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A history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) online

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descended only half way, then remained suspended for the rest
of '"'olf onstein' s >Tcene. "/hen the backdrop was finally per-
suaded to descend to the floor, the scene had changed, and the
sunlit, bab'jling broo]- referred to by the characters v/as no
more than a vague, offstage rumor.

Such embarrassing moments for the creaking, skeletal
armor were quickly hushed up and passed over by interstices
of the shiniest, newest of vaudeville teams, Bibb and Bobb,
the Onger Sisters, and the Dare Brothers v/ere cosmetics for
the old face. \hen the air in the overstuffed parlor became
insupportable, there viras a swift interjection of the latest
team of "musical eccentricities" jor the beautiful rather than
talented sisters would dance rather than sing; or the air dev-
iltries of the acrobatic twins would catch the boredom of the
audience up to breathlessness. Burlesque, supposedly the main
dish of the bill, had been superseded in interest by the hors
d' oeuvres.

The real appetite of the public v/as in the direction
of light opera. And the impresarios complied. For the balance
of the 1888 spring, light opera productions wore evoryv/here
dominant. Burlesque did not come forv/ard again until Edward
''Everlasting" Rice appeared in July with advance notices for
another production of his Evangeline . He had meditated the
market, and the zigzag ''hay v^hilo the sun shines" process of


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Burlesque ^^^

his thought concluded that perhaps Evangeline was not a bur-
lesque at all, but, right up the alley of the times, a comic

"r.Ir. Rice, author of Evangeline , is in doubt
whether to class his work as a Comic Opera or
as a burlesque. It commenced life as a bur-
lesque but some recent compositions have been
of a higher character."""''

The ''recent compositions of higher character" no
doubt have reference to the last musical interpolations of
Rice into the ever-fluid structuro of his burlesque. Evange -
line , born, Rice admitted, of low parentage, had been lifted
on the wings of song to a high estate. The Argonaut for Sep-
tember 17, 1888, ran the following notices

"The principal people in Rice's Evangeline Com-
pany, who commence a short season at the Bald-
win on Monday evening, are Pay Templeton, Louise
Montague, Lila Blow, Annie Perkins, Amelia
Glover (the little Pav/n), Cora Tinnie, George
S. Knight, George K. Fortescue, James S,
Moffett, Edv;in S, Tarr, and Edward Morris."

Rice's company commenced its September engagement
with a bit of fortuitous publicity, Louise Montague, known
(Inexplicably, at this date) as the Ten Thousand Dollar Beauty,
raised a great deal of dust when she discovered the San Fran-
cisco showbills gave more prominence to Pay Templeton than to
herself , A great noiae in the dressing rooms got to the stage-
hands, and from the stage-hands to the world. Louise shouted

5:- Bulletin , July 17, 1888.

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Burlesque 226

the fact that she averac^ecl more floral tributes per perform-
ance than Pay. And besides, had not Ho¥/oll Osbourne, Pay's
reckless, gambling friend, given her a definite '"go-by?"

San Prancisoo tittered and talked, and waited im-
patiently for the opening night. There v/aa not only a fine
feud of the prima donnas to observe; there v/as also the gossip
about Pay's trunkless legs to corroborate.

It was definitely Pay Templeton's show, Louise
Montague might have been dubbed The Beauty Ten Times Grand by
the International Committee for the Judgment of Pulchritude,
but said comraitteo had sxu-'ely missed the mark in so doing, for
Louise was no beauty. She had a voice, the press agreed, but
it needed training, and the race itself v/as no place to train
a dark horse. But Pay Tompleton v/as e:cactly what she was de-
clared to be s

"Fay Templeton's figure is ideal, and bubbles
up out of its tights as lavishly as Venus 's did
out of the sea. The most delicate imagination
would not have a surfoit in dwelling on what is
not displayed with charming franlcness. Yet,
somehow, one would as soon accuse Venus or Puck
of iiranodesty as Pay, Undress many another wom.-i.n
to the extent that she displa7/3,and the shock to
the sensibilities would be terrific,"'""

But there was somo disagreement as to hov/ much San Francisco

sensibilities could take. Rice was no doubt delighted when

the Bulletin for September 18, 1888 intimated there might be

a tinge of immorality in Templeton, not enough for a court

case, just the right quantity for good publicity^

-"- San Francisco Nevtrs Letter, September 22, 1888,

M\f 91


,6881 \2S

Burlesque 227

"(Pay Temple ton' 3 ) costume as 'Gabriel' v/as
handsome; but is open to the objection that ex-
posure is made a stud3'-. There is a point up to
which display in a piece of this character is
pleasing to the artistic eye, but the line or
point should be kept carefully in viovif, A ten-
dency to got on the m-'ong side should be cor-

"The cost\iines were gorgeous, the play of lights ar-
tistic and the Amazons themselves exceedingly pretty girls,"*"
But the humor of the piece had disappeared, George Knight's
imitation of General Butler came off only in the matter of the
General's bad eye, "Mr, lOiight looked as a distant relative
might v/ho inherited only the defect,''* And the Lone Fisher -
man as interpreted by James 3, J'loffett had better romainod
alone and invisible, "T he Lone Fisherman as a novelty could
once beguile us of a tolerant smile, where now he wakes a

