Burlesque, the Old Howard, and Boffo Box Office
There’s a scene in the musical Gypsy when Mama Rose - the tireless promoter of her daughters’ vaudeville act - finds that they’ve been booked in a burlesque house. "You know what they say in the business ... when a vaudeville act plays burlesque it’s all washed up." But at the time - the early1930s - it was vaudeville that was washed-up; a victim of movies and radio; while burlesque continued to thrive. It had something that those heavily censored mass medias outlets couldn’t offer: sexually suggestive routines by baggy pant comics and striptease acts by performers, such as Gypsy Rose Lee, whose emergence as burlesque’s biggest star makes up the story of that musical.
Lee was never much of a singer or dancer, but her witty repartee and her stage routine (more tease than strip) made her a headliner at such theaters as Minsky’s in New York and the Old Howard in Boston. Her intellectual pretensions became so well-known that Rodgers and Hart parodied it with the song Zip in their 1943 musical Pal Joey. She also parlayed her celebrity by co-writing a number of novels, most notably The G-String Murders, which became the basis of the film Lady of Burlesque (also released in 1943) that starred Barbara Stanwyck as a stripper who leads the investigation of a number of murders at a Manhattan burlesque house.
Today burlesque is pretty much a lost art form - most of the original performers have long since died, and the theaters have either been torn down or evolved into other kinds of performance spaces. Minsky’s 42nd Street flagship theater - the New Victory - has become the home of for children’s theater in the past few years; and Boston’s Old Howard was torn down as part of a major urban renewal project of the early 1960s that transformed this part of downtown Boston. Yet for more than a century it was one of the city’s best-known landmarks.
There is, though, a fresh interest in burlesque in the past few years, most notably with the Boston Babydolls, a performance troupe out to debunk Boston’s puritanical reputation with their raucous performances at venues in Boston and Cambridge. "The Boston burlesque scene is heating up, and the Babydolls are at the helm of it all," wrote Boston Magazine last June.
In addition to their own gigs, they will be part of the upcoming four day The Great Boston Burlesque Exposition at the John Hancock Hotel and Conference Center on February 16-19. According to press material the event, produced by The Professional Burlesque Society, "brings together performers, devotees, and purveyors of products related to the still vibrant art form known as Burlesque. Among the many events planned for the exposition will be performances by both new and veteran entertainers, and classes on Burlesque essentials including fan dancing, bump and grind - even tassel twirling. a non-profit educational organization that helps burlesque, sideshow, and vaudeville performers educate themselves - both about their performance skills, but also about the realities of doing business."
And as a prelude to that event, the Babydolls will be performing as part of Boffo Box Office, a benefit for the upcoming Exposition that takes place this Monday at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline. In addition to their performance, the event will feature a screening of the aforementioned Lady of Burlesque, and a lecture/slideshow by Boston historian David Kruh, author of numerous books on Boston’s history, on the Old Howard.
Kruh, the author of Always Something Doing: Boston’s Infamous Scollay Square, may be the foremost authority on the Old Howard and Scollay Square, the colorful part of Boston it was part of. Once a thriving commercial district, the entire area fell victim to the urban blight of the early 1960s and much of it (including the Old Howard) was torn down to make way for Government Center and Boston’s current city hall.
"People forget what terrible shape Boston was in the 1950s." Kruh explained recently. "The Scollay Square area became a true, run-down, skid row type-of-place."
By that time the Old Howard had been closed for nearly a decade. The final blow was a fire in 1961 that left the building prime for the wrecking ball, despite moves by preservationists to save it.
It began, oddly enough, as a church, built for a sect under the leadership of a charismatic Adventist minister named William Miller in 1843. He had calculated that the Last Days were to occur in April, 1844, and built a structure for his followers to pray at as the end approached. When it didn’t happen, some of the more entrepreneurial parishioners rented the space out to some promoters, and the space became a theater.
"This was a gamble because of lingering Puritanical prejudice against the theater," Kruh recalled. "But by calling the space an Atheneum, which is a fancy 18th century word for theater, they were able to pass the space off as something more than a tawdry theater. It opened, and was a great success. It was subsequently rebuilt and became one of the most popular theaters in Boston."
Its early attractions were Shakespeare, drawing room comedies, and ballets. It hosted such 19th century personages as Edwin Booth (as well as his infamous brother John Wilkes) and Sarah Bernhard played; but by the 1870s business began to dwindle, and the changing demographics of the neighborhood led the owners to adapt a newer form of entertainment aimed at the lower classes called Burlesque.
"Burlesque," Kruh explained, "is an adverb - it means to burlesque, to vamp, to make fun of, to alter. Burlesque would take Shakespeare, and other classical texts and use them as the basis of working class morality tales - and the audience would love this stuff. And you had clog dancing and tap dancing, and little melodramas written specifically for the immigrant community. And it was terribly successful. The Howard became even more popular with this form of entertainment."
This style of theater was something of the lower class step-sister to vaudeville, a similar-styled entertainment aimed at the emerging middle classes in opulent downtown theaters such as the Keith Memorial and the Metropolitan. Vaudeville died with the advent of radio and movies; but, Kruh observed, "burlesque evolved by fighting the movies by doing something that radio and movies could not offer, that is pretty buxom ladies doing provocative dances.
"It was still a working class art form - but its appeal is that it offers what radio and movies cannot. By the time Prohibition ended in 1933, Burlesque evolved into sketch humor that featured baggy pants comics and buxom dancers, and the candy butchers selling little boxes of chocolates that might have a secret, naughty surprise from Paris inside them. That is the burlesque that most people refer to - it is the burlesque of Gypsy, of the movie The Night They Raided Minsky’s, and of Lady of Burlesque.
"What proved to be the final stab to the heart of burlesque was television where performers like Milton Berle and Phil Silvers brought those classic burlesque routines into American homes. Why go to a burlesque hall and see those routines now there was no pretext as to why someone would go to a burlesque hall, and the striptease came out of burlesque, and just became strip. It was the 1950s when the transition from the art of burlesque to the pornography that is strip."
And the end of burlesque saw the end of the Old Howard, which flourished during the 1930s and 1940s despite movements from the city and moralists to have it shut down. "In terms of what we can see today on television, it was all pretty tame," Kruh said. "The humor was all double-entendre. And if you talk to the stagehands or the performers and they would talk about the tricks of the striptease artists used that would make the guys in the audience think they got a glimpse of a nipple or some hair down there. It wasn’t lewd - it was ’wink-wink’ kind of humor. There’s a great picture in my second book of the box office at the Old Howard sometimes after World War II, and there were men and women buying tickets. Men took their woman there. It was fun. People would go the theater then have a bite to eat, then catch the midnight show at the Old Howard."
Boffo Box Office will take place Monday, February 5, 2007 at 7pm at the Coolidge Corner Theater, 290 Harvard Street, Boston, MA. Tickets are priced: $12.00- Lecture & Film. $30.00 After-party at Finale. $36.00 Combo ticket. For more information visit the Boston Babydolls website.