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A history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) online

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rial; here, suddenly, it was being revived only to be placed
upon a Procrustean bed of Victorian morality. Harlequin was
forced into the groove of Old Sobersides. The Kiralfy Ballet
was the drawing card of the otherwise dull deck. No money
had been stinted on the costumes, and ICiralfy's choreography,
for once, satisfied and excited all beholders. Otherwise,

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Burlesque 200

descriptions of the production sound like one of those innu-
merable engravings in one of those large tomes which were sup-
posed to uplift nineteenth century living rooms with such
titles as "Hearth and Home," or "Chats Beside the Chimney":

"And therewith a bell jingled and the curtain
arose. A young woman was outlined against the
ruins of a city which seemed to have just come
out of a bad earthquake. She was attired in a
white silk robe, liberally embroidered with the
portrait of an exceedingly ill-favored gentle-
manj and a tall, Mephistophelian fellow, who
looked as Galassi might look in the part, was
triumphantly waving something over her. In the
course of the pantomime the young woman seemed
to get the better of the young man, and he
shrank away, looking as he went, apparently for
a pin on the floor. And with this the curtain
rose again, but upon a scene of dazzling beauty
and light. There were ranks upon ranks of pretty
coryphees all shapely, all graceful, and all
radiant with fantastic, glittering costumes.
There were dozens of little children varioixsly
arrayed, and the male ballet-dancers came to
life again in a ballet of wonderful arrange-
ment. Every possibility of varied and studied
motion seemed to have been exercised. There
were evolutions and convolutions, post\irings,
whirlings, twirlings, wavings, twinkling feet,
and waving hands, and wreathing arms, any one
of them almost impossible to identify, but all
of them together transforming the stage into
a wonderful study of light and color, and
motion. It was indescribably beautiful...."

This same review, printed in the Argonaut , April 5,

1884, reserved another type of adjective for the scenery.

The master hand of Voegtlin had certainly not been emplcryedx

"The scenery is rickety, shaky, dauby, smeary;
the poor Brooklyn Bridge wobbles like a skip-
ping rope in the wind; and the Suez Canal has
a cold, flat, look."



"Tftti?^;* 'Vi

;^.^i ;J.

Burlesque 201


As for the plot content of the piece, no resume

today could produce the Illumination of the advance publicity

in the Argonaut for March 29, 1884s

"The following is the plot of this curious
play; Light; the Genius of Civilization, is
found in captivity to Darkness, or Obscurantism,
the Oenius of opposition to Human Progress, ?;ho
is aided by Ignorance, Superstition and Crime.
Light wakes, breaks her chain, and defies Dark-
ness, and the scene changes to a most elaborate
and beautiful picture of the Temple of Light
and Progress, This fills the entire stage with
graduated elevations at the back, and the whole
space is filled ivith dancers, including a large
number of children in the highest part of the
picture, who are dressed as winged cherubs.
Light stands beside one of the premiers, all
of whom are her friends and assistants at dif-
ferent stages of the pantomime. The rest of
the act is filled by three divisions of the
ballet La Renomme'e, by the full corps, La
Civilization, by Miss Plindt, and -La Renais-
sance by all."

During this period, the disturbing fact is that
the melodeon entertainers and the minstrels v/ere not alive to
the opportunity. It had not been many years since a produc-
tion of such spurious seriousness would have instantly kin-
dled a merciless and side-splitting take-off in every music
hall in town. Perhaps, in 1884, belief in the endless ex-
pansion of the market v/as so general that no one could think
of the limitations, let alone laugh at a satire of Progress.
So the transformation scene in Excelsior , wherein Progress
was disclosed enthroned and gleaming above Light's successful
encounter with the dragon of Darkness, was applauded nightly
for several weeks by a full house.

Burlesque 202

The San Franolsco News Letter for April 5, 1884

gives still other and more profound reasons for the success

of the piece:

"The ballet girls are, generally, pretty and
shapely. The three or four primas are excel-
lent danseuses. Signora Brianza is a little
beauty. The male soloists are good dancers
and remarkably clever in pantomime, an art
supposed to be lost."

