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Street Theatre: Madame Rentz's Female Minstrels opened the
performances; Mabel Santley's London Burlesque Troupe con-
tinued them, with first a number of variety acts, and lastly,
a crowning burlesque. In the beginning of the run, which com-
menced January 27, The Forty Thieves was the featured bur-
lesque; February 11, the long-suffering Ixion was again
hauled out for tortured exhibition.

The actual performances, from all reports, might
well be permitted to vanish as thoroughly as the hill snow
in the spring of 1878, except that Mabel Santley will figure
in the local courts in 1879 on a charge of excessive
exhibitionism; and that M. B, Leavitt was the manager of both
the Rentz and Santley companies. Mabel Santley in court will
furnish amusement in a later chapter of this chronicle. M.B,
Leavitt will come to dominate the whole later history of
modern burlesque as the title of his autobiography. Fifty
Years in Theatrical Management , published in 1912, indicates*



* Argonaut , January 25, 1878.



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Burlesque 166

Leavitt starts off by admitting that he is "credit-
ed with being the originator of the first organization combin-
ing minstrelsy, vaudeville, and burlesque in one entertain-
ment." He outlines his revolutionary idea as follows: the
old idea of minstrelsy, consisting entirely of males, should
be renovated by the addition of "beautiful, talented actress-
es," Slight as this change appears to be, in words, it does
actually represent the first conscious synthesis of the nine-
teenth centxiry of minstrelsy, vaudeville, and burlesque in the
direction of the twentieth century musical show, Leavitt
makes this clear: "Those (productions) I staged then, were
equivalent to the Broadway musical shows of today, though not
upon so elaborate a scale, but the artists were fully as
excellent."

The oxcellonco of his traveling companies was much
in question in 1878, and his San Francisco season would have
collapsed early and expensively if the Bulletin had not lev-
eled a puritanical finger at the degree of xindress in the
show:

"The costuming of three or four in The Forty
Thieves was an insult to the audience. Ladies
who were present, under the supposition that it
was a decent performance, sat, mortified and
indignant, deterred from going out, only by a
dread of advertising their presence. Nothing
so thoroughly and suggestively indecent has ev-
er beon presented at a theatre in this city to
which ladies were invited. It was a pleasure
to note that a large portion of the men in the
audience turned their backs on the performance
and walked out."*



* Bulletin , January 30, 1878.



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Btirlesque 167

The result of the press attack was of course a suc-
cessful run; the Rentz-Santley* combination packed the Bush
Street Theatre well into the last week of February. Betsy B.,
the critic of the Argonaut , attempted sophisticated indiffer-
ence in the issue of that paper for February 9, 1878:

"Tell it not in San Jose, but I have been to see
the Madame Rentz Female Minstrels. The perform-
ance is not very naughty ^ nor is it very nice.
There is just one shapely woman in a remarkable
undress, who concentrates the attention of the
masculines present. She wears tights and a
street hat, and is as quiet, dignified, and
self-possessed as Mary's little lamb. No dash,
no specialty, but her perfect shape and a pen-
chant for singing the 'Sweet Bye and Bye.'
When we got home that night I questioned Jack
as to the attraction of such a performance to
the average man, especially to married ones.
He wouldn't admit that there was any attraction.
'But what fills the house and blocks the aisles
and keeps that row of callow youth, leaning
against the semi-circular wall?' 'Some sort of
a morbid impulse,' he replied,"

The Bulletin for February 20 took a parting shot
at the M. B. Leavitt's Bush Street speculators in morbid re-
actions:

"This house {the Bush Street Theatre) is now
relegated to the class of theatres which cator
to masculine tastes exclusively. That there
are people who like the can-can as danced by
the burlosquo troupe is demonstrated by tho
largo attendance on Monday and Tuesday nights."

Information about the Rontz-Santloy troupe for 1878

disappears with this last quoted notice of the Bulletin . This

notice, however, makes it clear that the silence of the

press was made up for by tho applause of packed houses for

the duration of the company's rtin.



* See Minstrelsy . Vol, XIII this series.



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XL -~ GRIMLDI AND THE DECLINE OF PANTOMIME
On March 25 the Bulletin announced that a complete
pantomime troupe, "the delight of young people," would take
possession of the Bush Street Ther.tre. While the town is
making its violent adjustment from the scandalous de'^collete''
of the Rentz-Santley troupe to the fully clothed innocence of
Mother Goose pantomime, this chronicle chooses to review one
of the many essays about the decline of pantomime which ap-
peared about this time.

