Each year, I groan at this day. It’s not because I’m bitter or because I’ve had a bad experience. It’s because it’s just one and a half months after Christmas and there’s so much PRESSURE to do something when truly, each day should be a blessing with the one you love. This holiday is right up there with New Year’s Eve in my book – you want to plan ahead but you end up waiting until the last minute to figure it out. And, if you’re single, you need to find that special someone to share it with.
This year, I really was sort of indifferent. The only thing that really mattered to me was exchanging cards. Why? Well, because sometimes Hallmark can say it better than you can. And, I like reading what people pick out for me because you have to believe there is thought behind it. Seriously, that could have been enough. However, about a month prior, I met a wonderful woman who happens to know where are the “cool” things are to do in this town. She mentioned to me that there would be a burlesque show coming to the Birchmere and my eyes lit up. I love burlesque shows because of the beauty, the femininity and the fact that it was created in one the most fascinating eras – the late 1800s. Not even knowing what date this show landed on, I bought the tickets. When the confirmation code was sent, it was then that I realized I just chose a unique date idea for a routine holiday.
The History of Burlesque
Before I dive into my review of the show, the history of burlesque is interesting:
(Pulled from the History of Musicals 101 Site)
In the 19th Century, the term “burlesque” was applied to a wide range of comic plays, including non-musicals. Beginning in the 1840s, these works entertained the lower and middle classes in Great Britain and the United States by making fun of (or “burlesquing”) the operas, plays and social habits of the upper classes. These shows used comedy and music to challenge the established way of looking at things. Everything from Shakespearean drama to the craze for Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind could inspire a full-length burlesque spoof.
By the 1860s, British burlesque relied on the display of shapely, underdressed women to keep audiences interested. In the Victorian age, when proper women went to great lengths to hide their physical form beneath bustles, hoops and frills, the idea of young ladies appearing onstage in tights was a powerful challenge. Suggestive rather than bawdy, these shows relied less on strong scripts or songs than on sheer star power.
As male managers took over the form in the 1880s, feminine wit was gradually replaced by a determination to reveal as much of the feminine form as local laws allowed. But obscenity and vulgarity were avoided – the point was to spoof and (to a limited extent) titillate, not to offend.
Burlesque underwent a crucial change when Michael Leavitt produced burlesque variety shows using something similar to the three act minstrel show format –
- ACT ONE: The ensemble entertains with songs and gags, dressed in formal evening clothes.
- ACT TWO: An “olio” of variety acts (singers, comics, skits, etc.).
- ACT THREE: A complete one-act musical burlesque. These ranged from Shakespearean take offs like Much Ado About a Merchant of Venice to a Gilbert and Sullivan spoof called The Mick Hair-Do.
By 1905, burlesque theatre owners formed vaudeville-style circuits of small, medium and big time theatres. Because big time burlesque companies played these theatres in regular rotations, the circuits came to be known as wheels — the largest being the Columbia (Eastern U.S.), Mutual, and Empire (Western U.S.) wheels. Unlike vaudeville performers who sought weekly bookings as individual acts, burlesquers spent an entire forty week season touring as part of one complete troupe. For three decades, this system made burlesque a dependable source of steady work.
The biggest burlesque star of the early 20th Century was dancer Millie DeLeon, an attractive brunette who tossed her garters into the audience and occasionally neglected to wear tights. Such shenanigans got her arrested on occasion, and helped to give burlesque a raunchy reputation. Although vaudevillians looked down on burlesque performers, many a vaude trouper avoided bankruptcy by appearing in burlesque – usually under an assumed name, to avoid embarrassment.
While it was common for burlesque stars to graduate into vaudeville, vaudevillians considered it a fatal disgrace to appear in burlesque, insisting that only those who were “washed up” would stoop so low. However, many a vaudeville veteran hit the burlesque wheels during dry spells, appearing under an assumed name.
Burlesque’s richest legacy was its comedy. The lead comic in a burlesque show was referred to as the “top banana,” and his sidekicks were known as the second, third, etc. – supposedly because they would resort to slipping on banana peels in order to get a laugh. The lower you were in the “bunch,” the more likely you were to suffer the worst of the physical humor (pies in the face, seltzer in the pants, etc.).
In the 1920s, the old burlesque circuits closed down, leaving individual theater owners to get by as best they could on their own. The strip tease was introduced as a desperate bid to offer something that vaudeville, film and radio could not.