The gleaming foot of light upon the fallen head of

darkness was too strong a memory for Excelsior* a immediate

successor. Pocahontas , one of John Brougham* s burlesques,

was "but a dismal affair as played at the Standard this


"Prank Wright is vigorous, to say the least,
in his conception of Powhattan. Virs. Saunders
is comical as the school-teacher. Miss Helen
Brooks is plump and pleasing in appearance as
Pocahontas . The school girls are headed by
sprightly Blanche Thayer and pretty Lillian
Owen. That is about all that can be said
about the performance. Charles T. Barbour is
a most melancholy Captain Smith, His humor
lies wholly in the peculiar angularity of his

Not until June, with the piece A Bunch of Keys at
the Bush Street Theatre, was burlesque able to divert any of
the town's attention in its direction. Quite a let-down:
from the cerulean heights of Excelsior where superhuman ab-
stractions struggled for dominance on the papier-mache crags,
to "life in a hotel":

"Life in a hotel has never been so amusingly
caricatured as in this entertainment. The main
satire is developed and embellished by songs.

* San Francisco News Letter, April 26, 1884,

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Bxorlesque 203

dances and innumerable indescribable bits and
freaks of an eccentric humor. \'Vhat may be
called gymnastic joking is an important faciDr
in the general amusement....

"The company is a clever ©ne... Bowser is the
original Pittac\i3 Green in this city. He is a
versatile actor. In Hazel Kirke he was a gen-
teel comedian; in A Bunch of Keys , he is a gen-
uine burlesquer. iJis Sn^ggs' is as finished a
piece of work, the materials taken into consid-
eration, as can be imagined, Canfield as Grimes,
is the striking fig-ure of the lot. He causes
irrepressible merriment b3'" his marvellous agil-
ity and grotesque grimacing. Lena Merville's
character is that of a sort of Tom Boy. A
striking degree of originality marks everything
she does...Mariette Nash is one of the spright-
liest women I have ever seen. She is the light-
est of mortals. Her dancing is feathery in its

"With its many bits of fxm, which all have the
potency of surprise, this is the most ludicrous
entertainment that has been seen for years. If
it has any faults, they are to be found in the
superfluity of food for the risibilities, the
show is too long by a half hour, and the olrous-
like form of one or two of the episodes."*

Prom the contemporary satire of A Bunch of Keys to

the mythological extravaganza of Orpheus and Eyrydioe was the

next quick change of bxorlesque in the strange 1884 season.

The Bijou Company opened at the Baldwin Theatre July 18

with a burlesque production of Offenbach's opera bo\iffe,

Orphee a\ix Enfers . Any further attentuation of Offenbach's

material was dangerous. He had already given the old myth as

much lightness and humor as it could stand, and still hold

together as some sort of consocvitive entertainment. The

audiences of the Bijou Company's burlesque cf Offenbach deemed

-"' San Francisco News Letter , June 7, 1884,

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Burlesque 204

to agree that "perhaps of all the spinning, this new bur-
lesque is the flattest and thinnest. "'J*' An ambitious failure,
the production nevertheless stlraulated The Argonaut for July
19 to an interesting generalization upon all mythological
extravaganzas :

"There was a grim humor in laying the first
vandal touch of burlesque upon them (the Olym-
pic gods). There must have been an exquisite
absurdity in the sight, the first time that
thunderous Jupiter stalked down upon the stage
and executed a motto-song and a breakdown, and
Venus, Juno & Co. went through a plantation
walk-around. But to this generation, they are
simply cheap material for burlesque."

The press comments give a very inadequate recon-
struction of the production. A symbolic figure. Public Opin-
ion, was somehow integrated into the plot. To Augusta Roche,
who is described as an impressive woman of heroic height, was
entrusted the interpretation of this ominous figure; and ac-
cording to the Argonaut , her interpretation would have come
off if Miss Roche had been "fitly costumed":

"As it is, she looks as if she had barely
commenced her toilet and finished it in a fit
of abstraction, with several yards of gold

Cupid, the dainty, little messenger to Offenbach's tulle and
tinsel hell, was played by Ida Miille. She was remembered
not so much for her ability as a burlesquer as for her fur-
ther pioneering over the horizons of undress. She and Pay
Templeton were the first American actresses to dispense with
tr-unks. Indeed, up to this point, the whole history of bur-
lesque assumes the aspect of a fifty-year long strip-tease:

•«• Argonaut, July 19, 1884,

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Burlesque 205

a dilated, slow-motion version of the rapid, twentieth- century

phenomenon. The costumier, however, was balked as much by

the conc6nti»ated undress of Cupid as by the ornate overdress

of Public Opinion:

"This little Ida Mulle fits into the wtnge
of Cupid, and is mischievous and prankish with
an innocent, heavy, German face, like a very
boy's. Her costume, what there is of it,
is, excepting the wings, singularly inappro-

