Ettore Rella.

A history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) online

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Burlesque 23

Burlesque admitted no national boundaries. The

uprooted, nondescript nationalisms of the "burlesque and

pantomime, Lalla Rook h," by William Brough, gathered this

reaction from The Bulletin of Feb. 10, 1859:

"The spectacular burlesque of Lalla Rookh was
produced last night in a style of unusual
splendor. So far as new scenery of the most
brilliant description is concerned, the piece
is a great success; the closing scene indeed,
exceeds in beauty anything that has ever before
been exhibited at his house (Maguiro's Opera
House), or perhaps in any other theatre in the
city. A multitude of supernumeraries adds much
to the pleasing effect. The piece is founded on
Moore's poem of the samo name. The principal
characters are filled by Miss Adelaide Gougen-
heim, (Lalla Rookh) , Miss Joey Gougonheim,
(Poramorez), and Mr. Lewis Baker (Fadladeen) .
It is somewhat lengthy for a burlesque and but
for the magnificence of scenery, would probably
prove tedious. The usual play on words per-
vades the piece. A consldcrablo number of songs
are sung by the characters, but the music is
not remarkably beautiful."


In the early fifties there had been enough of the
heroic in the first vigorous search for gold to make the am-
plified strut of Shakespearean tragedy sympathetic to the ex-
panding, hopeful. Western mentality. San Franciscans could
take the grand manner because they were living in the grand
manner. The artificial declamation of the classical school —
of the elder Booth, of James Stark — did not scom hollow as
long as the afflatus of discovery buoyed up the heavy body of
pioneer optimism. In the middle fifties was heard the first
dull thud of collapse. Real estate values tumbled from a

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Burlesque 24

dazzling height. Gambling racketeers boldly attempted to out-
wit the depression. The vigilantes went to a strait-laced ex-
treme which threatened to put out all the lights of cult\ire.
A new, progressive movement was not felt until the discovery
of silver in Nevada. The theatre of San Francisco (and that
meant the Western theatre) reflected all these broad, under-
lying economic changes. The full-rigged metaphors of "legit*-
imate" drama, the magnified passions of operatic embonpoint,
collapsed with real estate. Theatre-goers were bored with the
pretentious, and embarrassed with the heroic. The idea of Cal-
ifornia as an isolated El Dorado was being shaken j California
was realized as part of the national tribulation, and no haven.

On February 3, 1853 Edwin Booth appeared in The
American Fireman ''^ at the San Francisco Theatre (second nomen-
clature of Tom Magulre's San Francisco Hall later to be dig**
nified as Maguire's Opera House). But the feeble groping
prophesies of the critics did not stimulate any overwhelming
reaction. The Sable Harmonists, with their new brand of
"Ethiopian burlesque" at the Adelphi Theatre, were the most
popular entertainers in town.

In June of this same year Lola Montez** tried again
to maintain a serious note in entertainment. But her simula-
tion of the antics of an arachnid in her famous "Spider Dance"
did not even win the encomi\am of a successful tour de force;
the newspapers parodied her movements on the stage until.

i'f The Golden Era Feb, 6 (Saturday) 1853. McCabe's Journal
gives Feb. 2, but is obviously in error. Booth had made his
debut on July 30, 1852, playing a small part with his
father, J-unius Brutus Booth Sr., in The Iron Chest .

'jHtSee Monograph on Lola Monte z. Vol. V"^^ this series.

^. ..... . ......

-^^^r ;^^ii^ •>'56.^'■■■ .v. • . ■■_■, . , ..J

jS'KTi ?:.dJ (;it-'>'> . ■ ■ -'ii.t'P^' =*T^^ ■^•

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Burlesque 25

rather than a symbol of grace, Lola became the tarantula with
wire legs which the Barbary Coast bartender could lower sud-
denly from the ceiling down upon the bar, right before the
startled drunk who had outstaid his joviality and was pre-
pared to believe in the evil vision.

Old Doc Robinson certainly had a showman's thumb
on the public pulse when he concocted his burlesque Who's Got
the Coimtess or The Rival Houses * Large vociferous audiences
at the San Francisco Theatre rewarded him. Caroline Chapman,
indefatigable and ever-popular in the early theatre, was de-
lighted no doubt to play the lead. For ten nights, a long
run in those days , the people of the city were refreshed by
the spectacle of a satirical spider, well-versed in its
model, but thoroughly irreverent*

In August 1853, the papers made a big advance
splash for James E. Murdoch, famous East coast tragedian. But
the public response was hardly remunerative and Murdoch, with
some enthusiastic reviov;s in his pocket, was forced to give
way at the American Theatre to a French ballot troupe.,.