There are a dozen or more popular legends as to how the strip was born – telling how a dancer’s shoulder strap broke, or some similar nonsense. Burlesque promoters like the Minsky brothers took the strip tease out of the back rooms and put it onstage. While stripping drew in hoards of randy men, it also gave burlesque a sleazy reputation. As moralists once again expressed outrage, male audiences kept burlesque profitable through most of the Great Depression.
Strippers had to walk a fine line between titillation and propriety – going too far (let alone “all the way”) could land them in jail for corrupting public morals. Some gave stripping an artistic twist and graduated to general stardom, including fan dancer Sally Rand and former vaudevillian Rose Lousie Hovick – better known as the comically intellectual Gypsy Rose Lee.
The strippers soon dominated burlesque, and their routines became increasingly graphic. To avoid total nudity but still give the audience what it wanted, the ladies covered their groins with flimsy G-strings and used “pasties” to cover their nipples. This was usually enough to keep the cops at bay, even though pasties were far more vulgar that a plain naked breast.
Legal crackdowns began in the mid-1920s, including a now legendary raid on Minsky’s in Manhattan. Burlesque managers relied on their lawyers, who kept coming up with legal loopholes for more than a decade. Reform-minded Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia closed New York’s remaining burlesque houses in 1937, dismissing them as purveyors of “filth.” He was not altogether wrong – by this time, most burlesque shows had degenerated into a series of bump and grind strip routines interrupted by lifeless comic bits. Burlesque managers were so resilient that LaGuardia outlawed the use of the words “burlesque” or “Minsky” in public advertising!
Some sources praise the burlesque comics of the 1920s and 30s, but by this point, men went to burlesque shows to watch women strip — period. The more the gals took off, the more the audiences liked it. At a time when fear of personal scandal and sexual disease were rampant, burlesque was a relatively safe source of titillation for married men and youngsters alike. The comedy was no longer a key attraction.
Without New York City, which had been the hub of burlesque’s universe, the remaining promoters around the US presented increasingly tacky strip shows. The best burlesque comics segued into radio, film and television, taking many classic routines with them.
In the early 2000s, a spate of “new burlesque” shows are cropping up on both sides of the Atlantic, featuring comics, strippers and specialty acts that offer a new spin on the old “burly-q” mix. Is it too early to fully assess this trend, but the fact that such shows have spontaneously sprung up in places as diverse as Manhattan, Montreal and Oslo suggests there is a widespread interest crossing all sorts of physical and generational barriers….
I had never been to the Birchmere before. In fact, not only did I not know it existed but I also didn’t know that, that many major entertainers have been discovered there.
It’s a really cool place that happens to be in a non-descript-looking (from the front) warehouse. Upon entering, everything about it just seems unreal. From the ticket windows to the waiting area, you feel like you’re on a sort of movie set, more so than in an entertainment hall. And, given that this was a different type of show, it was interesting to see the types of people that were there to see it (they ranged from old to young, same sex couples to heterosexual ones, and of course, friends of the burlesque group, decked out in what I can only describe as the “Betty Page” look).
For the next hour, we sat at the picnic tables and took it all in, while munching on some of the greatest chips and salsa I’ve had in a long time (ok, I was starving). We even browsed the gift shop, which reminded me of a small record store in Ocean Beach, CA – just a totally chill, almost hippie vibe.
When our number was called for seating, we entered into a massive ampitheater-style place with a plain black stage at the front. You get to choose your own table/seat (which means you have to get to Birchmere SUPER EARLY to get a good number) and so we ended up getting a fairly good seat, stage right. Given that we had been waiting to eat dinner, we were excited to see what their menu had to offer – it was upscale barfood but really good. About an hour later, the show began…
The Pontani Sisters
The Pontani sisters are three women who have spent years traveling and performing with various groups. About six years ago, Angie Pontani (Miss Exotic World Champion) decided to start her own group, varying the act with different guest performers, performance numbers and even side show acts. In front of a SOLD OUT crowd of 500, these acts ranged from human tricks (such as the emcee swallowing a 60 inch balloon and hammering a nail through his nose – thank god I finished eating), to tap dancing, to comedy numbers, to audience participation and every man’s favorite – the strip tease (she was still covered at the end of the number but barely). It literally kept your eyes glued to the stage – even during the musical intermission – as this show is unlike anything I had ever seen.
When it was over, your spirits felt lifted and you felt like, for just a few hours, you could escape life. And, since I love history, it was amazing to watch a show that dates back almost 150 years.
According to the emcee, since the inception of the show, they have been playing at the Birchmere on Valentine’s Day. I think we might have just found a Valentine’s Day tradition.