The article is entitled just so: "The Decline of
Pantomime" which appeared in Theatre (February 1, 1882), a
magazine published in London:

"It is true that Mr. Tennyson, speaking (in his
sonnet to Macready) of 'brainless pantomime,'
refers to 'those gilt gauds men-chlidren swarm
to see'; and it would also seem, both from the
attendance at our theatres and from the charac-
ter of the entertainment there provided, that
it is the taste of such 'men-children' that is
largely regarded by the managers. Ostensibly,
however, pantomimes are chiefly for the young-
sters, and for those of tholr parents and
guardians who accompany them to the theatre.
They ought to be such as young people can wit-
ness not only with pleasure but without harm,
and thoy ought to be such as their elders can
witness, not only with toleration, but without
reprobation. Tho question is: Is this so? Do
modern pantomimes tend either to real amusement
or genuine edification?. . .There would not, how-
ever, be so much objection to adhering to the
old familiar nursery tales, if those tales were
only treated by librettists and managers in a
becoming spirit. I write in the interests of
the children. Adults may not, in every case,
object greatly to the modifications introduced
into the separate legends or the amalgamation
of several legends into one. Both offices might
be performed ingeniously, and with a certain






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Burlesque



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proportion of grotesque effect. As a matter of
fact, however there Is as a rule, no Ingenuity,
and grotesqueness in the matter. Either a leg-
end is taken and 'adorned' by the 'original'
fancies of the author, or it is muddled up with
one, two, or three others as the case may be,
in a manner which is merely -unintelligible and
irritating. And if these processes are dis-
tasteful to the adult, who has no great inter-
est in the affair one way or another, how singu-
larly disagreeable they must be to the young
imagination of our boys and girls, for whom
Dick Whittington, Aladdin, Red Riding Hood, and
Bo-Peep, are almost as real and vivid as their
own relations. Such stories as those of Dick
Whittington and Aladdin are usually followed
with some respect for the original; but let a
pantomime writer get hold of 'Robinson Crusoe,'
for example, and what a hash he too frequently
contrives of it,"

The balance of this article lays the whole decline
of pantomime to the intrusion of music hall elements. In its
prudish, English way, the article is merely harping on the
fact that even the apparently unassailable symbols of Mother
Goose pantomime, the apparently eternal tradition of Harle-
quin and his cohort of supporting characters, were breaking
down, like burlesque itself, into music hall variety.

A remark about the art of pantomime:

"Pantomime is now represented mainly, at any
rate, for there are a few good pantomimists
living, by troupes of contortionists of the
Girard sort, people who only frighten the chil-
dren out of their wits and make them anxious to
get home,"'^

and a brief discussion of ballet and transformation scene,

closes this English survey:



%> Theatre (London) Pebrviary 1, 1882 Article on"The Decline of
Pantomime . "



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Burlesque 170

"As a rule how meaningless, how utterly devoid
of connection with the story, is this part (the
ballet) of a pantomime performance. It is
dragged in vi et armis, and has rarely even the
merit of intrinsic grace. Something might be
said, too, as to the monotonous character of
the annual transformation scene, which has so
little connection with the story as the ballet,
and into which scenic artists appear afraid to
import the slightest element of originality.
When, I wonder, shall we see the last of the
unfortunate strapped-up ' fairies' t"^*-

The San Francisco Argonaut for March 30, 1878
bears out all the contentions of its English contemporary.
The Nick Roberts Company started off at the Bush Street Thea-
tre traditionally enough with a pantomime entitled Humpty
Dunipty . Mother Goose , hov/ever, had barely established her
identity before the footlights when, with the slippery rapid-
ity of Proteus, all was changed:

"Columbine takes off her petticoats and puts on
a gymnastic costume to give an act on the slack
wire J the fairy queen sheds her spangles and
gives a Negro minstrel song and dance, and a
remarkable dance it is; the magic doors and
windows and signs stop clanging, while the
clown gives a drunken performance on stilts."

The clown of the company called himself after the

famous progenitor of all English-speaking clowns, Grimaldi,^>'^'

and considering the eulogies of the local press, there is

possibility that he was one of Grimaldl » s worthier successors.

