Ettore Rella.

A history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) online

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tion of a foul public taste, who like the
creatures (or victims) of any other such demand

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Burlesque ^^^

- are equally beneath criticism, contempt, or
punishment. They are, in fact, without the
pale of consideration altogether. They are
simply individual members of a class, with
which, as a class, we may deal, v/hile it v/ould
be rank injustice to single out one member of
it for the' visitation of special penalty. Be-
sides which, the only practicable penalty is
that of social ostracism: and these people are
not within the social pale to be ostracized... •
Eliminating those people, brings the managers
and the public face to face: i.e., you have on
one hand, Mr. Barrett and Mr. McCullough, and on
the other the audience— a dense, piled-up house.
The latter came to see the person called Holt,
knowing that she would be indecent and nasty,
(our selection of language, you remark, is ac-
curately adapted to the performance: the peo-
ple v/ho squeezed to see the one, will not of
course object to read the other.) The exhibi-
tion was the sort which has only heretofore
been visible at the Bella Union. That audience
knev; that such v/ould be the fact, and brought
its V7ives, sisters, sv/eethearts and mothers to
gaze upon it... ."

This "shoot-the-works" irritation of the News Let -
ter was still audible, August 7, 1869:

"The Holt drama, as an after-piece, has contin-
ued to hold the boards— but has, we are more
happy to say, discontinued to draw; the respect-
able clrc3.e is pretty thoroughly emptied at the
close of the respectable drama; the people who
stay are a low lot; v/e have looked in on them
and recognized few or none of that society whoso
Organ we are.

"We have only one reflection to offer, in addi-
tion to those heretofore made, upon the subject
of the unclean drama: Formerly when legs v/ere
exposed upon the stage, the leg was subjected
to rigid criticism. ...Miss Holt has no figure
whatever; a pair of thin arms, huge hips, utterly
out of 3hape - and there you are. Aside from
its other faults, this series of exhibitions
has been a wretched one in point of the materi-
al exhibited. . >,"

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Burlesque 114

By this time there were enough ingredients in the
pot for a sizable explosion. Both the Bulletin and the News
Letter had continued their original attacks with long, jejune
attempts at the vitriolic. The "strong animal development"
and a "certain, jerky vivacity" of Miss Holt had suggested to
the unschooled Bulletin scribe the "Hula-Hula of the Hawai-
ian Cyprians," whose dance was, so far, sheer hearsay in Cal-
ifornia, The plays in vAiich Miss Holt had appeared. Lucre zia
Borgia and The Field of the Cloth of Gold , had lingered on
the palate of this same scribe with a "decidely melodeon fla-
vor," The peroxided, denuded apparition of the star had been
pronounced "an offense to every modest v;oman in the audience"
and "an appeal to the lowest and most groveling of masculine
instincts," With a slightly hesitant prophetic insight, the
Bulletin had concluded:

"We are inclined to think that the manager, look-
ing to the permanent as well as present interests
of the establishment, has made a mistake in in-
troducing melodeon business. The excuse of
course is that the popular tasto demands this
class of entertainment. But this taste is a
vitiated one to which it is wrong to pander.
Besides people will soon become disgusted —
have already become disgusted in the East - with
the 'nude drama,' The blonde women will find
their proper place in the concert saloons, and
the legitimate drama, let us hope, will recover
its prerogative...."*

Miss Holt could not be prodded by these dull pins

endlessly. With (from all reports) tears in her eyes, and

* Bulletin, July 20, 1869,


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Burlesque 115

(again from all reports) a cowhide in her hand, she braved

the office of I/Ir. Iferriott, the editor of the News Letter .

The exact procedure from that point on is nowhere indicated.

The Spirit of the Times (New York) for August 21, 1869 made

its own conjecture:

"As Miss Holt is about three feet two inches in
height, and Marriott over the average in size,
'the damage done the calves of his legs, had
they met, would have been frightful.'"