Mile. Vanoni, the French star, received the most
and at the same time very diverse attention. It was said she
was too French fcr mythological burlesque which was essential-
ly English. She might be chic, but it was the chic of the
Cafe' Chantant, But what was the matter with Cafe Chantant?
Inevitably, she sang the famous French number "Pretty as a
Pict\ire"; but perhaps it was, after all, a good song. She
was clever, gay, energetic - people bought their tickets
chiefly to see her; but wasn't she a little specialized?
Admitted that she was an expert specialist, yet she wasn't
an actress. Therefore she was attracting as a specialist and
not as an actress. And when she sang, she did not take the
orchestra into accotint, but ogled right over their heads at
the audience; the audience liked it but the orchestra was
slighted. Flirtatious, yes, in a vivid, French way; but was
she wicked enough to fascinate? She might have the superb
polish of a French comedienne, but how much good was all this
if she didn't fascinate?*

* Ibid.


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Burlesque 206

Digby Bell and Daisy Murdock received the only
unqualified praise of the reviewers. Digby Bell had come out
of opera study in Italy with enough voice for four years of
singing in Italy itself, followed by an American debut in
Fra Diavolo , and subsequent seasons of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Burlesque proved to be his element, and after a few appear-
ances in the lowly art, a ixnique drollery was attributed to
him. The management of Orpheus and Eurydlce had cast him
well. The few funny lines of the play were given to Digby
Bell to say; and the traditional Mother Goose song, built out
of completed local allusions, was given him to sing.

Daisy Murdock received the high praise of compari-
son with two of burlesque's topnotch stars. She was granted
'"'a touch of that indefinable skill in burlesque which was
second nature to little Ella Chapman, and in a less degree
to Alice Atherton.""^ Pvirther, as Hebe, she ''made the hit of
the evening'' in a vocal duet with Cupid, the duet being "a
very pretty arrangement of Joseph D. Redding 's Del Monte
waltzes,''*'-' The Argonaut reviewer hit upon a formula for her
appearance; that of ''a beautiful child of twelve years, with
the self-possession and abandon of a Parisian actress of
about ninety years' experience. The combination has an effect
a little odd."

A few weeks later, light opera companies elsewhere
in town had drained the Baldwin burlesque troupe of an audi-
ence, and the Bijou Company comes into the light again in

^ Ibid.

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BurlGsquG 207

August only because of the noisy secession of several members
from the company when they could not collect their pay. The
secessionists were Mile. Vanoni, Digby Bell, Laura Joyce,
Ida Mulle, and Emma Mulle.

Periodically; as during the spring of 1884, several
kinds of burlesque were tried for their drawing power; and
just as periodically, once these several kinds had failed to
succeed in any startling manner, The Black Crook would be
decked out again as a last resort.

There again as if forever, were the tiers of gold-
en staircases in the background of the stage. And again, as
if forever^ the Amazonian hordes poured down the staircases
^vith a spangled emphasis of their orbic peculiarities. The
gauze curtains, again, as if endlessly, were gradually with-
drawn to reveal finally, in the depth of the stage, the same
old palpitating disclosure o

The Argonaut for August 9, 1884 comments:

"An ardent young man from the country was sit-
ting alone at the Grand Opera House on the first
night of The Black Croo k. He did not evince
much interest in anything until the glittering
Stalacta (Louise Dempsey) left her swan-drawn
boat and walked dovm the steps. He immediately
aroused himself, and it was evident that he had
a touching belief ±a the reality of every charm.
He even suspected that long golden mane of
growing on the head, and regarded her glitter-
ing sea-foam as an integral part of her. '0
Goddlemighty;, aint she a beautiful woman?' he
cried aloud in honest rapture, and to this
moment does not suspect what caused the out-
breaks of titters around him."

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Burlesque 208

The summer wont out v/ith Ida Mulle very much in
the public eye in a very private manner. Little photographs
of her as Cupid in Orpheus and Eurydice were neatly framed
for general consumption. Described in the press as a gem of
the photographic art, the consumption was widespread. From
how many dressers in how many boardinghouse rooms, did Cupid
slant upward on his picture easel, at morning and at night,
to feast the starved eyes? Perhaps this photograph is the
origin of the Cupid Awake and Cupid Asleep pair of pictures
which invaded the provincial American homes early in the
twentieth century. Ida Mulle, despite her inadequacy in the
burlesque of Offenbach, was profoundly successful.

