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Ettore Rella.

A history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) online

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time a very vulnerable subject for burlesque, during the last



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Burlesque 133

three decades of the century became thin and unimpressive.
Sensation drama had been the last, violent attempt to arouse
interest in the playgoer. Ibsen and the drama of social crit-
icism had not yet appeared.

The Black Crook formula was sterile. The cost-cuvie
designer might scratch his head for one more variation in the
scant apparel of the dancers; the scene painters might depict
a deeper, more meticulous illusion in the backdrops; the mat-
tre de ballet might send his puppets whirling out on the
stage in the most intricate choregraphy so far witnessed;
the grand and final transformation scene, by means of the
most expensive machinery so far used in a theatre, might ac-
complish, without the drop of the curtain, a geographical
shift so far unparalleled. But there was no subject matter;
there v/as nothing to develop except the mechanical aspects of
the formula. The spectacle piece had finally proven a blind
alley for burlesque; had also from all indications proven
dull. The even more glorious mechanism of the spectacles
failed to draw. There was finally only a sentimental attach-
ment to what had once been scandalous innovation. The Black
Crook and other pantomimic spectacles, up to the turn of the
century, were hauled down annually from the theatrical attics
of the country and presented as Christmas entertainment for
the v/hole family*

The mechanical display of the spectacles, the harm-
less soft-pawed charm of comic opera, the pointless mellange



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Burlesque 13-

of vaudeville." these were the new estates of burlesque. The
old burlesque had contained a large element of political sat-
ire. Even the London -conceived extravaganzas when produced
in San Francisco were hastily interlarded with supposedly
sizzling cracks and in-the-know overtones. But the develop-
ment of the city quickly got beyond this salutary intimacy of
actor and politician. The hushed power of the trusts and the
monopolies were for a long time not to be attacked in litera-
ture or upon the stage.

With the edge of satire gone so dull, it is not
surprising that the only genuinely new notes in burlesque for
this whole period (1870-1900) were two completely fantastic
creations: the character of Humpty IXi mpty , and the character
of the Lone Fisherman - The career of Humpty IXimpty vms start-
ed off in New York in 1868 by G, K# Pox. Thereafter, an ac-
celeration of long runs by Fox and other great clowns through-
out the country made of Humpty Dumpty a character as familiar
as a comic strip character today. The Lone Fisherman was
first created in the seventies as a character in the bur-
lesque Evangeline . The plot architecture of burlesque having
fallen so flat, the authors of E vangeline (Brougham is sup-
posed to have had a hand in it) conceived this completely
pantomimic character, who should walk silently, constantly,
oranipresently among the scattered fragments, hearing every-
thing, apparently omniscient, yet never committing his wisdom






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Burlesque 135

to any test, his costume always the same, that of a complete-
ly equipped, cranky trout fisher, intensely spending a pre-
cious Sunday afternoon away from the office.

Parallels up through a spiral of time are necessar-
ily distorted, and rarely illuminating; but these last unreal
creations of nineteenth century burlesque in the face of the
impregnable mountain of the monopolies are surely among the
progenitors of the surrealistic art which confronted the
apparently boundless but obviously hollow prosperity of the
1920s. The signs of breakdown and the final crash were to
give art a new grip; there was to be a renascence of political
satire. A few productions in the 1930s were even to indicate
that the central characteristic of burlesque — straight-
shooting, comic satire, so inherent in much of the early
melodoon entertainment — was being consciously salvaged as
a serious dramatic tradition.* All of which is a long leap
from the dismal condition of burlesque in the 1870s.

XXXI - PROPHECY OF TPIE BELLA UNION
On January 4, 1871 the Bella Union, still the leader
in the daring vanguard of the town's melodeons, made a news-
paper impression of interest. The name of the burlesque was
19 7 1 . At this late date, the amount of fantastic prophecy
a la H. G. Wells in the burlesque cannot be determined. The



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B\irlesque j^gg

newspaper accounts are sketchy, and very likely much of the
vatic vision penetrated no further than early twentieth cen-
tury strip-tease. But the melodeons were always more clever
than spectacular, and the chances are good that 19 7 1 accan-
plished some illumination for 1871. As is usual with the
melodeon entertainment of early San Francisco, the details of
this Bella Union burlesque are not covered by the press. It
is notable that the burlesque received as much coverage as it
did, indicating that melodeon entertainment was at last being
taken seriously. And why not? With the decline of legiti-
mate drama, the big theatres came round more and more to the
same sort of fare that the melodeons had been purveying for
years. Omitting the melodeons from theatrical reportage would
now be omitting the whole field of entertainment.

