When we think of the word burlesque, we often think of striptease dancers. But actually, Aristophanes--five centuries before Christ, is known as the Father of Burlesque. Because burlesque is comedy; mimicking the real, exaggerating something. He was a famous playwright and poet, and he realized if you're an urchin in the street and you're poverty-stricken and you have absolutely nothing, what is funny to you? Nothing! But if a big coach pulls up, with some very well-coiffed people--ooooh!--and they step out and fall right into a big mud puddle, now that's very funny to a person who has absolutely nothing. So that's the core, that's the basis of comedy and burlesque: it's mimicking something. . . .
So you see, we've had burlesque for thousands and thousands of years--even the striptease. Salome, in the Bible [was] the first known striptease dancer. Now, the [modern] striptease is American. Later on in the tour you'll find out why, and how it became important to America's history and our culture. Burlesque actually came to the United States in 1861, with Lydia Thompson and her Bevy of British Blondes. . . .
We had vaudeville, and vaudeville was wonderful in America, and then, of course, along came the radio, and Jack Benny and Fanny Bryce and all the big stars went and switched to the radio, and why not? They could stay in New York, talk out of a little black box and they didn't have to travel. They could keep that money in their pockets. But a lot of them didn't like it. They used to say to me, "Oh, you burlesque girls! You ruined vaudeville!" Well, what's the difference between vaudeville and burlesque? The only difference is, vaudeville was just acts, booked into a theater, whereas in burlesque they put in the runways, they had chorus lines, they had comedians, and they had house people--people who stayed, and then just the main actors and actresses traveled.
The comedians and the comics were the backbone of the show. Art Carney, Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton--so many did come from burlesque. And of course there was no prejudice in burlesque. We had black girls, we had Japanese, we had Chinese, we had lots of girls who did belly-dancing. In 1941, of course President Roosevelt put the Japanese in internment camps, and there was no one to pick the vegetables. I worked in the fields up in the Kuyama [sp?] Valley, and I worked the Santa Rosa and San Joaquin. Later I worked in Bakersfield where we put the struts on these airplanes. Young pilots would forget to put the wheels down and they'd rip them off! So it was my job to put 'em back. And I'm an honorary captain in the United States Navy.
Now what I have to explain to you, which is very, very important--as a part of the tour, you have to know that this is an education--you see, many, many years ago, at the beginning of our country, we had what were called privileged people, and the poor people were just considered outcasts. . . . And the privileged people, or aristocracy, would sit up in these gold booths, and you know they didn't pay, either--they used to sit separate from everybody else, because they didn't want to rub elbows with a working class person. But at the end of the night, the theater owner said, "You know what? It's those working people down there who are paying the bills for the privileged--what are we catering to them for?" Thus the burlesque theater is born. Every major city in the United States had at least two or three burlesque theaters. Cleveland had five burlesque theaters! You had a lot of working people. Also, there was no [other] affordable entertainment for the working class. Prior to burlesque, they would pay quite a few dollars to go to some big show--with a cast of about four!--long, drawn-out plots, and their minds would wander: "How we gonna put food on the table for the family, & how am I gonna get a job, what am I doing here?" But for twenty-five cents, there were not plots, there was no storyline, and the working people can relate to that dumb, stupid comic on the stage, you know, who was trying to scramble and get by. So that's why the burlesque theaters flourished, especially during the 30s and the 40s.
The girls in the burlesque theaters didn't do striptease because it hadn't been invented. A girl would come out in a big, elaborate gown, and with a sickly-sweet smile on her face, and then she'd go off & remove the gown, and then she'd come back and do her little shake number, which was her finale. Well, one day this girl, she did her big act in her big gown, she got off the stage, & she could not get out of the dress. Well, the backstage manager said, "Girlie, get back out there, your music's playing!" So she ran back out, and as she flirted and toyed with the audience and kidded around with them, she finally did shake out of the dress. Well, when she took the dress off, a shock went through the audience like a bolt of lightning. They burst into a thunderous applause, and the owner thought the building was coming down, ran out, and said, "What happened?" The backstage manager said, "I'll tell you what happened! Hinda Wassa took her dress off--right out there, in the middle of the stage! That's what happened!" The owner said, "Oh, that's what happened. Call a rehearsal tonight after the show." So he said, "Girls, when you do that big act with the beautiful gown, don't be so hoity-toity and smile sickly like that. Wink at the people! Smile at 'em! Flirt with 'em a little bit. Tug at your blouse, & take that dress off as you leave the stage. Thus the striptease was just born into the burlesque show as an accident, and it clicked, and it went on, and then the girls found themselves putting more things on to take off, and it just kept building. And of course you know us Americans, once we get onto something, we ride it around a few times--and then some!