But the great prototype loomed too large to be supplanted by

an imitator. Only some new and divergent conception of the

-:(• Theatre (London) February 1, 1882 Article on "The Decline

of Pantomime , "
^HKJrimaldl, Joseph. (1779-1837). An English clown and

comedian of Italian parentage.



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Burlesque 171

clown role could supplant Grimaldi as he had supplanted Har-
lequin in England.

''His (Harlequin's) reign as a hero might have
continued up to the present, but for the ap-
pearance of a clown so funny, so irresistibly,
abnormally, deliriously funny, that Harlequin
was overlooked and forever relegated to dumbness
and the background. It is said that Joey
Grimaldi really made pantomime in England. Be-
fore his time it was generally a stop-gap for
dull seasons, and was mostly interpreted by
foreigners . After he made his name immortal in
Dibbin's Mother Goose , it became a national
institution^ and its great star stood as high
in his way as Lord Byron and Sheridan did in
theirs. "^

The dethroned and defrocked transformation of the

clown symbol of Grimaldi by the year 1878 is described in a

notice in the Bulletin , April 4, It is the last press notice

given the Nick Roberts Company, and its brevity contains

(perhaps only at this distance) a laconic penetration into

the fate of the pantomimic art:

"The clown is remarkably clever both as a panto-
mimist and variety actor."

XLI ~- EDWARD "EVERLASTING" RICE
The rest of 1878, right through to the new year,
belongs, as far as burlesque is concerned, to Edward E. Rice.
That is, except for small competition by the Salsbury"""*
Troubadours in May. The troupe's reappearance at the Baldwin
Theatre in the old piece called Patchwork followed a brief



-::- Argonaut , January 2, 1893.

- "«-Some times spelt "Salisbury or Saulsbury."



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Burlesque 172

season in Australia where, according to the Argonaut for May

4; 1878 they had failed to shine:

''You would think they would have picked up some-
thing new in Australia > But, no. Miss McHenry
still sings 'Pretty as a Picture, 'which she has
elaborated to an almost painful extent. Also,
she has a new patchwork dress, which is extreme-
ly pretty. She is call patchwork now, from her
headdress down to her ceramic stockings and lit-
tle shoes, for McHenry has a pretty foot.
Blanche Correlli's voice seems richer and full-
er than when she went away . "

Prom this unstimulated inventory of Salshury's assets, Betsy

B, of the Argonaut proceeds to put down the first record of

the brunette rediviva ;

"It is worthy of mention that Mile .Correlli al-
so has a new dress, a very gorgeous affair of
white and silver, which against the dead black
of her hair and eyes, is extremely becoming. I
do not wonder that brunettes are coming in style
again. I for one, am sick to death of the piles
of yellow jute, so popular on the stage."

Salsbury himself, in the same review, is almost
etched into a personality, only to fade out again from theat-
rical annals, misused, no doubt, and unappreciated:

''Salsbury is a degree more tragic than when he
went away. His resemblance to Barrett has in-
creased if anything. Possibly he will develop
into a tragedian when the Troubadour Combination
falls to pieces, and he has enough to start on
to give him hopes of success,"

With the Salsbury troupe so hastily shuttled off to
oblivion, Edward E, Rice's burlesque productions dominated
the press notices for the rest of the year. The spring sea-
son of the Rice troupe was a failure, the autumn season a
tremendous success. But the town was friendly from the



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BURLESQUE FAVORITES AT TliE STANDARD THE ..T RE IN 1876



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■(LYDIA THOMPSON COMPANY)




Ella Chapman, diminutive _per- Alice Athorton, (1847-1899),
former_ of the burlesque "Ilia- (Mrs. Willie Edouin) star of
watha.'' burlesque, ''Robinson Crusoe."



PHOTO COURTESY OP M, rl . de YOUNG IvIUSEUM



Burlesque 173

beginning. Were not Sol. Smith Russell and George Knight in
the castT These were familiar and appreciated performers in
San Francisco. The leading lady of the April openings Flor-
ence Ellis, fell very cold on the eyes and ears of the re-
viewers and was quickly replaced by Catherine Lewis ; who the
press knowingly assured Mr. Rice was a "find." Even this
shift, however, did not keep the spring engagement out of the
red; while a mere listing of the artists engaged for the No-
vember opening assured llir » Rice of a very profitable margin.
Willie Edouin and his wife Alice Atherton were not enough.
Rice also signed Alice Harrison, Ella Chapman, W.A.Mestayer,
Lewis Harrison and, later, Belle Chapman. Most of these peo-
ple were not only at the top of the burlesque profession,*
they were also famous Calif ornians.

