Ettore Rella.

A history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) online

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fully for laughs.

45- Argonaut, November 22, 1897,

Burlesque 269

In the meantime, great waves of immigration from
southern Europe were filling in the background for the America
of the twentieth century. The trusts were solidifying them-
selves in the narrow, forbidding financial streets of the big
cities. The financial panic of the nineties, ominous fisstire
in the expanding structure, had been hastily patched up;
Coxey's army had been driven from the Vi/hite House lawnj and
expert demagogy had piled up a wave of patriotism directed
toward the conquest of Cuba, This real background of America
had 30 far not been given a theatrical design. Perhaps Ameri-
ca was too biisy growing up. The country was populated, but
it had been an overnight immigration. Nobody had been here
long enough to mature a unified culture. The New England
fringe of culture was nothing that could be purveyed to the
country at large. And now that the groundwork had been laid,
a division in society was becoming apparent, America had
probably been settled too late for an outstanding bourgeois
culture of its own.

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(1900 - 1906)

In January 1898, The Conquerors opened at the Brpire
Theatre in New York City. Paul M. Potter, professional go-
between for French novels and the English-speaking stage,
stimulated by the demand for his dramatization of Trilby , had
proceeded to a dramatization of a story about the Franco-
Prussian war, written by Guy de Maupassant, The Conquerors
was soon regarded as on the side of dun gray in theatrical
interest ,but on the side of turpitudinous flame in its moral-
ity. The particularly questionable scene took place in a
French inn which the Prussians had taken over« The Prussian
officer leaned back in his chair, put his feet on the ta-
ble — sinister gleam of black boots — and then bellowed
drxinkenly at his quarry, the little French girl, her sweet
innocence backed up fearfully against the door. The officer
was commanding that she drink the glass of wine which he had
forced into her hand. Revolt flared upj the girl dashed the
wine into the officer's face and bashed the glass upon the

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The dashing and bashing of such melodramatic ges-
tures in a serious play "uptown" were duck soup to the
proprietors of the Music Hall on Twenty-ninth Street. Weber
and Fields made of their burlesque The Con Purer s not only
the high-water mark of their second Music Hall season, but a
goal to shoot at in the whole history of American burlesque.
Burlesque had started off in America as a ful 1 -bill affair ,
Satirical dialogue and action, satirical singing and dancing,
the element of the critical parody on a great but vulnerable
original, had gradually diminished to the point of brief, in-
terlarded episodes in the extravaganzas.

Weber and Fields re-expanded the satirical element
to a full bill. This expansion was to be quickly compressed
again by the rise of vaudeville and the Ziegfeld type of
musical revue, but in 1898 in New York burlesque was on the
pedestal. The first productions of Weber and Fields at the
Music Hall had obtained from the daily papers the scant no-
tices granted to all the other music halls and vaudeville
houses in the city.

The significance of the Twenty-ninth Street thea-
tre gradually emerged v;ith each successive burlesque of a
current, "serious" play; the reviews of Weber and Fields
comedy lengthened, until finally the famous team was receiv-
ing more space in the papers than Richard Mansfield. The
New York critics were by that time in such frame of mind that
attendance on a heavy drama was always qualified by the

Burlesque 272

speculation as to how good material it might be for a bur-
lesque by the Music Hall team. The state of mind of the pro-
ducers of legitimate drama extended itself in invitations
that Weber and Fields attend dress rehearsals of their plays
in order that the Music Hall might get an early start on the
burlesque. It came to be a superstition that a Music Hall
burlesque was a play's benediction towards success.

An essay on burlesque in the San Francisco Chronicle
for March 22, 1903, looks back upon this renascence and makes
the essential point:

"A few years ago, they commenced a new kind
of show in New York, in which, surrounded by
alleged comic opera they brought in burlesques
of current plays. It was crude in the time of
The Passing Show , this old-fashioned new trav-
esty, for it was based upon the same peculiarly
whimsical h'umor of which Burnand and Byron and
others were past masters; which was distinctly
Englisho The American humor asserted itself
later and drew away from the old forms, giving
us an original kind of burlesque, distinctly
our own. Still in some of the travesties out
of which Weber and Fields have made a great
fortune, the same old single topsy-turvy prin-
ciple prevails. But there has come a purely
American treatment, not of historical subjects
or around us, which has not yet been sufficient-
ly crystallized to have a name....