As for the words themselves which were hurled at the
atidience, Betsy B, of the Argonaut (September 24, 1888) per-
mitted herself an interesting divagations

"If a man were to make a puji in general society
today, people would suppose he vms not v/oll,.,.
But the reader of Lacey's Acting Play3_ will
find whole vol'umes of burlesques, partly in
prose, partly in doggerel, the hiomor of which
consists exclusively of puns. He who reads them
today feels a tender commiseration for the gen-
eration v/hich enjoyed that kind of thing,"

" Evangeline appears to be one of these pieces,
resurrected from a grave in which that class of
literature was peacef\illy sleeping. The per-
sonages vie with each othor in punning, ;?.vange-
line makes puns;her lover, Gabriel, makes puns;

-:>- Bulletin , September 18, 1888,
^5-;:-Ar£onau¥, September 24, 1888,

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Burlesque ^^®

they all make puns in fierce rivalry, and they
have to enunciate their verhal acrobatics with
painful distinctness for fear the audience
would lose them. This involves a strain on the
audience v/hich is very trying, ''/hen Evangeline's
father reproves her for careless diction, he
warns her against the use of 'slanguage*; and,
after an effort, one realised that a pun has
been committed,'''

But the people liked the artfulness of Pay Temple-
ton's undress. And apparently there was no satiety in the
American public for /unazon marches, Evangeline packed the
Baldwin Theatre for four weoks, and, with the audience still
flowing in the right direction. Rice's company opened immedi-
ately with its second production, The Corsair ,

Comment upon The Corsair was scant. It was a more
entertaining burlesque than Evangeline , and that was about the
size of it. The cast remained the same; the allure was the
same. It was a matter of investing in a new set of costiunes,
"as bright and handsome as money can make them."*"'' And Fay
TeiTploton; as a matter of course, was given the title role.
Things vfere getting dull. The hair pulling recriminations of
the luminaries had died down. It was obvious by this time
that Templeton's was the star which filled the houses.

Besides, other things wore in the air. The Bulletin

for October 6, 1888 had run the following annomicement s

"M, B, Loavitt has returned from Europe with a
number of new attractions. Among them are the
Lydia Thompson English Burlesque Company and
Leavitt's Polly and Burlesque Company,"

•}{• Bulletin, October 23, 1888,

\,fi^i ^^^

•Jo Siiiciif.

Burlesque 229

Leavitt, by this time, had become manager of the
largest vaudeville circuit in America; and a vaudeville cir-
cuit must be constantly refreshed, Leavitt's tactic was an an-
nual transatlantic trek, at which time he put the best European
performers under contract. His last visit to London had given
him tho idea that a farev/ell tour of The States by Lydia
Thompson was sure to be a money-maker, so he sought out the
great and original blonde. She had invested hea? fortune badly j
she was easy to talk to. But she romonstratod her age — twen-
ty years had passed since hor first American appearance - and
where was tho dazzling cohort of Amazons who had mado up her
famous company?

Leavitt put the whole proposition on the basis
of honorary revival. The public would not be made to
expect a Lydia Thompson, concealing her age beneath heavy
layers of make-up; the publicity, instead, v;ould emphasize the
graceful willingness of the first and greatest burlesque queen
to reappear for a last time. Besides, Lydia was not entirely
superannuated as an entertainer. Vigorously in her forties,
Lydia was still somevvhat the ideal figure of the times. And
the old vivacity of expression had not dimmed appreciably; at
any rate, not if footlights were put between her and the ob-
server. It was a big scoop for Leavitt, and all other theat-
rical announcements for the 1888-1889 season paled in com-

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Burlesque 230

Apparently, no winter season — even with Lydia
Thompson announced for January 29 at the Bush Street Theatre
— could elapse without a production of The Black Crook . The
management of the Grand Opera House was intrepid enough to
attempt the annual revival. Ill-advised, certainly, for there
was no headlined star, no new spectacular effect, no extrava-
gant costuming. There was just The Black Crook , and less of
that, surely, since another year had fallen upon its slowly
collapsing architecture.

The 1889 resuscitation of Stalacta was a wasted ges-
ture, but the comments of the San Francisco News Letter critic
(January 19,1389) have unusual importance for this chronicle:

" The Black Crook gots sheared of its original
'glories' more ^and more at each presentation.
Originally a melodrama of the rankest kind,
what is it now? It is about a quarter of a
century since Charles M.Barras v/as haunting the
theatrical managers of New York to Induce them to
produce a new melodrama. No one would touch it.
Finally one of them, v/ho had a ballet troupe on
his hands, and did not know what to do with them,
took the melodrama, cut it liberally, introduced
his ballet, tacked on a transformation scene as
a peroration, and made a sensation and a success.
Barras made a fortune out of it, but died brokcai-
hearted because his 'beautiful play' had been
spoiled by the ballet,. ,, Probably not one 20thof
the original play is given this week at the
Grand Opera House. The rest is ballet. We
could oven dispense with the one-twentieth, it
is so insufferably stupid, Tho operetta ballet,
introducing dances to music and with costumes
from The Mikado , Patience , The Little Tycoon and
other operas. Is original and taking. The Black
Crook will be continued another week.

