Burlesque: Where Bawdy Was Accepted and Acceptable

In the Roaring Twenties there were basically three forms of stage entertainment: theater, vaudeville, and burlesque. The latter two no longer exist and are often confused, but they were quite distinct in their day.

Vaudeville was family entertainment—songs, dancing, music, animal acts, skits, acrobatics, comedians, magicians, and ventriloquists made up the bulk of the acts. Performers had to abide by strict rules or face immediate dismissal. No swearing or dirty words were permitted, and in the early part of the 20th century that included words like liar, slob, son-of-a-gun, devil, sucker, and damn. No blue jokes or anything that even hinted at sex or body parts—like the words fanny or chest—were allowed. Here are two examples of jokes that were actually banned:

“Are you looking at my knee?”
“No, I’m way above that.”

“I’ll never marry a girl who snores.”
“You’re going to have a swell time finding out!”

Wicked, huh?

But across the street in a burlesque house, bawdy was accepted and acceptable. That was where audiences went for more earthy humor, parody, and satire. By the 1930s, strip-tease had become the dominant element, but prior to that, burlesque performers included comedians, singers, and the whole range of acts.

Vaudevillians generally looked down on burlesque performers. If hard times forced them to “cross the street” to work in burlesque, they often changed their names. It was probably easier to break in to burlesque and then move up to vaudeville than it was to start directly in vaudeville, or “vaude” as the performers called it, so some noted vaudevillians like the comedy team of Abbott & Costello got experience in burlesque before moving up.

This 7-minute burlesque show has six or seven different acts. Although I’m pretty sure these are later than the Twenties (the hairstyles look to be 1930s and 1940s), it will give you an idea of the genre.

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Published in: on September 9, 2009 at 1:13 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Just amazes me the taboo on words and innuendo that was enforced. Makes you wonder what audiences will think of our taboos fifty years hence.


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