Several months later, the two actor families of
the Bakers and the Proctors who had long endeavored, with
disastrous financial results, to revive ''the sacred flame of
the legitimate drama," deserted San Francisco for the East
coast* At the sumptuous New Metropolitan, Mrs. Sinclair was
short-sightedly indulging herself v/ith an unattended revival
of Italian grand opera. This was during the winter of 1854
and 1855. Tom Maguire's San Francisco Minstrel Troupe i-jas

5S ' f)dpbr9£^isj8.

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Burlesque 25

quick to grasp the opportunity; he announced a series of
burlssque operas. Such nationally known minstrel stars as
John Snith, Eph Horn, and Mike Mitchell were in the company.
As a dead give-away to the temper of the times, several of
Mrs. Sinclair's singers together with George Loder, her con-
ductor, defected from that lady's quixotic venture and joined
the burlesquers. For several v/eeks Italian aria and recita-
tive took a very successful rap at the hands of the minstrels.
The grand manner was hecorae ridiculous armor decorating a

All this time, Edwin Booth, under the management
of his hrother Junius, had tenaciously held out for the le-
gitimate drama at the little Adelphi Theatre. Edwin Booth's
gradual isolation as the real genius among a number of very
competent actors enabled him to hold an audience for the
"great, old plays" where all other tragedians had failed. But
even the Booths failed in 1856. The time was definitely deca-
dent. The California venture, as a whole, lost money. The
boisterousness of the saloons was quickly sharpened to a num-
ber of embittered shootings. The vigilante spirit decided
that what the city needed v/as a thickly-applied coat of p\iri-
tanical monotone. As a result almost no vegetation at all


In the middle of this low-point summer of 1856,
the San Francisco Minstrels again struck the cheerful note,
both for the city and Tom Maguirc's pockctbook. Thoy an-
nounced a "Grand Shakespearean Festival." Macbeth, Ki chard IHV

lo aai-xee s bi^ofSisonciB ori ;T^^J:njj;tiocxq[o erid- qe«'is o;* >ro±j;;p
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ofid 'ib'J. eoLtol'ofsh n>? .blorf o.t r^dr! iseXdexto eiDoO/J d-ftocteqraos
iiffi Ji-joliiil bM srtnibegS'xJ terCJo XXb oisrlv: "s^jeXq Mo 4.-tjBois'^
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Boirlesque 27

Othello , Hamlet , Romeo and Juliet (along with countless,
unnamed notables) were taken for a refreshing ride by the
iconoclastic minstrels. Caroline Chapman might prod her
satirical spear point at the inflated reputation of a Montez,
but she, in turn, would have to endure, graciously, a bur-
lesque interpretation of her performance as Juliet to Booth's
Romeo. The deadened response of the town's theatre-goers was
eager to be quickened; despite (and also because of) the
panicky conditions of mining and real estate, the unsancti-
monious minstrels played to crowded houses.

Professor Rlsloy, with no business acumen and less
theatrical insight, appeared on the San Francisco scene at
about this time with an expensive, ambitious, solemn living-
picture of V/ashington Crossing the Delaware. Maguiro's
minstrels, with a merciless hilarity, swooped down on their
new quarry: a series of uncontainod "tableaux vivants" cre-
ated a furore. The minstrel troupe was again, very clearly
and efficiently, performing the historic, artistic function
of a sterilizing parasite.

In the late summer of 1856 Lola Montez rotxirnod to
San Francisco from Australia. On this return trip, Lola's
latest amovir had been lost overboard from the brig Fanny Ma -
jor. The circumstances of his death were rocroatod and fal-
sified with the usual propensity of the public towards vili-
fication. The ncv/spapcrs loft Lola no talent whatsoever:
her dancing, it soomod, was sadly out of form, and completely
dull. Lola, with a large gesture, auctioned all her diamonds

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Btirlesque 28

for the benefit of her lover's orphans. But even this indi-
cation of nobility did not deter Caroline Chapman from the
final turn of the screw. Immediately upon Lola's departure
for the East, Caroline, who had been employed in Lola's last
acting company, presented her original and scathing (the
newspapers said "unprincipled") burlesque: A Trip to Austra -
lia, or Lola Montez on the Fanny Major .