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Burlesque 231

"To speak the language of the prize ring, bur-
lesque received a black eye when H, M» S>
Pinafore was launched on the London theatrical
docks, and from that » knock-down' blow it haa
never recovered* Burlesque has never seemed so
fxanny since* We took it previous to that day
because we had nothing else to take. Really
there is little excuse for it now."


"Lydia Thompson, who might be called the mother
of burlesque in this country— if burlesque ever
had a motherly age— will appear at the Bush
Street Theatre on January 29th. She recently
met with a slight mishap in New York. It seems
that her silk costume had not been finished
when she left England, and so it was sent to her
in a letter by mail. The postal authorities,
suspecting that all was not right, opened the
package and notified her that her tights were
dutiable, and that it would cost her Two Dollars
to obtain her theatrical wardrobe. The Two Dol-
lars were paid, and the engagement at the Bush
Street Theatre will not be postponed,"*

With this bit of heavy-handed ballyhoo, the press
prepared San Franciscans for the great advent. The burlesque
Columbus started things off on January 26, three days ahead of
the scheduled opening. The burlesques Penelope and Robinson
Crusoe followed in quick succession, with an immediate revival
of Penelope when Robinson Crusoe failed to draw.

As for the productions themselves, the press had
little to say. The Bulletin announced on January 28 that
there wore "good specialists in the company, and a number of
pretty girls in picturesque costumes, who sing in the chorus,
form in groups, and keep things generally in motion," The

* Argonaut , January 7, 1889,

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BurlGsquG 232

San Francisco Nev/s Letter for February 9, 1889 made the easy
discovery that "the company may be said to be clothed in
smiles, as it were, and not much else,..," The Bulletin for
February 12 laid the failure of Robinson Crusoe to "an evident
tendency to rely upon special acts instead of making the play
the first attraction." These v/ere the inevitable statements
which needed no reiteration, the easy echolalia of tired
dramatic critics confronted v/ith a boring rehash of yes-
terday's excitement.

It v/as another matter when the press came to vo-ite
about Lydia Thompson. Her reappearance was a touchstone to
memories of the entire post-war period.

"^/Then Miss Thompson and her golden-haired
Amazons first landed on .Imerican soil, they did
not exactly follow the example of the Pilgrim
fathers, 'who, ' says Secretary Evarts, 'first
fell upon their Icnees and then fell upon the
aborigines, ' but there was a similarity in the
mode of attack. They came over a long time ago,
not quite on the Mayf lov/er , not even 'Before de
Y''ah, ' the B, C. period of American history but
somev?here in the late sixties. They were quite
new, nothing of that kind had ever been seen be-
fore, and they were really handsome ."''''

According to the Bulletin for January 28, Lydia

Thompson "has retained her neat figure j her vivacity, grace

and expression. She does not sing with the same effect as at

one time in her career, but in other respects she does not

seem much changed," Marie '".Williams and Rose Newhara, Lydia 's

co-stars in the 1889 company, might be proficient assistants.

-:s- Argonaut , February 4, 1889.

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Burlesque 233

but what chance would they stand against Pauline Markham and
Lisa -''eber, Lydia's co-stars In 1868?

"Miss Pauline Markham Avas the beauty, and al-
so was extravagant enough to have a rich pleas-
ant voice. For tvio years she v;as the adnira-
tion of New York, .. ,I!iS3 Markham v/as as luxuri-
ous and extravagant as an 'Ouida' heroine. Her
apartments shamed in richness those of Prince
Djalina, all black marble and v;hite velvet, with
ermine carpets. Her diamonds v/ere the finest
to be had, her pearls were like those presented
to Lady Corlsandi by the princely Lothair, She
even had the honor of being put into a very
stupid novel. She rose to the crest of the wave.
Years after, ugly, old, and ill, she appeared in
Buffalo, was forced through sickness to break
her contract, and died in poverty and obsciirity,

"While Miss Marldiam was the beauty. Miss Lisa
Weber was the brains of the company. Miss
Weber was of good parentage and had been edu-
cated and brought up in a cultivated manner.
She was not a bit pretty, but she was clever.
She v/as one of those people who can do anything,
...Miss -/eber, too, could compose music, and
sing, and v/rite, -.fhen the company got into dif-
ficulties she could alv/ays get them out again.
Upon one dreadful occasion a wicked cos turner
played them false, and Miss Weber designed and
executed costumes more ravishing than anything
ever seen before,

"In the course of time she too disappeared v/ith
the other old familiar faces, to reappear some
six years ago in Leadvillo, then booming glori-
ously. She had several irons in the fire, and
was a subdued and preoccupied woman of business.
She v/as a rentiere, owning several houses, and
she had the sole right to some popular comic
operas. Then she opened a little restaurant,
where the fare was extra dainty, and epicures
could get Eastern oysters less than three v/oeks

Online LibraryEttore RellaA history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) → online text (page 20 of 29)