The graphical line of the history of San Francisco
burlesque descends to an almost dead level for the period
1884-1887. In 1884, the minstrels at the Standard Theatre,
under the leadership of Charley Reed; delved for a moment
into real restate with the burlesque \JVho Owns the Theatre?
the old California being the orphaned edifice. But obscurity
quickly wrapped round the details of the piece and silence
reigned in the press. On two other occasions, in 1884, the
minstrels held up the feeble light of the burlesque lanterns
once in a travesty of Fedora , again in a burlesque of Called
B ack, ''^ legitimate drama then running at the Baldwin. The fall


Burlesque was Crawled Back.


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Burlesque 209

of 1885 witnessed a doiible debacle. Undine the Sp i rit of the
Waters , a fairy spectacle in five acts and eighteen scenes,
could not at all manage her head above water and drowned
dismally'-, and the old Jules Verne spectacle. Around the 'Vorld
in Eighty ^ 'DslJS , made an extraordinarily brief and disastrous
circuit, I'Tiat happened next waS;, hj this time, as reflexive a
thing for harassed theatrical managers as the secretion of
saliva by one of Pavlov's dogs at the ringing of a bell -
The Black Crook was revived. The denuded, long-suffering
extravaganza appeared this time with Japanese overtones.
Everything could be traced to the rage of The Mikado . Gil-
bert and Sullivan's operettas not only succeeded; they gained
the oppressive currency of a modern. Tin Pan Alley tujie.
There was a Ko-Ko dance step, a Japanese ballet, parasols,
and cherry blossoms # Stalacta, ethereal, rope-suspended
fairy of the original text, v;as now a stolid^ grimy Stalagma,
relegated to an obscure niche in the orientalized transfor-
mation scene.

These few productions present almost the virhole case
for burlesque during the loy; years of the eighties; except
perhaps for Pay Temple ton's appearance in the fall of 1884 »
But her engagement in San Francisco, nine years from the time
when she had been feted at the Bush Street Theatre as the
inimitable child star, was strictly limited to comic opera.
And the critic of the Bulletin , September 18, 1884 was well
aware of a distinction between light opera and burlesque.

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The quotation has to do with Harry Brown, leading man of

Pay Templeton's company-

"Mr, Broiim is a clever actor but he never did
know where to draw the line. He interjects a
fine burlesque performance into comic opera."

Not until the fall of 1888 v/as Miss Templeton to perform on

this side of the line for this chronicle. At that time, she

was to be starred in a production of Evangeline during a

return engagement of Edward "Everlasting'' Rice's burlesque

troupe .

Other extant details of the above-named productions

only confirm conclusions alread3!- drawn. All the detritus of

outworn convention was still clinging to the raised hulk of

Undine, the Spirit of the iVaters ;

"The ballet comes in the closing scene of
the third act, with Miles. Tittel and Bergland,
seconded by Miles, Lee and principal
dancers. The foiorth act is crowded with special-
ties too numerous even to be named here, but all
more or less attractive and including a handsome
maid of the Amazons. The fifth act ends with a
transformation scene. "^''

And Mabel Bert, the feminine lead, v/as still draining dry the

long-dry convention of "Beauty must be blonde,"

"The title role is entrusted to Miss Mabel
Bert, whose beauty is indeed substantial rath-
er than spirituelle, but who, in a becoming
white dress and a wealth of golden hair makes
an exquisite picture, and whose acting through-
out is all that could be wished."*'^

The remote and terrible possibility is that Botticelli
is guilty. The pre-Raphaelite painters had confronted all Eng-
lish eyes with their peculiar conception of beauty. Botticelli

-is- San Francisco News Letter, September 5, 1885,

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Burlesque 211

came before Raphael, The pre-Raphaelites "adored" Botticelli,
whose famous Venus Anadyomene is indisputably blonde, Lydia
Thompson, first burlesque queen to indulge in peroxide reha-
bilitation, could have seen pictures in an illustrated weekly;
might even have attended a gallery. Ergo -• but explaining an
effect cannot brij^ten it. And long before 1835;, the great
weight of declorized hair ^^ich had fallen upon the American
theatre had been described by bored witnesses as so many bales
of jute.

The oriental reincarnation of The Black Crook in
1886 has already been hinted at. The plot structure of the
burlesque itself had by this time become merely the weather-
beaten portico within which the theatrical bird of the season
laid its egg safely. Black Crook revivals were always suc-

Online LibraryEttore RellaA history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) → online text (page 18 of 29)