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A history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) online

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this point was paid its highest compliment; its great dra-
matic relative, Shakespearean comedy, began to Imitate it.
The following quote is from Jerome Hart's In Our Second Cen -
tury ;

"The vast wave of legs that swept over the land
as a result of The Black Crook craze and the
British Blonde invasion alarmed the actresses of
the legitimate stage, as it was then called.
Many of these ladies, in self-defense, hadto
doff skirts and don tights. Those of them who
appeared in Shakespeare drama developed an inor-
dinate fondness for A s You Like It and Twelfth
Night . Adelaide Neilson, famed for her Juliet,
Isabellejand Cymbeline, laid them aside for Ros-
alind and Viola. She always drew well, but in
these roles she drew more crowded houses .

Burlesque 145

"Rose Coghlan favored Viola, and drew v/ell in
that role. She had a fine figxire, as was the
case with most of the actresses who yielded not
unwillingly to the leg craze.

"Marie Wainwright manifested a liking for
Twelfth Nig ht, and revived that play — probably
for cvirvilinear reasons, for it has a most
unpleasant plot. When she played Viola she was
a ripe beauty and looked well in silk fleshings,
but never had so becorsetted a boy trodden the

"Helene Mod ie ska was then making her way on the
American stage. Finding no doublet-and-hose
parts in Adrienne Lecouvreur and other plays of
her repertoire, she too fell back on Shakespeare
and his girls garbed as boys,"


Dark times for burlesque, certainly. In February

1873, Clay M. Greene, the local playwright, attempted the

production of his burlesque. La Blonde Dormante . The Call

for February 20 declared that

"The local hits are palpable in some respects,
for Emperor Norton and Chief Crowley appeared
on the stage with wonderful fidelity in outward
guise, though the former (J. J. i/Iurphy) had a
marvellously powerful voice for an old man, and
the latter (ilr, H. C. Droger) had scarcely the
self-possession which a Chief of Police should
display. The blonde was represented by the
playwright, Mr. Greene, with good ability; but
the most prominent part is that of 'Cupid'
which was taken by Itr, Unger with an evident
appreciation of the requirements and no small
fitness to undertake them.'"'

Any indication at this time, that bxirlesque can

still be J.erked up to its old form of political satire is

refreshing; but Clay Greene's effort did not quite come off.

The San Francisco Nows Letter for February 22 had definitely

made up its mind about the merits of the sleeping blonde:





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Burlesque 14q

"The new burlesque by Clay M. Greene was a
wretched piece of twaddle throughout; the jokes
were far-fetched, and the whole thing hollow.
We do not predict for La Blonde Dormante a
place even among third-rate burlesque."

There was no getting away from the old English
"burlesques; most of the songs in Green's burlesque were
lifted from Ixlon. As for the Joking and raillery, it was
in imitation of Emerson's minstrels. It seems that the only
times burlesque solidified at all, it took on the dignity of
light opera; at the other extreme Is an eclectic shapeless-
ness headed for modem vaudeville. The ideal, in between, of
seriously written huiiior on a well constructed satirical plot,
with original music, somehow could not come out of the
nineteenth century American theatre.

The deluge of light opera companies commenced in
1873 with the appearance of the Galton and Jennie Lee Opera
Bouffe, Burlesque and Comedy Troupe, in productions mostly of
opera of the Offenbach variety. Burlesques, if given, were
usually nothing more than freely handled Offenbach.

