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1866 One Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

March 2023
1min read

Leg Show

On September 12 Charles Barras’s The Black Crook made its leggy, five-hour debut at Niblo’s Garden in New York City and became the country’s first big hit burlesque. “The scenery is magnificent; the ballet is beautiful,” explained the Tribune ’s critic, but “the drama is—rubbish.” Another writer noted the show’s “scenic glories and the unutterable stupidity.” What was spectacular and new about William Wheatley’s production was its use of one hundred female dancers wearing skin-colored silk tights and gotten up as lightly clad fairies suspended by wires. While some critics bemoaned the play’s length and vacuity, the public ate it up, and the ballet spectacle earned more than a million dollars in a sixteen-month run.

The Black Crook might never have seen the lights had it not been for a fire that destroyed New York’s Academy of Music, leaving a foreign ballet troupe with no place to perform. Wheatley, the manager of Niblo’s Garden, completely overhauled a play he had been producing at his theater to give it a new emphasis on dancing and brought in 110 tons of scenery and costumes along with the dance troupe. He even dug a cellar beneath the stage to hold his production’s elaborate machinery. The Black Crook became “a medium for the presentation of several gorgeous scenes,” in the words of one reviewer, “and a large number of female legs.”

After an intensive advertising effort the show opened to gasps and wild cheering from an overflow crowd. The performance ran from 7:45 P.M. to 1:15 in the morning, but most patrons saw it through to its end. A schedule was later posted outside the theater, giving the times for each dance number so that men could drop by for the famous demon dance before going home to family dinner. Charles Smyth, a Protestant minister, rented out the Cooper Institute to lecture several thousand listeners for three hours on the “immodest dress of the girls; their short skirts and undergarments of thin, gauze-like material … ladies dancing so as to make their undergarments spring up, exposing the figure beneath from the waist to the toe.” Few theatergoers were kept away by such denunciations, as The Black Crook became the second most popular production of the century. In its first week the Tribune had already called it “a symbol among us … the first attempt to put on the stage the wild delirious joy of a sensualist’s fancy.”

Other “leg shows” followed. The White Fawn , which opened at Niblo’s only a week after The Black Crook finally closed, was itself replaced by performances by the great burlesque dancer Lydia Thompson. Wheatley and Barras’s play enjoyed eight New York revivals over the years, but never again to quite the same effect.

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