''What is coming is the old, true spirit of bur-
lesque ;and it promises to be altogether clever-
er than the mere turning upside down of a story,
the reductio ad absurdum. It is going to be
keenly satirical, while broadly funny. It is
to be a development of the old art in a more
difficult form.... The burlesquer of the coming
time... will have to be able to present more
complicated values . o . , "

The beginnings were simple. The French girl's

glass of wine referred to above became a custard pie. The

way for Mack Sennett and Charles Chaplin was being paved;

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but the dialogue was the thing of iraportance. American Idi-
oms were being usedjthe life of Manhattan was being reflected.
And in place of the thoughtless splendor of the extravaganzas,
the staging now furnished a scenic comment. Everything was
in the direction of meaning, with a certain margin allowed for
the sheerly ridiculous,

''In the opening scene (of The Con Curers )
a bust on a pedestal had a cigar in its mouth
and a military cap cocked at a rakish angle on
its head. A suit of armor made of stovepipe,
pots and dish pans held a mop in its hands at
present arms. There was a saddle on the piano,
muddy boots on the mantel, and an umbrella jar
was filled with swords and muskets. Major
Wolff acen, an officer of the Uhlans, spoke with
an Irish brogue, drank beer from a trick stein
that filled as fast as he drank. The major, in
writing a dispatch to General Schloppenhauser-
vonauserblatzen, would dip his pen in the beer,
wipe it on his whiskers and dry his whiskers
with a blotter. A large bird cage held a small
pig. The pig was a prisoner of war because he
had rooted for the enemy. Three drunken peas-
ants were brought in as spies. They were proved
spies because they had first been seen through
a spyglass. All three had been fishing. An
old boot dangled from one hook and line . A
dead cat hung from another. Its owner described
it as a catfish. Major Wolffacen pronounced it
smelt." - '

In I/Iay 1889, Weber and Fields had reached San
Francisco from New York, under contract with Gustav Walter,
proprietor of the Orpheum Theatre, a variety house. Con-
stantly making ever deepening inroads into insolvency, Walter
had booked the comedy team for exactly what their own adver-
tising gags implied. And the gags of the young men, who were
in their early twenties at the time, were amplified on every

■5{- Isman, Felix. Weber and Fields.



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Burlesque 274

billboard in town, Walter intended to get out of the red, or
GO under completely. Fortunately for him, the dusty, impe-
cunious comedians belied their looks. On the stage, their pro-
fessional costumes sparkled, and their wit was fast.

In 1889 their act was short, but it was already
flexible and alive. They were laiockabout comedians and the
dialect of the German- Americans was exploited. The flexibili-
ty was more than physical recoil; it had to do with the pene-
tration of the two Jewish boys into the life of American
cities. When they put a pool-room scene on the stage and
paralleled the comedy of their actions with realistic dia-
logue lifted out of Bowery pool-rooms, they were putting up
one of the milestones of the American theatre,

Weber and Fields were not to return to San Francisco
until 1904. The tremendous development of burlesque at their
hands in their Twenty-ninth Street music hall from 1897 to
1904, was to be re-enaoted looaUy in faithful detail by William
Kolb and Max Dill. Fischer's Theatre at 122 O'Farrell Street
was to be the arena, and the season was to last for two years,
from 1902 until 1904, .

Weber and Fields had augmented their German iimni-
grant dialogue with the Jewish immigrant characterizations of
David Warfieldj a valuable addition, for Warfield was no com-
mon comedian. Again with him, as with Weber and Fields, bur-
lesque was not merely comic mako-up and a series of gags timed
as successively louder explosions. Warfield knew the streets

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Burlesque 275

of America where a heterogeneous people were trying to estab-
lish a new life. These three imraigrant characters of the New
York music hall established one of the most persistent tradi-
tions of American burlesque. In San Francisco, Kolb and Dill
as the two Germans were not enough; Barney Bernard was en-
gaged to play the Jewish roles created by Warf ield,


The eighteen months from April 1902 through Septem-
ber 1904 at Fischer' s Theatre were contiguous mirrors reflect-
ing the productions of the famous New York music hall. The
first of the series was Fiddle Dee Dee . With at least one
month's run apiece, these other burlesques followed in quick
succession: Pousse Caf e^ Hur ly B\irly , Whirl- I-Gig , The Geezer ,
Barbara Fidgety , Koity Toity , Plelter Skelter , Twirly Whirly ,
Under the Red Globe - Quo Vass Iss ? and The Con Curers . Some-
times the entire biirlesque was a take-off en one current play:
The Geezer was of course the bxirlesque spoliation of the frag-
ile Geisha j Barbara Fidgety was a ticklish handling of Clyde
Fitch's sober drama, Barbara Frietchie ; Quo Vass Iss ? was ob-
vious barbarism for Quo Vadis ; and The Con Curers gave unex-
pected purpose to The Conquerors ,