One of the few signposts for this clironicle in 1874
is another of the faded revivals of The Black Crook . The
Bulletin for A^ust 10 announced a New York company for Ma-
guire's New Theatre. The press agent was careful to add that
an unprecedented amount of unsurpassed Black Crook scenery
had reached San Francisco by way of the Isthmus and the Pa-
cific Railway, The Bulletin for the 11th, however, applied
great quantities of cold water to this invasion by a foreign


wj h r

Burlesque 147

"A season of Langrlshe and Glenn's Black Crook
was opened at this theatre last evening. The
material is principally an importation from the
East, and hardly comes up to the standard of
spectacular productions which local managers are
accustomed to present. The Black Crook , in its
present aspect, simply amounts to a general va-
riety performance, through which the supposed
dramatic narrative winds its slow length, replete
with harrowing weariness, but not sufficiently
connected to. engage the interest of the audi-
ence and excuse the occasional intrusion of the
tedious dialogue by more readily excusable
players. . .but as a whole, the so-called variety
business seems to be an aggregation of that or-
der of talent of which the city usually pos-
sesses much wealth in a state of dispersion,
principally along Kearny street. The Black
Crookj however, was greeted with generous pa-
tronage, and the season opens auspiciously in
that view,"

The shov/, still drawing crowds on August 13, came

in for one last diatribe by the Bulletin , this time the

proud, hollow remonstrance of a lover who has been let down:

" The Black Crook continues to occupy the boards
of the theatre, and attracts the attention of
many people, but to those familiar with the
legitimate drama or who have any theatrical
discrimination, the performance exhibits no
signs of improvement. Some feat\ires of the
variety acts are acceptable, and these might be
very entertaining if seen under other circum-
stances ."

These dark times for burlesque were lightened as

much as anything by the engagement of the Yokes family.

Jessie, Victoria, Rosina, Fred, and Pawdon Yokes opened at the

California, August 25, in what tho Bulleti n declared to be a

"sparkling extravaganza entitled Fun in a Fog ." The variety

form dominated this burlesque, as all others at this time,

the various acts and gags being built around the "trials and


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Burlesque 148

tribulations of an English militia officer and his valet, up-
on whom are perpetrated sundry jokes by a trio of American
girls."* The engagement of the Yokes was very successful.
They were evidently able to give the public everything it
wanted: they sang well, danced well, were accomplished acro-
bats, and were adept at the art of "low" comedy. They stimu-
lated, certainly, unusual enthusiasm in a very dry time. The
Bulletin for September 1 completes the history of their San
Francisco appearance:

"The third sketch by the Yokes family, The Wrong
Man in the Right Place , was produced last night,
and excited quite as much laughter and applause
as either of its predecessors. The efforts of
Fred Yokes to sit down after exchanging his
vagabond suit for black tights which are indeed
tight, are immensely ludicrous, his burlesque
polka is another feature which convulses the
house; and the international quadrille, which
closes the piece is truly a remarkable perform-
ance. We looked in vain for anything resembling
the plot of the VJrong Man , as given in a morning
contemporary last Sunday'; the keenest eye could
hardly recognize in Benjamin Buttontop a gentle-
man engaged to a lady who does not want to have

Throughout the 1874-1875 season Maguire's Califor-
nia Minstrels were keeping the light of burlesque at some
sort of glow. Otherwise there is no notice of a burlesque as
a program in Itself until January 2, 1875 when the Bulletin
carried a notice for Maguire's New Theatre:

"Tonight, The Enchantress , Monday next the bur-
lesque of Hamlet, Prince 'of Oakland , being an
entirely reconstructed version from an Eliza-
bethan Chronicle found in the archives of the
Bohemian Club-room."

* Bulletin . August 25, 1874.

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Burlesque I49

For a moment there is the possibility that the
vitality of the early burlesques of Shakespearean tragedy has
surged up again: but the stone must have been cast very
awkwardly, for there is not the slightest ripple in the press
after the original announcement.