August 27, Figaro laid a last satirical wreath on

the issue :

"Of co\irse the Bullotin had as good a right to
abuse Miss Elise iiolt on her first appearance
at the California Theatre as any other of the
valiant quill-drivers who compose the noble
army of her foes; it was a proper enough thing
to do on that occasion, for had not the others,
who do know some little of what they are talk-
ing about, taken the lead? Granted, we say,
that the Bulletin in launching forth its anath-
ema at that time did not make a much greater
fool of itself than usual when it finds the
chance J what in the name of comraon sense does
the venerable stupid mean by trying to keep it
up? Haven't the others given way at last?,., And
lias not the public, which was appointed referee
in the Case, fully and finally decided it? The
verdict has been rendered in favor of the little
defendant; she is exonerated from all blame by
the best of tribunals, and lo, our virtuous
friend will not be satisfied. .. .Now as the Bul -
letin had seen Miss Holt on a previous occasion
- did she see him when he called? — and had then
expressed his opinion, of her, it is but fair
to suppose that he must have had an object in
going a second time. Did he go because he liked
it? Or was it because he knew what it v;ould be
like, and was it urgent need of something to
pitch into where there would be small danger of
a return blow? Oh, v/orthy knight, Oh most
redoubtable La Mahcha, had you not better have
gone your way in peace, and left the pretty
shining windmill alone?

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Bvirlesque 116

Pyginy-like against the skirling approach of the
giant blondes, the News Letter and the Bulletin stood de-
fiantly and ineffectually. Elise Holt was the lone, bleached
harbinger of a whole flock. Lydia Thompson and her British
Blondes nightly were embanking their Lorelei splendor against
the footlights at Wood's Museum in New York City. The value
of theatrical entertainment in America came to depend on a
very real golden thread. Teutonic propaganda is not evident,
nor a general desire to bolster up the "decline of the ^/est";
but inexplicably, Nordic goddesses in unabashed deshabille
came to dictate public response.

Betv/een Eiise Plolt and the ultimate deluge, the
three Zavlstowski sisters s

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Burlesque 125

chief attraction among the blondes, but Eliza
Weathersby in a more quiet and modest way chal-
lenged better admiration. She has a pretty
voice and v/onderl\il powers of imitation. G.P.
Ketchum and H.Beckett displayed more tlian aver-
age ability as comedians aiid v;on hearty and
well bestowed applause. Ada Harland danced with
much grace and animation, but the rest were not
required to exert themselves very much in any
direction. The costumes of the principal sirt-
ists were very brilliant and sufficiently scant,
v/ithout being positively indecent. The scenery
was quite good, and the representation of the
moon's descent with Diana was very fine, as was
also the closing Tab3.eaux."

Resplendent as Maguire was able to make this open-
ing of his blonde display, Lydia Thompson opened at the Cal-
ifornia theatre six days later with even more eclat. The
critic of the Bulletin for June 23, 1870 fully elaborated his

"The Lydia Thompson Blonde Burlesque Troupe made
their first appearance last night before the
largest audience ever assembled in the Califor-
nia Theater. Not only were all the seats oc-
cupied, but every foot of standing room, and
from each of the four or five wide doors lead-
ing to the dress circle long rows of chairs
were placed., reaching back into the lobby, and
on these men stood looking over each other's
shoulders and heads and vmder each other's arms
to catch a glimpse of the stage and its occu-
pants. Many wore obliged to go away after
striving a long time to find some position
from which they could gain even a momentary
glance. The appearance of Miss Thompson v/as
the signal for a storm of applause, and from
that moment to the end of the performance she
and her companions held the field. At one
time there were so many recalls, and such
shouting, stamping, and yelling in the gal-
leries, Mr. McCullough was obliged to come
on the stage and request the gods to desist and
allow the play to go on. They wanted about the
twentieth repetition of the 'ABC' song* It
contained some pointed local hits at notable
persons and public bodies, among the latter

' 'Krr(yf-

■ <.,i: '■. .:

Burlesque 126

the Fire Commissioners on the election of an
assistant Chief Engineer. Mr. LIcCullough's re-
quest was heeded, and after that the galleries
were not so exacting. Although there were
several speeches that might well have been
left out, there were, so far as we could hear,
no expressions of a coarse character. The cos-
tumes of the females in the troupe were exceed-
ingly brilliant, and there was not a marked
display of bust and limb as the reputation of
the troupe and of burlesque actresses generally
might lead one to expect. ..."