Sometimes the attack was not so concentrated;
several current dramas would receive a blow during the same
evening. In this case, the first part of the program, e.g.:
Pousse Cafe, would assume originality of plot, in which some

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Burlesque 276

well-advertised characterizations by "legitimate'' stars would

be translated into burlesque characters:

'' The Little Minister , in which Maude Adams
was starring at the Garrick; La Poupe'e and Anna
Held at the Lyric; and Belasco's The F^irst Born
at the Manhattan came in for burlesques; but
the main thread of the farcical story was tied
to one Herr Wielshaben and a remarkable me-
chanical doll of his invention. .. ."■''>'■

And when the plot had meandered to such wide-
spread thinness that the bottom showed through, a specialty
act would be interjected. The olio of minstrelsy had gone
through some evolutions but was still not transfigured; in
fact, a place like Hoity Toity , even with consecutiveness of
plot, was often referred to as a "musical hodgepodge,"' The
second half of the program would be the direct travesty of
the current "hit'' play, or of something as old and tried as
Antony and Cleopatra . Or the old and new might be laughed
at together:

"On Monday night the first of the Weber and
Fields burlesques will be produced at Fischer's
Theatre. It is called Fiddle -Dee-Dee , and will
be followed by two travesties, one on Antony
and Cleopatra , and another on the Ploradora
Sextet which has had such a vogue ...." ""^''^

The roles of Weber; Fields, and Warfield had been

taken over in San Francisco by Kolb, Dill, and Bernard.

Lillian Russell, as New York prototype, had passed her mantle

to Maude Amber, who played the leading lady throughout the

Weber and Fields era at Fischer's Theatre. Winfield Blake

■s:- Isman, Felix. Weber and Fields
^.K' -Argonaut , April 7, 1902,

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Burlesque 277

played opposite Maude Amber as straight male lead, parallel-
ing the De Wolfe Hopper-Lillian Russell team. Flossie Hope,
Gertie Emerson and Olive Vail v/ore the leading dancers of the
chorus. Prank Hermson, a diminutive person, was the little
seen "but much heard interior of various animal pelts: a speak-
ing Saint Bernard dog, or a singing monkey.

Everybody was expected to sing, especially the sen-
timental leads. Amber and Blake. Most of the books for the
Weber and Fields burlesques were being written by Edgar Smith;
most of the music by John Stromberg. Their collaboration had
established another high criterion for the American theatre,
and their songs, once presented in Nev/ York, reached a nation-
wide diffusion months ahead of the tour of the production.
Here was the beginning of today's Tin-Pan Alley. Among the
many Stromberg times with the magic ability to "catch on and
hold," were "Kiss Me,Honey,Do";"I'm A Respectable Workin'Girl";
"How I Love My Lu"; "De Pullman Porters' Ball"; "IWhen Chloe
Sings a Song"; "Come Back llij Honey Boy to Me"; "Rosie, You
Are My Posie"; and "Ma Blushin' Rose,"

Today, straight on, the dialogue of the Weber and

Fields burlesques does not sparkle; but seen in retrospect

against the rhymed, mythological burlesques of the Englishmen

Burnand and Planche, the milestone is sharply visible. Prom

I'^fhirl-I-Gig there is the repartee:

FIFI: You might bring me a demi-tasse.

COHENSKI: Bring me the same, and a cup of coffee.

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(1868-1932) (1871-1938)


Burlesque 278

Moss has grown? But there is the freshness of the following

gag from Hurly Burly ;

KOLB: So this is Paris I

DILL: There is no other place around the place,
so this must be the place.

The nineteenth-century predilection for puns stubbornly en-
dured. There is this sequence from Quo Vass Isa :

RANCPIER: Hold on I The cow stamped upon this

letter, Tho cow belongs to the govern-
mont, hence it is a government stan^),
I reckon you wouldn't obstruct the
mails, colonel.

COLONEL: There's nothing male about a cow,

RANCHER: I guess I made a bull of it,

COLONEL: Put down both gags. They may got a
laught in tho War Department ,

Today this inspissated dullness would fall flat in

any governmontal dopartmont. Again, however, thore is a more

permanent brilliancy in another place. In Barbara Fidgety a

politician is canvassing votes in a small town mayoralty

campaign, on the disillusioned, bottom-dog platform of

"To the victims belongs what is spoiled,"
Or, in Fiddle-Dee-Dee , there was this penetrating misunder-

FIELDS: VVhat is a magnate?

WEBER: Something that eats holes in cheeses.