First, the dismal business of the spring failure.
Evangeline was the title of the first production. It appar-
ently might as well have been called Cleopatra or Rings Aroimd
Saturn, in the prevailing mode of Jules Verne extravaganza;
Longfellow was little more than a vain shade without a voice
in the commonwealth. Edward Rice and J. Cheever Goodwin, in
collaboration, but mostly without collaboration in preference
to Rice, achieved the historical curiosity.

The flat maze of the Evangelical plot (it is inev-
itable that this chronicle's proximity to the burlesque pun
would finally inflict upon it, also, the disease) was a poor
beginning toward success. The burlesque begins without the



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Burlesque

174

benefit of any particular geography. Evangeline is the
daughter of Basil; she is betrothed to Gabriel; Le Blanc, the
vnllainous notary, is delighted with this betrothal, Icnowing
that Evangeline's inheritance will be denied her if she
marries Gabriel;- and, by way of cementing the opening
situation, Le Blanc is in love with Evangeline's mother,
Catherine .

From this entangleraent , the story veers into an
incredible number of pointless angles. Two sailors, deserters
from a man-of-war lying in the harbor, are concealed by
Evangeline in her father's house. It is the evening of her
betrothal to Gabriel. With marriage at hand, the captain of
the man-of-war, followed by his faithful sailors, enters the
room violently. The deserters are found, Evangeline is
arrested as a conspirator, and the entire burlesque company
is sent to England for a court martial scene. But a storm
of shipwreck proportions intervenes.

The burlesque company is next beheld on a bleak
African strand. Things at this moment look intensely bad
when suddenly diamonds are discovered in the sand and fortune
seems to smile through a slight cloud rift. There will be no
such luck, however, for a long time.; the policemen of the
African monarch, Boorioboola Gha, leap with barbaric yells
upon the gawking victims, arresting the whole crew on a charge
of stealing the crovm jewels. Everyone is sentenced to
death by the headman's axe.



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Burlesque 175

At this point, at last, the miasmal bad luck be-
gins to lighten into a honey-colored stream of complete good-
will. Le Blanc's eyes brighten and he steps forward. He
has recognized in Boorioboola Gha a friend of his old days.
In fact, they had worked together as masons on the same
ladder in a construction job in some city somewhere. Pardons
then fall like rain, not only from Boorioboola Gha, but also
from the captain of the man-of-war. To complete his amnesty,
Boorioboola Gha now furnishes his rescued friends with a
balloon which carries the burlesque company in toto very con-
veniently near the Union Pacific lines in Arizona.

The script now designates home as San Francisco,
where the last gay betrothal scene is finally enacted. No
resolution is made of Le Blanc's early villainy. It is per-
haps assxuned that the audience will believe Le Blanc's evil
motives have been thoroughly purified by the heavy crosses
he has had to bear in the coxirse of the evening. Evangeline's
mother, Catherine, hauled without purpose through all the
other scenes, is still present just before the fall of the
curtain, falls into Le Blanc's arms, and the cogs and
sprockets of the plot are considered complete.

The success of this pastiche in New York was due
entirely to its performers. It was not so fortunate in San
Francisco. The music of the bt^rlesque, compiled and composed
by Rice, was from all reports good; but, according to Betsy B.
of the Argonaut , no one in the cast had even ''one spark of



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Burlesque 176

musical ability," The weight of the performance fell upon

Sol. Smith Russell and George Knight. Of the former Betsy B.,

in the Argonaut for April 13, 1878 has this to say;

"He enters quite into the spirit of burlesque,
and is especially ridiculous in a toilet which
consists of a Roman toga not more than twenty
inches in length and a baker's cap. He gives
just one little flavor of his former entertain-
ment, his specialty concert, in a brief but
touching recitation of that inspiring ode,
'Twinkle, twinkle, little star.'"

George Knight brought to San Francisco his famous
character, the Lone Fisherman, Absolutely unrelated to the
plot of Evangeline , the Lone Fisherman was nevertheless omni-
present:

•'The Lone Fisherman is the feature. He actually
smells of the brine, his make-up is so perfect.
He is omnipresent. Every scene discloses him.



Online LibraryEttore RellaA history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) → online text (page 15 of 29)