Friday, December 11, 2009

Burlesque, Then and Before Then

The state of burlesque occasionally appears in the pages of the old New Yorker, and every few years the reporters mention Minsky's. The Minsky Brothers kept a high-profile burlesque show going at the National Winter Garden, even through the late '20s and early '30s when the artform was unappreciated.

In the February 1st, 1930 issue of The New Yorker, theatre reporter Robert Benchley compared the cleaner Minsky style of burlesque with the "old Fourteenth Street or Old Howard days." Besides the somewhat "cleaner" costumes and a greater reliance on "effects," Benchley makes a (perhaps backhanded) compliment to the fuller figure:
The most noticeable change in in the structure of the ladies of the chorus. Gone are the leviathans of an earlier day, when women were women and gold teeth flashed like beacons above Scyllas and Charybdises which could sink a ship if given half a chance. The burlesque girls of today are agile wisps for the most part, although here and there one detects a form which, if given its quota of starches for a year or two, might approximate those which used to ply back and forth in irregular array behind Clark and McCullough, Tom Howard, and Jim Barton.
I love Robert Benchley's theatre reviews. "Scyllas and Charybdises?" Holy cow!

Anyway, Benchley goes on to say that what sets Minsky's burlesque apart from regular Broadway shows is the "informality in chorus dance routines." Each dancer can do whatever she wants "so long as they all get on and off the stage at the same time," though he bemoans their attempts at synchronized arm-raising.

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