For the ear, this sort of dialogue; for the eye,
incisive pantomime and imaginative satire in the staging.
In 1900, Olga Nethersole was playing the lead in Sapph o at
Wallack's Theatre in New York, directly opposite the Music

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Burlesque ^'^^

Hall. Clever publicity thickened the atmosphere of impropri-
ety about the play; Miss Nethersole, all to the good of the
box office, was arrested several times for her performance.
The Music Hall inevitably capitalized. In the original play,
one of the most questionable moments found Sappho pleading
with the hero: "If you will only let me stay, I'll black
yotor boots." In the travesty across the street, a merciless
deflation had taken place. The scene was used for the final
curtainj the hero dragged on a shoe-shine stand and sat com-
fortably with arrogant expectancy? the burlesque Sappho then
fell upon her toees, took a smudged towel from a shoe-shine
kit, and dolefully swished a gleam into her tyrannical lover's

The Fischer Theatre company had to fly high in still
another direction to approach the excellence of its New York
progenitor. The Music Hall had lifted the chorus from its ex-
travaganza doldrums. Since the revolutionary days of Lydla
Thompson, the chorus had become more and more fixed in func-
tion until it was no more than a routine exhibit of legs at
stereotyped intervals in the show. Then Weber and Fields had
engaged Julian Mitchell as director-producer,

"He (Mitchell) foxmd the chorus as standard-
ized a theatrical institution as the proscenium
arch. To see one was to have seen them all;
they varied only as one potato from another.
Its supposed function was to kindle the male
eye with youth, fisviro,and face. It did so bad-
ly and unimaginatively, Mitchell's Music Hall
choruses wore the largest, shapeliest and pret-
tiest in America, but ho also raised his yoxing



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women to an artistic dignity to which the chorus
never had dreamed of aspiring. He cast the whole
dogma of chorus technic in the ash bin and inade
his part of the show as distinctive as the prin-
cipals'. In dancing, chorus effects, costumes
and settings, he put the Music Hall years in
advance of the run of its contemporaries,...

And when the times had changed, when the momentary

flare of Music Hall satire had been put out by the "gorgeous

spectacles" of Ziegfeld, Mitchell would be found to possess

the only ability in the Weber and Fields company which could

carry over easily into the new era,

'MWhen Plorenz Ziegfeld Jr., inaugurated the
Follies, it was Mitchell he chose as director...

"The Follies was the legitimate successor to
Weber and Fields' Music Hall. Each, in its own
time, dominated the theatrical sky line as the
Woolworth Building does lower Manhattan's ser-
ried range. Both were new and revolutionary
advances in the lighter American theatre, both
left their mark indelibly upon our stage. The
same crsative talent that helped so largely to
make cho Follies what it is, v/as seen in
Mitchell's direction at the Music Hall. .. . "

Time has greatly diminished the value of the Woolworth
building as a simile for tallness. Today the Ziegfeld type
of musical review has been brought very low. But the above
quotation was written in 1924 with no pretence at prophecy.
The fall of 1903 was tho crest of a much earlier
wave. The company at Fischer's Theatre which had special-
ized in scripts from the New York Music Hall began to break

',i Isman, Felix. Weber and Fields .

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Burlesque 281

up. A locally- inspired burlesque, I, 0» U. by Judson
Brusie,* was announced for production, with the substitution
of the Althea Twins as starred dancers in place of Flossie
Hope and Gertie Emerson. But the success of the Kolb, Dill,
and Bernard coirioination in the Music Hall burlesques had been
so great that an Independent venture inevitably suggested it-
self, Dviring the winter of 1903 and 1904, the American Travesly
Stars was organized. It v/as a time-proven galaxy, including
not only Kolb, Dill, and Bernard, but Winfield Blake, Maude
Amber, Flossie Hope, and Gertie Emerson. The San Francisco
Chronicle for April 18, 1904, contained the following notice:

"The American Travesty Stars, who shortly leave
for Australia on a tour of the v/orld, started
on their farewell American engagement at the
Grand Opera House last night. This aggregation,
which is to produce the Weber and Fields suc-
cesses, .. ,(ls the one).. ♦that gave Fischer's
Theatre such a vogue for two years. The Grand
Opera House v/as packed from top to bottom and
hundreds v/ero unable to gain admission. ., .The
skit Hoity Toity is well-known to all local the-
atre-goers, and nearly every one present last
night had seen it once or twice before. It
went with a snap last night, although the chorus
was a little crude. The costuming is very elab-
orate, the management having secured many gowns
from Weber and Fields, Maude Amber was in ex-
cellent voice,.,,"

The great days at Fischer's Theatre, demarked by
the long series of New York IjIusIc Hall burlesques, were over.
The declining days in this theatre's senescence, December

# cf, next chapter.

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