^Vhen finally in the fall season of 1875 news re-
leases announce a burlesque by Maguire's local company, the
public is frankly informed that the burlesque will be a "kind
of medley made especially attractive by the introduction of
the most popular music of the day.""'^ Variety had become a
talking point of advantage in advertising; the plot concep-
tion of burlesque was aLmost erased. The show was ready to
go on, November 15. Again the Bulletin :

"The spectacular burlesque entitled T]:b Fair One
with the Blonde Wig will be produced this eve-
ning... all the leading parts are studded with
the gems of new and popular old airs. It is
understood to be substantially the extravaganza
which served Mrs. Jas. Dates' troupe so well in
the East, and is now produced under the direc-
tion of Mr. Crane, who was at that time stage
manager of Mrs. Dates' troupe. Great attrac-
tions are offered in the way of choruses and
ballet. The leading parts in the hands of Miss
Katie Mayhev/ and Messrs. Crane and Kennedy are
safe and great expectations are entertained of
the debut of Miss Marian Singer as 'Prince
Leander. '"

Mr. Crane turned out to be a talented burlesquer,

the critics declaring that his peculiar mixture of comedy and

grotesquerie never failed to get a response. Mr. Kennedy as

"Princess Petipet" also came in for praise; while the debut

of Marian Singer exhausted the bouquets of the reviewers.

* Bulletin . November 8, 1875.

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Burlesque 150

Miss Mayhew was treated with respect but it was implied that
she was perhaps a little refined for the sturdier virtues of
burlesque. The surprise of the performance was the introduc-
tion of the four Allen sisters.

"They (-the four Allen sisters) danced like fair-
ies, and won the heartiest applause of the eve-

That the performance was good but cold is charitably indicated
by the closing statement of the B^xlletin review for Novem-
ber 15:

"A little more abandon on the part of the lead-
ing ladies will doubtless come as they become
accustomed to the business*"

Despite the limitations mentioned by the press.
The Fair One with the Blonde Wig played until December 4.
Acts were constantly added or withdrawn; the personnel of the
company was very fluid » Whatever the plot of the blonde -
wigged beauty on the opening night (the plot is never men-
tioned in the press) , it could not have been recognized three
nights later. These pages from the life of a Lydia Thompson
chorine (which may have been the original idea) were given
their last embellishment in the person of "little Mile.
Schuman" who was announced as a "charming exhibition of
infantile grace."'"""' Prom hor first appearance through the
end of the run Mile. Schuman dominated the reviews. She is
"exquisitely graceful, "••^•"** slie is "evidently working hard to

'"- Bulletin , November 16, 1875.
'-^■» Ibid. November 19, 1875.
-x-sfr*lbid. November 24, 1875,

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Burlesque 151

perfect herself in her art"'^ cp she dances "a sailor's
dance, in costume, with the grace of a veritable sylph. "''^*

Changes in the company itself were accompanied by
daily excisions and additions in the script. The "local hits"
necessarily changed as rapidly as the local scene and at one
time achieved a penetration that was oven rasping, according
to an unusually delicate reaction on the part of the Bulletin .
The music, that the original advertising might be fulfilled,
was refurbished December 1 to an up-to-the-minute popularity.
As for the n\irsery rhymes (an effect from the Mother Goose
pantomimes) they were no doubt recoupleted nightly at the
whim of any rhymester in the company. The Fair One with the
Blond Wig , success as it was, turned up on closing night,
December 4, in unrecognizable garb.

But the three weeks' run had firmly intrenched the
local burlesquers. Another production, the extravaganza of
Fortunio or The Seven Gifted Servants , was annovmced for De-
cember 24. By way of shining up the company, the Lenton fam-
ily of acrobats, and Mr. and Mrs. George Ware, "serio-comic"
vocalists, were engaged. The first notice of this production
appears in the Bulletin for December 27, 1875:

"The whole company (at Maguire's New Theatre)
has improved surprisingly since their first
appearance in burlesque some weeks ago. The
constraint and awkwardness have worn off , and in
both action and speech the extravagant fancies
of the author are realized."

* Bulletin , November 24, 1875.
**ibid. December 1, 1875.

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Burlesque 152

With a certain amount of provincial preoccupation
with the greener fields of the Eastern theatres, the Bulletin
for December 28 prints the last notice of this local bur-
lesque troupe:

"This company has reached a degree of excellence
in burlesque v/hich warrants comparison with the
great burlesque traveling troupes. The spirit
of fun and Jollity pervades the whole perform-
ance. The Lenton boys are without question the
star performers of tho day. All their feats
are performed with a grace, care, and accuracy
which is a relief when contrasted v;ith other
lads of their age. During the entertainment,
Mr. and Mrs. Ware sang a character song."

