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A history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) online

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" The Black Crook has been such a success that
it has been decided to keep it another week.
The Japanese ballet grows in favor every night,
and the little Pitti-Sing in the blue kimono,
who dances to the last tip of her fingers and
the last curl of her hair, gets a round of ap-
plause all to herself every night, Mme.Tissot's
cherry farce is the bright particular featiire
of the specialties and no one is able to dis-
cover from her accent whether she is a French
woman, or a wild Virestern prairie girl,""^^

For the rest, the middle eighties belonged to Big
Bertha, She arrived in San Francisco unannounced, after trav-
els which were never divulged. She made out an attractive.

-"- Argonaut , January 23, 1886,

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Burlesque 212

but nongeographic, case for herself. Her wealth, she declared
was proportional to her avoirdupois. The long quest which had
brought her to San Francisco was primarily a search for a
suitor. But there were strings attached. The suitor, to
prove his faith, must advance a sum of money named by Bertha
which she would double out of her own resources and invest ac-
cording to her o\iini light. The gag, though transparent, was
successful. Suitors overvrhelmed her; their pittance was col-
lected, and the mysterious investment was sworn to. There-
after, the dividends remained so invisible that there v/as a
general uprising. The plaintiffs, however quickly cognizant
of the unpleasant odor which court procedure would arouse,
smoldered against the groat Injustice and kept quiet. Even
so, Big Bertha was arrested; but the nebulous charges evapo-
rated and she was released with a tremendous amount of free
publicity toward her secret theatrical ambitions. First, a
one-man stand in an empty store on Market Street, where she
displayed herself as the undisputed, and apparently undetect-
able. Queen of the Confidence ^''omen; thence, directly to the
Bella Union. Oofty Goofty was the partner of her act. No
less a celebrity than Big Bertha, he was the moronic clown
v/ho for years had walked up and dovm the Barbary Coast, making
his living by persuading people to hit him with a bat he car-
ried, at the cost (to them) of fifty cents.

Burlesque of burlesque was common. Big Bertha and


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Burlesque 213

Oofty Goofty carried burlesque to its final,, remote, unonter-
taining degree, Romeo and Juliet v/as the first subject. Big
Bertha immediately raised the cry of foul play, and ^/ith no
intention at draniatic criticism; for Oofty Goofty had not on-
ly gained the balcony, but in the amorous tussle v/hich ensued,
treated Big Bertha rough, she insisted; beyond any theatrical
necessity, Oofty Goofty was quickly fired from the Thespian
bandwa^"on; and the next week Big Bertha was billed alone in a
condensed version of If azepjpa , The spectacular ride of Ada
Isaacs ?<Ienkon,, '"' strapped to the fiery horse, became for Big
Bertha, a lumbering ride on a donkey. The audience, poised
ready for amusement, was siiddenly convulsed when the donkey,
drawing back before the glaring footlights, pitched Big Bertha
into the orchestra pit, then jumped in after her.

At this moment. Big Bertha achieved her most dra-
matic effect. Standing up tall in the midst of the anarchic
condition of the orchestra pit the tremendous weight of her
fury gained a moment of quiet during which she hurled such
recondite vituperations at the crowd that no one could stand
up against her. She then, through the backstage door, made a
very realistic exit from her footlight career.

The mi-Jdle eighties had brought the genius of pan-
tomimic satire this low. The great shade of Grimaldl had
certainly no place to hang his hat, and the development of

■«- See Monograph on Adah Isaacs Menken, Vol, V, this series.


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Burlesque 214

burlesque was apparently not yet through with the blind alleys
of transformation scene, bespangled ballets, and half-baked
puns. Excessively dreary is the present Imowledge, that well
along in the twentieth century, Al Jolson would be making a
name as Man Friday, the same role in the same burlesque that
made a name for Willie Edouin,

The first burlesque production of 1887, Little Jack
Sheppard at the Alcazar Theatre, contributed no development
to the history of burlesque, but did call forth some interest-
ing expressions in the press; first, in relation to New York.
There are few admissions of New York superiority in the bril-
liant stage history of San Francisco. In regard to Little
Jack Sheppard , the San Francisco News Letter for January 15,
1887 has this to say«

"After seeing the burlesque of Jack Sheppard at
the Alcazar one can well imagine how comical and
entertaining the New York production, with Nat
Goodwin and Jonathan Wild, must be, ,,, The bur-
lesque is full of clever things. The costumes
are very pretty, and new, a novelty to us here.
The make-up of each character is admirable. All
the accessories are as they should be. The ef-
fects are remarkable. .. .We get from this an idea
of how these burlesques are gotten up in New
York. And yet there is a lack of spirit to the
whole entertainment that makes it fall flat."