September 3, 1856 Edwin Booth in a farewell per-
formance presented Kinfi Lear . The departure of the groat ac-
tor for the more propitious East Coast was an inadvertent
admonishment to the cultural conditions of the Wes-t. It is
hardly credible that Tom Maguire was sensitive to this criti-
cism; with his astute showmanship, however, he sensed that
the public might be surfeited with burlesque; that perhaps
this was the time for a series of legitimate dramas by a ca-
pable stock company. The opening production of the new com-
pany starred Mrs. Julia Dean Hayne in The Wife , the play which
in 1850 had commenced both tho history of the theatre in Ssm
Francisco, and the careers of Mrt and Mrs. Jamos Stark.

The other theatres in tovm followed Maguire 's load,
but this attempted revival of stock companies and heavy drama
may bo said to have "dravm a deuce." In the middlo of tho
1856-1857 season, the only show in tovm that v;as making any
money was the burlesque Mother Goose , played by the Ethiopian
Btirlosque Troupe at tho American Theatre.

With a high, colored flame from its rococo poly-
chrome, the Metropolitan burned to tho grovrnd August 15, 1857.

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tf* 'v -

Biirlesque 29

Through these last unsettled years, the Metropolitan had been
the stronghold of the legitimate drama. Magulre, the "Napo-
leon of Theatrical Managers," whether through a remorseful
twinge of aesthetic ism or another hard-headed gamble of show-
manship, refurbished his stock company and injected another
blood transfusion into the languishing body of the "great,
old play." Two nev; stars in his company were to wax large In
the history of the San Francisco theatre; they v/ero both from
London: Miss Eimna Grattan, from the old Adolphi, and Harry
Coiirtaine, from Drur-y Lane.

The city of San Francisco might rise, phoenix-wise,
out of each successive fire, more resplendent — but not the
legitimate drama. Within a few months Maguire permitted the
"great, old play" to be buried again. In January 1858 Ma-
gulre 's Opera House announced Mrs. John Wood, the famous mu-
sical comedy star. Forty-four sold-out nights proved both
the temper of the public and the ability of Mrs. Wood.

In such pieces as Josephine, or The Fortune of War ,
The Invisible Prince , and The Corsair , Mrs. Wood, throughout
1858, scintillated without competition as the cynosure of
California's theatre-goers. Three times during the year she
returned to San Francisco from tours of the mining camps and
from other cities; and each time she achieved a spectacular
run. Of her it was soon said: "No more popular actress ever
visited the Pacific Coast."*

* Leman, Walter. Memories of an Old Actor .

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T-.Lv^r.^ccHje d hovoiitOE 0'.i3 omi^-i dor.-: , : •■:;::ti.: ; /; ■

Burlesque 30

The Gougenheim Sisters, lesser luminaries than
Mrs. Wood, were nevertheless popular enough to accumulate in
the California theatres a fortune estimated at one million
dollars. Early in 1858 they alternated with Mrs. Vifood's
appearances at Maguire's Opera House j on November 29 they
appeared at the Lyce^um; the following March they were back at
Maguire's in a widely publicized, farewell performance of
Lalla Rookh .

The success of the Gougenlaelms and Mrs. Wood was
the big-scale, main street victory of the new theatre. A
less conspicuous efflorescence of this same theatre was tak-
ing place on the side streets of the late eighteen-fifties;
the London music hall was become the San Francisco melodeon;
the Barbary Coast saloon lifted the haze of Havana and quiet-
ed the unintelligible brawl by means of a minstrel biArlesque.
The Bella Union, one of the oldest of the gambling resorts,
from its very beginning had eased the strained nerves of the
roulette players and muffled the cries of the croupiers with
instrumental trios, ballad singers, and a variety of noisy
saltimbanques. From 1855 to 1860 saloon entertainment as-
signed the definite shape of burlesque: V\finn's Union Saloon,
the Adclphi Saloon, the Bella Union, all employed minstrel
troupes. Tho baroque angels of tho uptown prosceniums were
sentinels of propriety; but tho simple stages of tho saloons
admitted no curb to the incisive satire of tho players. Here
tho spirit of burlesque was completely free.