A few obscure shots at the content of 19 7 1 can
be taken on the basis of the notice in Figaro for January 4,
1871:

"Among other amusing features in this play may
be mentioned the introduction of Emperor Norton
and the poor, persecuted Guttersnipe as Rip Van
Winkle a hundred years hence. The battle of
balloons is well managed , and is much applauded."

To read a false connotation into the battle of bal-
loons is irresistible. The idea was probably a matter of sheer
fluff and color; after all, even an overwhelming quantity of
balloons might bo regarded as a theatrical experience. But
also, might there not have been a moment of wide-eyed. Buck
Rogers Intuition? Jules Verne was being widely popularized.






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Burlesque 137

The exact nature of the Guttersnipe is as obscure as the bal-
loon encounter. Being poor is understandable, but how was he
persecuted? Again it is clear that there is no possible
restoration of the details of melodeon entertainment.

Figaro for January 7 has the last word for the
Bella Union's conception of 19 7 1 :

"The new extravaganza of 1 9 7 1 has run suc-
cessfully through the week"! THe performance
throughout is very attractive. The scenes in
the new play are some of them very fine, and the
prismatic wheel, or chromatrope, which forms
the background of the last scene, is very
effective, and must have cost a great deal of
money. Sam Tetlow, however does not care how
much money he spends on a piece as long as it
pleases the public, and the ringing peals of
laughter v/hich greet the many fvn.rj jolws in
the dialogue pt'ovo how thoroughly the talented
author hit the taste of the public.*'

XXXII — THE ZAVISTOWSKIS
The sign of the Gemini, and another unnamed zodia-
cal sign for triplets, seem to have cast their not entirely
baneful influence over nineteenth century burlesque. The
brirlesque queens made fame and fortune as duets or trios of
familiar splendor* Joey and Adelaide Gougenheim were the
pioneers. Thereafter followed swiftly, Sophie, Jennie and
Irene Worrell; Emellne, Alice and Christine Zavistowskij and
finally Blanche and Ella Chapman. Periodically one of these
closely tied constellations loomed brightly in San Francisco.
The Zavistowskis traversed their orbit of "good towns to play
in" with particular rapidity; after a short absence, they
reappeared in San Francisco on March 27, 1871.



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Burlesque 138



"Long before the rise of the curtain at this
theatre (the California) last night, standing
room was at a premiujn. The perfonnance com-
menced with the farce of Delicate Ground, but
this was not what the audience came to see, and
v;as therefore impatiently endured # Each of the
charming Zavlstowski Sisters on making her ap-
pearance on the stage received round after
round of applause, and every song and every
dance was encored. Paris is a labour iously
constructed burlesque"^ Foo long and too much
crowded with characters; but there v/as so much
fun in it as presented last night, that the
audience was kept amused. Though the burlesque
moved a little slowly at times last night, the
entertainment was altogether bright and amusing
and the Zavlstowski Sisters were as brilliant
as ever. The pleasure afforded by gazing on
these sparkling actresses as they dart hither
and thither resplendent in gorgeous colors and
gold and silver is akin to that wliich one takes
in looking at humming birds, or butterflies, —
it is one that all must enjoy. ""^^

The Zavistowskis evidently did not let down the

speed and splendor of their bird and butterfly appellation,

for tv/o other burlesques followed the successful run of the

burlesque Paris . With the opening of both Ixion and Kenil -

worth, (April 1 and April 5), the critic of Figaro made a

tripartite division of adjectives in the interest of each

resplendent sisters

"The Zavistowskis are certainly as popular as
ever. Ixlon v/as performed, and did not gD near-
ly as smoothly as it should; it v^lll,of course,
be presented perfectly tonight. Miss Emellne
Zavlstowski bev;itched the audience by her sunny
smiles, vivacity, grace and pretty dances and
delivered her lines with good effect ;Miss Alice
was the brightest of Mercurys, the prettiest
post-boy ever known; and Miss Christine was
graceful and artistic as Jupiter.



-'t Figaro ; March 28, 1871.



'iij'pacjj.



Burlesque 139

"There is an iiranense amount of fun in the bur-
lesque of Kenilworth as presented by the Zavis-
towski Sisters — Miss Emeline made a most noble
Earl of Leicesterj Miss Alice played the part
of Walter Raleigh with much spirit, and Miss
Christine was very amusing as the much wronged
Amy Robsart."