And the mention of Nat Goodwin gave the critic of
the News Letter his second thesis, a discussion ^ the minstrel,
Charley Reed, v^o played Goodwin's role in the local produc-
tion. All dramatic critics in tov/n had long been solicitous



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about Reed's career. He was too good for minstrelsy, they

said; a little more polish and he should step up into serious

comedy. Here he was finally in a "white-faced" burlesque, but

the critic's memory of Nat Goodwin took all the v/ind out of

Reed's sails:

"There is no funnier man than Nat Goodwin on
the stage, the v;orld over, to-day. He is a re-
markable mimic. Charley Reed is a funny fellow
also, but in a more limited sense. He is a pro-
vincial comedian. His humor apoeals to a re-
stricted public, the public cf his ovm milieu, and
not to the genoral public, To us here, v/ho know
him of old, who like him and applaud him, he is
far funnier than to those to whom he is merely
one comedian out of a great many. His humor is
essentially local. His sense of the ridiculous
is awakened by matters of the moment in his im-
mediate surroundings. He is no actor in the un-
derstood sense of the word. He is accustomed
from his minstrel career to have the stage to
himself and is lost when others are with him in
a scene. In Jack Sheppard he is excessively
amusing. In a hundred ways, by a hundred little
bits of humorous business, he keeps us busy in
laughter, and yet we feol that something is
wanting. His fun comes in intermittent flashes,
betv/een which he disappears in solemn stolidity.
There are no hyphens betviroen his comical bits,,..
There is in Reed the making of a burlesquer,
but he needs tho training ^ivhich comes of facing
strange audiences,"""'

That Charley Reed, with a little study, could make
a New York appearance as successfully local as a San Francisco
appearance, does not seem to have entered the critic's head.
Nor did the critic avoid the old trap of speaking about "the
general public," If Reed, however, was capable of making ex-
pert fun of "his own milieu, '' what should prevent him from


^' San Francisco News Letter . January 15, 1887,


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discovering the peculiarities of another milieu and playing
them up just as successfully? The general public is an ab-
stract everybody without ears or eyes, of no particular place
or time. A norm is valuable in the determination of high or
low blood pressure, tall or short, fat or thin, but of no val-
tie whatsoever to dramatic criticism.

The Bulle tin critic was more simply realistic in
his coverage of Little Jack Sheppard :

" Little Jack Sheppard drew 200 people more than
the house will fairly accommodate. It was prob-
ably not the burlesque so much as the return
of Alice Harrison, and Charles Reed, who sus-
tain the leading parts in the piece, «., It does
not appear that the adapters of Little Jack
Sheppard have done more than furnish a new
framework in which the business of burlesque
may be set. The scenes are suggested by the
drama of the same name, and the filling in is
what the company makes it,'*'"'

Again it is indicated that the bones of any old
structure would do as long as there was something to support
the succession of variety acts. The decadence of the b\ir-
lesque form vras still not complete enough for the commencement
of the reverse process.

These conclusions were confirmed by Edward Harrigan's
burlesque, Investigation , v/hich, with an August opening, was
the first burlesque to succeed Little Jack Sheppard in the
year 1887, Harrigan had become famous in New York for the
writing of sharply satirical burlesque. But the ideas of In -
vestigation , a satire upon the small town legislator, had not

* Bulletin , January 11, 1887.


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Harry Dixey, the "elastic"'
policeman ln_ the burlesque,


Biirleaque 217

quite jelled. Again, the plot structure of burlesque was mere-
ly the thread for a program of vaudeville. In fact, the news-
papers spoke of a Romeo and Juliet burlesque as the feature
of the bill.

"There is something in Investigation that no
one should miss seeing, the burlesque JRomeo and
Juliet scene, ,, ,r/Irs, Yeamans is a genius. , ,,3:1©
is perfectly unrestrained by fear of being ri-
diculous, the bugbear of most women on or off
the stage. She is entirely free from affecta-
tions of any sort, perfectly natural and with
a Y/onderful command of ludicrous effect. Her
Juliet is genuine legitimate burlesque and as
such remarkable,"''^

The small town legislator of the original idea had

evaporated completely by the time the piece was concluded.

How else can the following statement which closed the Bulletin

review for August 2, 1887, be understood?

