New York’s Battle Over Burlesque: The Skinny on Striptease in Depression-Era New York

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Burlesque blossomed during the lean years of the Great Depression, especially in New York City. Working-class men loved leg shows, but Mayor LaGuardia was not so amused.

Burlesque was the signature popular entertainment of the Great Depression in New York City. The art of the striptease evolved from simple chorus lines and broad comedy to extravagant spectacles with the dazzle of a Broadway production. But the city’s mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, believed burlesque was associated with prostitution, the black market and public immorality.

Burlesque was the perfect form of entertainment for a depressed city. It was inexpensive to produce, as the shows consisted of songs, slapstick comedy “bits,” and scads of scantily-clad chorus girls. It was therefore affordable for the working-class men and women. Burlesque even employed hundreds of out-of-work actors, comedians and chorines. The rosy economic picture for burlesque made it one of New York’s few growth industries.

The Origins of the Striptease

The striptease became the fundamental element of burlesque, though its origin is murky. Most legends attribute it to various chorus girls at the famous Minsky Brothers’ Winter Garden Theater on the Lower East Side. Allegedly, it happened by accident when a chorine had gone onstage without her starched collar and cuffs in what passed for public nudity in 1916. In another version, burlesque actress Hinda Wassau broke a strap of her chemise while singing the grand finale and, rather than awkwardly dash off stage in mid-song, she bravely finished the number to enthusiastic applause.

Opponents of Burlesque

Mayor La Guardia promised his administration would put an end to the “incorporated filth” of burlesque, claiming that the shows damage the morals of impressionistic and desperate audiences. In April 1937, City License Commissioner Paul Moss, who held the strings when it came to licensing venues, called a public hearing on the striptease with the implicit goal of banning burlesque altogether.

An interfaith group opposed to burlesque argued that all theaters in New York City were granted annual exhibition licenses, which expired May 1. At that time, the Commissioner of Licenses had the option of not renewing a theater’s license, thereby putting it out of business. A slew of witnesses insisted that burlesque houses bred “sex crime” and undermined social reform efforts in Times Square, and group members who personally visited burlesque shows singled out the striptease as a particularly degenerate act.

Patrick Hayes, Catholic Archbishop of New York, wrote in a personal letter to Paul Moss, “Information that has come to me of the spread, evil influence and destructive results from these disgraceful and pernicious performances is the cause of much concern to me,” he wrote. Rabbi Samuel H. Goldenson, chairman of the Board of Jewish Ministers, concurred. “These houses cater to the lowest appetites and passions of men and women and altogether are a menace to the moral life of the community.”

Burlesque’s Supporters

A small group of burlesque producers and two actors took the stand in favor of their profession. Thomas J. Phillips of the Burlesque Artists Association of the United States described how an Assistant District Attorney and a male stenographer had parked themselves in the front row of several shows, accompanied by detectives, and arrested performers after the performances concluded. “What is going to happen to thousands of people in burlesque if the theaters are closed? Should they, perhaps, go out and commit crimes so that they may have sustenance?” he asked.

Phillips’ plea was drowned out by the chorus of moral indignation. Moss surprised the producers and the public by refusing to renew the licenses of fourteen burlesque theaters the following day. At eleven other theaters, only the posters promising “gorgeous glorified maids and models in a landslide of loveliness” remained.

Sources:

  1. New York Times, “Moss Weighs Ban on 14 Burlesques,” April 30, 1937.
  2. New York Times, “La Guardia Backs Ban,” May 3, 1937.