The blondes at Maguire's were to terminate their
engagement before those at the California. During the con-
junction of the two runs, open rivalry developed, never em-
bittered as far as the companies were concerned, but;:at3-
ly unhappy for Maguire. The popularity of a special "sneez-
ing song" by Rose Massey was paralleled quickly by a special
"echo song" by Pauline Markham, the famous beauty of tlie
Thompson troupe. Change of program at one theatre stimulated
change of program at the other. There finally was simultane-
ous production of the burlesque La Sonnambula . This locking
of horns was reported by the San Francisco News Letter
July 2, 1870:

"The burlesque of La Sonnambula , played at both
houses (with important variations) is perhaps
better than the average, in that it is a parody
of that which it professes to parodlzo, and
follows with a reasonable distinctness the plot
of the opera. Deducting Miss Thompson, the two
troupes are very evenly balanced. Maguire has
the best of it in the possession of Beckett, a
comedian of genuine merit, who never misses a
point, and is infinitely more versatile than
Sheridan at the California, who is, we think, a
good actor, but utterly out of place in bur-
lesque. The Bush Street people have also an un-
doubtedly clever low comedian in Caliill. We
are inclined to rate Eliza Weather sby, and Ada

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Burlesque 127

Harland above most of the ladies of the Califor-
nia in general versatility of talent, and Rose
Massey is a more beautiful woman than any of
them. On the other hand, Pauline MarMiam has a
charming voice and knov/s how to tise it...."

V/ith the fate of these competitive engagements in

the balance, Olive Logan, the reformer, megaphoned her voice

into the scene. F igaro for June 29,1870 doscribos the waste -

land after the inexorable Olive had passed over:

"...presently the atmosphere was filled with
tangled yellow hair, fractured tights, sawdust
calves, red paint and dye-stuff; and after the
engagement the platform was metaphorically cov-
ered with green satin boots, from which the
late oinfortunate Blondes had been violently ex-
tracted. ..."

STiroly not as a result of Olive's attack, neverthe-
less Maguire's blondes closed their engagement at the Opera
House July 10, and left for Stockton. The Lydia Thompson
troupe continued at the California until July 23. Praise for
Lydia and her starring supporters developed into a din of ad-
jectives. Pauling Markham became "she of the velvet voice."
The "daintiness which flavors the high comedy of actresses of
note" was ascribed to the burlesque acting of Lydia. Lydia,
again is "perfectly at home as the reckless Sir Rupert in
Lurline"; and Pauline sings a song with "real taste and ex-
pression." John Hall, who joined the company during the San
Francisco engagement, "brings down the house without opening
his mouth, frequently even disturbs the serenity of hia

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Burlesque 128

brother and sister professionals on the stage, never misses a
point, is a thorough actor and a good singer, and as a comic
dancer is really unapproachable." The deluge followed.
Lydia became plump, pretty, piquante, sympathetic, bright,
innocent and winsome. Disarming extremity of praise was re-
served for Pauline, who, Rlchart Grant White declared had
found the long-lost arms of Vemis de Milo.

The San Francisco News Letter for July 23, 1870
got away from the personalities of the troupe and realisti-
cally recorded something about tlie material these personal-
ities were purveying. It has to do with burlesque played at
the last matinee performance in the city:

"When Byron the play-wright in a fit of remorse
entitled his burlesque Ill-Treated II Trovatore
he was undoubtedly righ'il for tke troubadorhas
certainly been maltreated by him. In our igno-
rance, it seems to us that a burlesque of this
kind could be just as well got up by the actors
themselves, and that authors are absolutely no-
where, and perfectly superfluous. Analyze said
burlesque: given a certain amount of the orig-
inal music of the opera and a few of the more
or less un-melodlous fiddle-faddles of the day,
more or less charmingly s-ung by the Misses Mark-
ham and Thompson: given a few mad melodeon
dances: given a few dozen puns and gags which
any well-regulated burlesque ought to be able
to invent on the spur of the moment, and what
need is there for Byron's name in the bills at
all? We pause for a reply, and don't expect to
get it. Hall's acting, and especially that bit
of falsetto acting in singing in the opening
scene did much to redeem it from utter damna-
tion, but whatever is good about it v/as due to
the company and certainly not to any merit in
the burlesque Itself. ..."



