I was among the last of a long line of audiences that rooted for the comic in the bloodless and fantastic battles of the burlesque skit and not for the straight man. But ours was a partisanship in which the emotions were not engaged. The burlesque show appealed to our inner passion for anarchy. It encouraged our desire to renounce the painful effort of intelligence and behave as creatures of instinct, not of will.
In addressing itself to all these temporary antisocial childlike inclinations, this most American of all entertainments dramatized the fantasies of a society that thought and still thinks of itself as classless. But the celebration of disorder was contained in an orderly, predictable—indeed, highly conventional—structure. As a result, in sharp contrast with the avant-garde absurdist drama that was becoming popular on Broadway about the time those old comics were playing their last shows, anarchy in burlesque seemed always exhilarating, never threatening.
Of course, there were silly, unsentimental comic forms long before American burlesque was invented. One day in the bar next to the Troc, Billy Hagan showed me a newspaper column that compared him to Aristophanes. He was upset. “Is that a knock at me?” he asked. I assured him that it was the greatest of compliments. Still, while Billy’s scenes might have exhibited certain Aristophanic elements, his humor had no topical social message and was resolutely American in tone and style.
And what a style it was. Most modern comedy is either sentimental (like “Friends” or “Frazier”) or cynical and bitter (like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ). Burlesque steered a course between the shoals of sentiment and the rocks of harshness and despair when most twentieth-century comedy has been beached on the one or battered by the other.
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.