Again, as with The Fair One with the Blonde Wig ,
there is a conspicuous absence in these reports of Fortunio
of any awareness of plot. The structure of burlesque has by
this time completely fallen; is obviously of no more impor-
tance than the crating lumber (now heaped backstage out of
the way) which encased the dazzling scenery of The Black
Crook , from New York to San Francisco by way of the Isthmus.

The spring of 1876 belongs to the V/orrell Sisters.
Not newcomers, certainly; they had learned the fundamentals
of burlesque comedy at Gilbert's old melodeon on the corner
of Clay and Kearny streets. Irene, Sophie, and Jenny — and
their competition at Gilbert's in the old days Included the
already firm star of Lotta Crabtroo. In fact, both Jennie
and Lotta were bitterly proficient on the banjo, and they ac-
tually pushed each other about the Melodeon stage. New York
City had then come very much into tho stride of tho Worrells ♦

S?,£ 9;


hfieix>i- -'natTwnr> pJt' , "

lo oi.

Burlesque 153

The first note about them in the Annals of the New

York Stage by Odell is for the year 1865:

"The vivacious Worrell Sisters, grand-daughters
of I.'Ime. Judah, once famous in the minor New
York theatres, and forever beloved in Califor-
nia, made their debut at V/ood's on April 30th,
in the piece long celebrated at Laura Keene's
under the name of The Slves, or the Statue
Bride • . . . "

"The piece and the youthful freshness of the
stars caught popular fancy, and no change of
main piece was required for several weeks.
During the first week, Jennie Vforrell appeared
in the afterpiece of The Good for Nothing ; in
this she introduced her breakdown, the Essence
of Old Virginia . On May 10th, Crossing the
Line , as curta'in raiser, allowed' Irene and
Jennie to do a double clog. The Three Sisters ,
on June 18th, presented Jennie, Irene and Sophie
Viforrell, each in six different characters."

A succession of three benefit performances, one for each of
the sisters, closed their first New York engagement in Au-
gust. On January 14, 1867 the "'orrslls appear again in
Odell 's Annals of the New York Stage , this time in their pro-
duction of Camaralzaman and Badoura . Odell 's addenda to his
review of Camaralzaman are illuminating:

"Jennie Worrell was also seen as Susy, in Out to
Nurse , in which she introduced a cobbler ' s horn-
pipe and a banjo solo; a fact vdiich I introduce
to show that Lotta was not alone in the art of
the banjo when she flashed across our vision a
few months later at Wallack' s. . . .On the 31st the
advertisement in the Herald stresses Sophie and
Irene in duets and operatic gens; Jennie in a
clog-dance; Sophie, Jennie, Mrs. Gilbert and
Donnelly in the Cure dance, 'received with
shouts of applause aiid nightly encores'; and
Mrs. Gilbert in her comic dance. Mrs. Gilbert
in her Stage Reminiscences bears tribute to the
Worrells. They v/ere, she says, 'groat favour-
ites, in their day, and simple, kindly people


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Burlesque 154

to work with. I remember that thoy let me in-
troduce a dance (in Aladdin ) that attracted a
good deal of attention; and yet dancing was
their own specialtyt One does not have to be
In the profession to know v;hat that means.'"

San Francisco was hardly excited about the reap-
pearance of the old Melodeon favorites. The Worrells opened
at Wade's Opera House, March 27, 1875, in the overworked bur-
lesque, Ixion. Of Jennie, no mention whatsoever is made.
Irene was found "too cold and quiet for burlesque, and her
voice lacks power and her style expression."* Sophie came
off a little better, the critics deciding that her lifeless
acting derived from deficiencies in the supporting cast.
Despite this cold approach, an advertisement in the Bulletin

Online LibraryEttore RellaA history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) → online text (page 13 of 29)