Burlesque 129

The two companies of peroxided pyrotechnics were
gone on wide to\irs of the country which would eventually re-
turn them to fall seasons in New York. The British Blondes
had set their first lap at Stockton; Lydia Thompson played her
first stand at Marysville. As the routes of the two companies
diverged into the hinterland, great confusion ensued. Dream-
ing over the advance publicity of the British Blondes, a pro-
vincial town would be Jolted v;ith the discovery on opening
night that Lydia Thompson was not in the troupe. And, other
way around, advertisements of the Thompson troupe innocently
aroused the mistaken idea that the much-touted beauty of Rose
Massey finally v/ould be seen. Meanvidiile, in New York, the
further process of burlesquing burlesque had commenced. The
San Francisco Minstrels, by this time an accepted and much-
beloved part of the New York theatre, were delighting packed
houses with The Sie^e o f the Blondes, or 'Tis Sweet for Our
Country to Dye .

One member of the press described the invasion as
a plague and suggested realistic barriers against all incom-
ing English ships. The picture conjured up is that of blonde
Amazons in acrobatic tights, gracefully circumventing the
rat-guards on the ropes, and bouncing triumphantly into a
song and a kick-chorus on the wharf.

Olive Logan was right and wrong; right that the
thoughtless sensationalism of the new theatre would prove
debasing and sterile; wrong that an oxygen tank should be

^^ SSC>:

Burlesque 130

applied to the last shiver of life in the decadent legiti-
mate drama. Well into the 19003, there was to be the loud
expansion of frontiers around a vacuous interior. With the
collapse of the frontiers, the country was to he strewn with
a good deal of disillusioned wreckage. Until that time, no
questions were to he asked j and as a consequence, the thea-
tre, along v/ith the other arts, was not to attempt any an-
swers, was to be sheer decoration.




(1870 " 1900)

The close -packed incidents in the theatre of San
Francisco from the Gold Rush through the Civil V/ar reflect
the swift and crowded development of the city's economic life.
Time thus far had been taken up, almost unconsciously, with
sure investments, unquestioned expansion, gay spending, and
a life-ls-for-today philosophy. The time from 1870 to 1900 is
described by two steep drops in the graph. The general de-
pression in the country'- in 1873 v/as postponed for California
by the Big Bonanza silver strike in Nevada; but the failure
of the Bank of California in 1875 and the defaulted dividend
payments on the silver stock of the Consolidated Virginia
Mine in 1877 plunged the state even belovir the national eco-
nomic level. The reckless days of San Francisco were over;
money v/as scarce, the trusts were in power, the future v/as
unsure. A slight upcurve of rehabilitation was continuous
throughout the eighties; but in 1893 there v;as again a devas-
tating plunge for the whole nation.


"P) e;lj bnB oS'eX ax j

Burlesque 132

Events in the San Francisco theatre for this period,
1870 to 1900, came to he as widely spaced, as jittery, as
tentative, as hlind, as the ups and downs on the vast, eco-
nomic backdrop. Vi/hat was the public interested in? All the
old forms were tried in this and that guise - Italian opera,
Shakespeare, sensation drama, pantomime, extravaganza, bur-
lesque, farce, minstrelsy, romantic tragedy - and most of
them v/ere dropped with that particularly cold clinic; of coin,
not of the realm. The most consistent profits of the period
were drawn from light opera, as comic as possible. An epidemic
of Pinafore productions placed Gilbert and Sullivan at the top
of the profession. Gilbert, in his ovm career, had given
burlesque one of its developments : from the dead weight of
puns and mythology-burdened satire to a freer, lighter use of
the imagination. But the results of the Savoy collaboration
were not burlesques.

Inhere was the old spirit of the melodeon burlesque?
Prom 1870 to 1900 melodeon entertainment gradually collapsed
from the full length burlesque of a definite subject to the
conglomerate variety programs. To begin with, the definite
subjects were dying off or disappearing. In 1893 Edwin
Booth, the last of the great line of American tragedians,
died in his apartment at the Players' Club in New York City.
Almost no actors of any stature were left; and it takes stat-
ure to stimulate satire. Contemporary drama before this

Online LibraryEttore RellaA history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) → online text (page 11 of 29)