A year later, May 1S72, the Zavistowskis appeared
for the last time on the San Francisco scene. In the interim
they had played in Australia, which was the traditional leap
from the Pacific Coast in all the early theatrical itinerar-
ies. Two old war horses of English burlesque writing, ixion ,
or the Man at the Wheel , and Pygmalion , were refurbished as
the vehicles of the "bird and butterfly" trio. To the very
last the Zavistowskis were able to elicit favorable comment
from the copy room; this time they are "warmly welcomed" and
the Bulletin for May 7 adjnits that the "local hits in the
play ( Ixion ) are cleverly wrought and contrast favorably with
anything of the kind previously produced here." The Bulletin
for May 11 constructed a final adjectival triptych for the
still unfaded sisters:

"Miss Alice Zavistowski' s benefit at this thea-
tre (the Metropolitan) last evening was well at-
tended and the performance passed off in fine
style o The clever burlesque of Pygmalion , pro-
duced for the first time during the engagement,
and arranged with special reference to the pe-
culiar talents of the yovmg and captivating
actress, bristles with mirth-provoking witti-
cisms. Miss Emeline is beautiful as "The
Statue," Miss Alice is an interesting sculptor
and Miss Grainger makes an excellent 'Venus.'"



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Burlesque 140

XXXIII - TON Y DENI ER AS H UMPTY DUMPTY
Memory of the Zavistowskis quickly faded when
bright, new announcements of a performance of Humpty Dumpty
were posted all over the city. G, K. Pox, in the New York
r;in of Hiunpty Dumpty , had already given the role of the clown
lineaments as definite as those of a Commedla dell 'Arte char-
acter. In fact, the stock types of Harlequin, Pantaloon, and
Columbine were also worked into the show which in form was
apparently a mixture of pantomime and burlesque, A compari-
son of the New York and the San Francisco productions indi-
cate that a short burlesque which served as separate curtain-
raiser to Humpty Dumpty in New York, in San Francisco was
somehow incorporated into the main show. George Odell, in
his Annals of the New York Stage , has the following to say
about Humpty Dumpty ;

"We might have thought that the decade of 1860-70
could not possibly produce a second run equal
to that of The Black Crook . As a matter of
fact, the career of Pox ' s famous pantomime,
Humpty Dumpt y, was even longer. It saw the
lights on March 10, 1868, and for considerably
over a year thereafter the Olympic Theatre knev;
neither worry nor fear of change. Humpty Dumpty
at one time seemed immortal. ,. .The piece opened
with the burlesque by A. Oakly Hall, In which
Alice Harrison appeared as Burlesque, Mrs. C.
Edmonds as Romance, and E, T. Sinclair as New
Jersey. "

Tony Denier, famous on the Eastern seaboard for his

revivals of the Ravel and Martinetti pantomimes, came to San

Francisco in the part of the clown which G.K. Pox had already

"almost immortalized." The Bulletin for August 16, 1872,

reviewed the opening:



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Burlesque 141



"The Metropolitan management are certainly de-
serving of success in their latest theatrical
enterprise. The production of Humpty Dumpty
required several weeks of preparation and no
inconsiderable outlay of money, that the piece
might appear in proper shape. Last evening the
public of San Francisco had the first opportu-
nity of witnessing its performance here. The
attendance was all that could reasonably be de-
siredj evory section of the house was crowded
and the audience was a discriminating one. The
principal characters represented are: Humpty
Dumpty, afterwards clown, Tony Denier; Buckle
my Shoe, afterwards Pantaloon, J. M. Sloan;
Tommy Tucker , afterwards Harlequin, A. L,, Stacy;
Goody IVo Shoes, afterwards Columbine, Mile, de
Rhone; Burlesque, Maggie Moore; Romance, Ada
Deaves; and New Jersey, John Woodward. The pan-
tomime abo-unds in tricks and transformations
that are calculated to and do provoke roars
of laughter and keep the audience in the best
of humor from beginning to end. Denier dances
a hornpipe on stilts, imitates a drunken man,
takes off the wonderful performing elephant,
and Introduces the famous 'wooden-headed acro-
bats. •"

The second night of the r\in, the house was sold out
and stools blocked the aisles. The mode of operation of the
wooden-headed acrobats is somewhat mysterious but was evi-
dently very successful, according to the report in the Bul-
letin for the 17th:

"Such roars of laughter as greeted the queer an-
tics of the acrobats last night, are seldom
hoard in theatres,"

The two weeks' run of Humpty Dumpty was an extraor-
dinary triumph in this time of theatrical slump in San Fran-
cisco. But this pantomime was no sudden discovery of a new
means to tap the reserves of audience enthusiasm; the Cora-
media dell 'Arte tradition, surviving feebly in the genius of
the Martinettis, was reaching forth, in Humpty Dumpty , to one



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Burlesque 14S

of its last expressions. This was made still clearer In the
last few days of the San Francisco run; acrobatic pantomime,
and scenic tricks from the Red Gnome , the old Martinetti fa-
vorite, were added to the production and the advertising an-
nounced Humpty Dumpty Reconstructed - again illustrating that
the theatre at this time was much busier wearing out the old
forms than creating new ones.

XXXIV - BLANCHE AND ELLA CHAPMH
The midseason of 1872 and 1873 was particularly
indicative of the unoriginality of the times. The Yellow
Hat , a holiday burlesque at the Metropolitan, featured a
March of the Amazons in which the Bulletin sensed "the Black
Crook flavor"; and terminated with the customary transforma-
tion scene, this time called "Land of Perna, or Halls of
Dazzling Light." The completely decrepit war horse, Ixion ,
was urged on the heels of The Yellow Hat , but a single per-
formance at the California Theatre on February 11, 1873 was
enough to put the dusty, punning script back into the attic.
It took the Chapman sisters to tide the interest through the
balance of the season.

George Odell in his A n nals of the New York Stage
dates the discovery of Blanche Chapman's illumination very
definitely:

"Miss Chapman's star was rising: on April 5th
and 6th (1867), in The Wandering Boys , she was
Paul to the Justin of Miss Marion, and the
Count de Croissey of Thompson. On April 10th,
11th, and 12th, she was Cherry, to the Fair Star
of Mrs, Stetson,"



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Burlesque 143

Ella, the other sister, had already made her Eastern reputa-
tion as the "little Ella Chapinan ! '' The role of the pathetic,
diminutive orphan in the "sensational" plays of the time had
been her forte in Nev/ York, although she had also played a
season of burlesque with the Vi/orrell sisters in that city.

Blanche and Ella started off their successful San
Francisco appearance with the burlesque Little Don Giovanni .
For some reason the Bulletin '"- remarked that the audiences
which the Chapmans drev/ were not only large but Intelligent,
without indicating whether or not Little Don Giovanni offered
particularly intellectual fare, or if perhaps this close
packed Intelligence might not be due to the fact that the
Chapmans were well educated, modest stars, entirely out of
the run of yellow-haired Venuses (for which, however, there
is not the slightest proof) . The Gold Demon followed Little
Don Giovanni .

"A new spectacular burlesque entitled the Gold
Demon, was brought out at the Metropolitan last
evening. The plot of the piece has no particu-
lar aim or end that need bo described, but in
substance it is an amvising medley of dialogue,
songs, dances and ludicrous Incidents, with a
spicing of capital local hits. The Chapman
Sisters glitter throughoiit in gorgeous attire,
and are the particular stars.

"The play concludes with a dazzling transforma-
tion scone, attended with beautiful effects of
the calcium light ,"*"■*""

Aladdin or the Vlfondorful Scamp , Fluto , Beauty and

.the. Brigands . and Cinderella, the other burlesques in the



* March 11, 1873.
^HJ-Bulletin, March 19, 1873






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Burlesque 144

Chapman engagement at the Metropolitan, sound like a chapter
heading in a study of early English burlesque: no startling
new titles, no experiment. Things had to be tried and sure-
fire. Burlesque actresses were condemned to not only scant
but glittering attire. .'\nd the inevitable transformation
scene disclosed, veil after veil, the headaches of expendi-
ture necessary if the producer were to compete with the last
peep show surprise presented to the public.

The foregoing review of The Gold Demon indicates
more than anything else, the decadence of plot. It also
makes clear that with the gradual collapse of plot architec-
ture in burlesque, a more and more disconnected variety
developed in the material. Already in the 1870s, in enter-
tainment like The Gold Demon , there is little distinction
left between burlesque and vaudeville.

About to break down into vaudeville, burlesque at



Online LibraryEttore RellaA history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) → online text (page 12 of 29)