"There were a number of Brahms* songs and
choruses which went, as usual, very well and
were even well encored*"

Before one more of the rapidly successive periods
of drought, there was another high moment for San Francisco
burlesque. It was the appearance of Harry Dixey at the
BaldvYin Theatre in November 1887, Dixeyfe fame was firmly bol-
stered by 1200 performances of the leading role in E, E,
Rice's burlesque, Adonis, New York had paid packed house
homage; London likewise. In England, Dixey had gone so far

'"■ San Francisco News Letter, August 6, 1887,


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Burlesque 218

as to feature his imitation of Sir Henry Irving; but the
lilnglish had taken it r/ell. In fact, Dixey's mimicry seems to
have been so exact that the quality of burlesque was erased.
Long heralded, solidly advertised as a four-generation manu-
facturing concern; Dixey opened at the Baldwin, November 21,1S87.
For once, Edward "Everlasting" Rice had a live, uni-
fying idea for a burlesque. It seems, hov/ever, that it was
quickly dissipated,

"Dixey first appears as a statue chiseled by
a vfoman who falls in love with her own work,.,,
Adonis, while still a statue, finds a purchaser
but the sculptress decllaes to sell it. It is
arranged that he shall be endowed 'vith life and
allowed to choose between the woman who had cre-
ated him and the woman #10 desired to buy him,
Adonis takes to life naturally and demonstrates
his fidelity to the race by turning his back on
his creator and following the woman with the
heavier piirse. This, of course, is only the
thread upon which the various special acts are

Here was an opportunity to satirize all the cheap,
enervating effects of art patronage upon the arts, but nei-
ther Rice nor the times were up to exploiting it,

''Adonis is a highly polished conglomeration of
odds and ends with an exceedingly apt young man
as the central figure of the porf ormance.'**

No such man as Dixe^r had ever before starred in bur-
lesque. He v/as not only thoroughly schooled in the art of
burlesque gesture; he was also handsome enough to acquire a
matinee idol reputation. His first performances in San Fran-
cisco created a widespread feminine flutter. In all justice.

-;:- Bulletin, November 22, 1887,

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Burlesque 219

however, it shovild be stated here that the peculiar concentra-
tion on Dixey's legs had to do not only with their shapeliness,
but also with the fact that Dixey had made his first mark in
burlesque as the hind legs of a comic heifer.

"He does not belong to the drama, vras never
of it nor in it, that any one knows of. He is
a bright and clever boy, who fell Into an age
v;hen the most specious cleverness is fully ap-
preciated. ,» ,He seems to have something of the
temperament of Havrthorne ' s faun, and laughs, and
sings, and dances life ay;ay because he likes to.

''So much has been said of Dixey ' s legs that they
have actually become historic, but nothing ia
ever said of his feet,.,. They are large, long,
and limber, and they take on a nev; expression
v/ith every change of character ... .Now and then
it crosses the mind of the spectator that there
may be something consecutive in it but this,
never, when Dixey appears. He is the most de-
lightfully inconsequential of men. He is, in-
deed, only an etherialized variety man, and of
course a variety man's every appearance is an
act..., He is deft, quick, and graceful in every-
thing, and as a mimic he is inimitable."^"'-

The second act of the burlesque served the famous

piece de resistance. Dixey came out upon the stage as Sir

Henry Irving.

"It was said of this imitation in London that
its absolute fidelity to the original was a
source of much mortification to the English
play-goers. They saw their favorite actor imi-
tated so closely by an American bur lesquer, that
had the tv/o been playing a dual role it would
have been difficult, if not impossible, to tell^
which of the two was on the stage at the t ime ♦" '""'""■

The disconcerting thing about the ready praise of
all the critics was the fact that Irving had not yet visited

""^ Argonaut , November 26, 1887.
yg-^-Jjulletin, November 22, 1887.

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Burlesque 220

America, so that thore v/as really not a model for comparison

with the renovmod imitation. The Bull e tin for November 22,

1887 pulled in the reins a little and admitted this:

"V/e infer that in the presence of an audience
not familiar with Irving, the imitator touched
up his performance with a little by-play the
tragedian did not give the v/arrant fort"

The San Francisco News Letter for December 10 rationalized

its enthusiasm in a more recondite manner;

"As in the case of a strong portrait painted
by the brush of a painter who succeeds in re-
producing on canvas not only the lineaments of
his subject's face, but his character as well,
as indicated by the expression of his features,
the likeness is self-evident, though the origi-
nal may be unknown, so in the case of Dixey's
imitation of Irving, those to whom the latter
is a stranger, feel instinctively that it is a
wonderful likeness,"

But the Irving imitation was a small part of the
entertainment. The rest of Dixey's powerful stage presence
needed very little roundabout comment. To say that he v/as ob-
viously the most subtle of the burlesquers of his time is the
paradoxical manner of indicating his unique quality. The News
Letter for December 10,1887 continues:

"Dixey continues to charm and amuse the pub-
lic by the ease and grace of his movements, and
the delicacy, deftness and finish of his ver-
satile genius,,,, He can be judged by no estab-
lished standard, for he is the originator of a
new branch of theatrical art. Ho has shovm us
that burlesque may be made extravagant without
becoming buffoonery, He has shovm us that satire
may be drawn in lines that do not violate the
rules of perspective and shading. His v/ork is
rounded off by a hundred delicate little details
of characteristic tom-foolery, that come invar-
iably in the right time, in the right place,"

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Burlesque 221

From these reflections of his art in the press, it
Is easier and perhaps more correct to regard Dixey rather as
further indication of decadence than of advance in burlesque.
His finesse v/as in the direction of caviar, and a far cry from
the broad, satiric clarity of the early clowns. At this point,
a flashback to the early Cormncdia dell' Arte troupes is re-
freshing. The portable theatre has been set up in the square,
Ever7/body in town has crowded about the gay stage. The term
"general public" takes on some meaning. The muddled life of
the populace, the crosscurrents of their daily connections
with legal procedure and the soldiery, the constant, public
explosions of amorous entanglements, the officious superveil-
lance of the church s these things are suddenly made clear and
dramatic on the torchllt acting space. And the penetrating,
pantomimic gestures are not only legible at a great distance,
but are understandable to the great variety of heads in the
crowd. The whole life of the time is put on dramatic exhi-
bition and everybody comes to behold it.

As if not to take a chance with the enthusiastic
public response to Harry Dixey, the managers of the Tivoli
and California Theatres kept San Francisco audiences terrifi-
cally on the move with A Trip to the Moon , and immediately
thereafter Around the ^'^/orld in Eighty Days .

The lunar trip was initiated at the Tivoli as holiday
entertainment during the last days of December 1887, But it


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proved as dull as the raagio boat trip through the plcti.ired
tunnel on Coney Island. The inadequate cast served only tore-
mind the reviewers of Alice Harrison and "u A. Mestayer, who
stood out garishly in the waxworks of memory as the leads of
the topnotch cast in the same burlesque years ago at the
California Theatre, Berti Crawford v/as making her debut, upon
which silence only descended, except for a quiet and frigid
virreath from the San Francisco News Letter (December 31, 1887 )s

"Miss Berti Crawford is pretty and vivacious,
but both in acting and singing she is devoid of
the requisite qualities for success."

Offenbach, original perpetrator of the music for A
Trip to the Moon , was this time literally snov/ed under. Al-
most all the songs were omitted In deference to a tone-deaf
cast, and a snowstorm tranf ormation scene v/as constituted the
feature of the piece. Today, the only note of interest in the
production is the statement of the Argonaut for December 24,
1887 that, aside from Berti Crawford making her debut , the house
would be lighted by electricity, "which is something new this
side of the Rockies,"

Around the W orld in Eighty Days , which opened at the
California towards the middle of January 1888, offered a trip
no more exciting than its predecessor. Kiralfy had been given
the superintendence not only of the ballet routine, but also
of the spectacular effects jand although a successful choreog-
rapher, stage mechanics were evidently outside his loiowledge.

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Burlesque 223

"The spectacular effects are, as usual with
Kiralfy, ridiculous failures. The Union Pacific
train in the play, is an inexhaustible fund of
amusement, In its brief passage across the stage
it indulges in a series of the wildest antics.
The cars run off their hind trucks, telescope
into each other, and to cap the climax, the
tender, with a sudden inspiration of motive
power, pulls the cars, leaving the locomotive

With this last pathetic attempt at locomotion and
the resultant standstill, burlesque production looked for life
in a recrudescence of familiar splendors, The Black Crook may
have been somewhat dim and worn but it v;as still a reliable
ace in the hole. Its production this time overlapped the last
dying fall of Around the World in Eig hty Days .

As ballet master of The Black Crook , Kiralfy's stock

rose noticeably,

"Henry Irving himself could not have produced
a more artistic and brilliant effect than the
outpouring of the King's troops from the pil-
lared gates of Babylon, It is in large spaces,
in general effects like this, that I\1r, Kiralfy,
giving rein to his picturesque and glowing fancy,
can produce pictures as vivid, as gorgeous, as
startling and intense as the paintings of
Benjamin Constant or Henri Regnault,"'-^"""

'"Tiether or not under Kiralfy' s guidance, the cogs

and sprockets v/ere again a hit-or-miss matter, the conch-like

boat in which Rudolph rode into the glistening caverns of

Stalacta, jerked on its cable and arrived at its destined shore

by a series of spasmodic lurches. Count i"'olf enstoin was to

have thought out his black machinations against a backdrop

-J>- San Francisco News Letter , January 14, 1888,
-""::- Argonaut , January 1, 188^ .

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Burlesque 224

depleting a thick, gloomy, German forest, but the backdrop

Online LibraryEttore RellaA history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) → online text (page 19 of 29)