Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Movie Musicals & Burlesque Shows ~ Julie Lence


White Christmas

As long as I can remember, I’ve been a fan of movie musicals.
Grease and Saturday Night Fever grabbed my attention as a teenager and are still favorites today. I sing along and tap my toe to the music, and dream that I can dance as good as the actors and dancers on the screen. My all-time favorite musical is White Christmas. Though she didn’t sing in the movie, Vera-Ellen’s dancing prowess captured my attention, and was my motivation to trapse on down to Blockbuster or Hollywood Video to find more of her work and others, such as Gene Kelly. Today, with Amazon’s library of movies, with the push of a few buttons, I don’t have to travel to the store to find a movie, which is a good thing because Blockbuster and Hollywood Video no longer exist. Vera-Ellen remains my all-time favorite dancer, and it’s clear that live stage productions led to movie musicals, but when and where did musicals get their start?

In my trusty reference book, Everyday Life in the 1800’s, there is a section on entertainment. One of the entries refers to burlesque shows, where the show girls wore skimpy costumes and kicked their legs in the style of the famous Rockettes. The 1st such show dates back to Broadway 1866 and the musical, The Black Crook.  A New York theater entrepreneur booked 2 shows in his Broadway venues. The first show featured a French ballet company where the dancers wore flesh-colored  silk stockings, which was unheard of back then. The 2nd show was about a man having second thoughts regarding selling his soul to the devil. As luck would have it, the venue for the French ballet was damaged by fire, and with the shows booked for the same timeframe, the entrepreneur came up with a genius idea to combine both shows into one; The Black Crook.

Lydia Thompson
Operetta Research Center

The Black Crook
featured a battle scene in Hell and is regarded as the 1st Broadway show by many. It opened to rave reviews and went on to give 474 performances, which was unheard of at the time. Usually a show only had 20 performances. The musical toured for decades and was revived on Broadway numerous times, and led to another musical that toured the country, Ixion. Lydia Thompson is credited for Ixion, a British burlesque troupe of women playing male roles that became New York’s biggest sensation back in the day. Thompson and her ‘British Blondes’, as the girls were dubbed, were in such demand that the show moved to Niblo’s Garden, Broadway’s most prestigious theater and where The Black Crook rose to fame 2 years earlier, and earned $370,000 in its first year.

British Blondes

During the Victorian Era, women hid their figures beneath bustles and hoops. The novelty of shows such as The Black Crook and Ixion with women wearing skimpy costumes was daring and challenging, and with Ixion a success because men and women were in awe that a woman wrote and managed the production. But burlesque wasn’t born with those two shows and wasn’t always a production of women wearing daring costumes and playing sexual aggressors. Burlesque began in the 1840’s as a wide range of comic plays, to include non-musicals. The shows appealed to the lower and middle class because they poked fun (burlesquing) at the social habits of the upper class. Anything from Shakespeare to Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind inspired a burlesque spoof, and eventually paved the way for  writers and producers such as Lydia Thompson to come along and take burlesque not only to the next century, but to the image of scantily clad women kicking up their heels we think of today.

As a fan of movie musicals and Broadway, I’m grateful to Lydia Thompson and others like her. Today, we still have the Rockettes in skimpy costumes kicking up their heels at Radio City Music Hall and old movies on Amazon to dazzle us. Occasionally, a brand new movie musical comes along to capture our hearts, and whether old or new, I’m still dreaming I can dance as good as them.

The Rockettes
NY Times



Shanna Hatfield said...

Fun post, Julie!

Julie Lence said...

Thank you, Shanna. Glad you liked it.