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Burlesque 31

The Olympus of early nineteenth-century drama had
been a rather dull hand-out for bewlgged, false-toothed del-
ties, each draped in an English ulster ratha' than a peplos
against the sodden rain of the times. Eighteen- fifty to
eighteen- sixty vms the very special period of transition.
Theatrical Square was loud with the claraor of contenders for
the position of Deposod Monarch. each one sure of his link
with history as the noxt successivo symbol in the dovolopment
of the drama J sure that it would bo his horse whose hoof
would be lifted and held in a bronze clangor above the in-
scription on the pediment. Plancho,''^ famous English writer
of burlesque extravaganza, has recorded these contentions in
one of the most intelligent burlesques of the period. Planche
called his work The Camp at the Olympic' '^"' renamed The Camp
at the Union . This work was played several times at the Un-
ion Theatre in San Francisco in 1854, The stage is trailed
across by a comprehensive assortment of disconsolate, nervous,
hopeful figures: Tragedy, Comedy, Burlesque, Opera, Ballot,
Melo-Drama, Pantomime, Hippo-Drama, Ghost of the Old Italian
Opera, Harlequin, Clown, Pantaloon, Columbine, The True Brit-
ish Sailor, and Sylphidos. Fancy harangues the crowd and re-
lays the real dope to the audience:

-J.^ Planche, James Robinson. (1796-1880) An English dramatist

and archaeologist. ^ t ^

*«With reference to The Royal Olympic Theatre of London.

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Burlesque 32


"The Camp at the Union" is the thing I

Here all the drama's forces we'll review,

And see what troops will flock her standard to

At Fancy's call. The Play-Household Brigade

Shall turn out for Inspection, on parade!


Not in a pass ion I When I see the state
Of Denmark rot ten I When I hear the fate
Which hath befallen both the classic domes,
'Neath which my votaries once found their homes I
Where Garrick, Monarch of the mimic scene
His spectre passed from Kemble down to Kean.
\'\fhero Gibber's silver tones the heart would steal.
And Siddons left her mantle to O'Neill
The drama banished from her highest places
By debardeurs and fools with varnished faces
Fiddling like Nero, while her Rome is b\irning«


Wit, oh my dear, don't mention such a thing!

Wit on the stage, what wit av;ay would fling?

There are so few who know it v/hon they hear it.

Wit J If to theatres for wit they'd come

Would Farquhar, Congreve, Wycherly be dumb?

Or even the poor devils now-a-days ,

Who can't - scribbling — hawk their hapless plays

From house to house, to hear the sentence chilling

"Your piece is clever, but won't draw a shilling."

MR. V/: (a sort of interlocutor in the play)
Then, what will draw?


Mercy, tell me, pray-

What horse will win the Derby, Sir? You may,

I'm avcre as easily as I tell you

What the American public will come to J

Just what they like— whatever that may be —

Not much to hear, and something strange to see:

A Zulu Kaffir, with his bow and quiver j

A Pigmy Earthman from the Orange river;

An A25tec Lilliputian, who can't say a

Word, from the unknown city Iximaya:

Any monstrosity may make a hit,

But no one's fool enough to pay for wit J

MR. W:

Talking of humotir, whore on earth has fled

Our broad old English Farce, or is he dead?

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Burlesque 33


No, "but too homely for this polished age,
He's lately taken French leave of the stage;
But there's a substitute still more grotesque
We often find him — He's called Burlesque.


Avaunt and quit my sight 1 Let the earth hide theel

Unreal mockery, hencei I can't abide thee J


Because I fling your follies in your face

And call back all the false starts of your race}

Show up your shows, affect your affectation.

And by such homeopathic aggravation

Would cleanse your bosom of that perilous stuff,

Which weighs upon our art — bombast and puff.

MR. W:

Have you so good a purpose then in hand?


Else wherefore breathe I in dramatic land?

MR. W:

I thought your aim was but to make us laugh?


Those who think so but understand me, half.

In this biased manner, Blanche^ jockeys himself into
the saddle of the bronze horse in the square. Time however
has confirmed his ruse as a true ascendency. Burlesque is

Online LibraryEttore RellaA history of burlesque (Volume 1939 14) → online text (page 3 of 29)