Throwback Thursday: Burlesque in the 1920s

Hi friends! It’s Roaring Twenties week at LFF, so let’s learn a little about what burlesque was like in the Jazz Age.

Well, actually, we need to start a little further back.

Up until the 1920s, burlesque was more about comedy and satire than striptease, owing some of its roots to vaudeville and minstrel shows.

Lydia Thompson. Nice stems.

In 1868, Lydia Thompson who was to become known as the “First Lady of Burlesque,” brought her troupe the British Blondes to America. They didn’t strip, but showed off their legs in tights, which was pretty racy for those uptight Victorians.

By about 1905, there was a system in place in which burlesque performers traveled the country in geographically based “wheels,” or circuits, putting on vaudeville-style variety shows that included singers, dancers and comedians. At the time, comedy was the main attraction and some really famous names – like Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, Bob Hope – owe their beginnings to burlesque.

Little Egypt does the hoochie-coochie (and presumably turns herself around)

In the 1920s, movies began to steal audiences, so enterprising theater owners, like NYC’s Minsky Brothers, began introducing striptease to get butts in seats. The striptease is said to harken back to a performance by “Little Egypt” who did the “hoochie-coochie” at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The Minsky Brothers are generally credited with bringing striptease “out of the backrooms and into the theaters.” Under their tutelage and that of Florenz Ziegfield and his elaborate Paris-inspired Follies, the 1920s and ’30s became known as the golden age of burlesque.

Here are some stars of the era:

Josephine Baker

In the 1920s, American Josephine Baker took Paris by storm as part of the legendary Folies Bergère reviews and became a symbol of the Jazz Age after appearing in a girdle of bananas. Baker was “celebrated by all of the great artists and intellectuals of the era, with various circles dubbing her the ‘Black Pearl,’ the ‘Bronze Venus,’ as well as the ‘Creole Goddess.'” She fought for the French Resistance during WWII and later became a civil rights activist, even speaking at the March on Washington with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963.

Fanny Brice

Fanny Brice, made famous by Barbra Streisand in the 1963 Broadway musical Funny Girl, dropped out of school in 1908 to join a burlesque review. In 1910, she joined the Ziegfield Follies for the first time, performing for two years. She rejoined it in 1921 and danced with them through the 1930s. From the 1930s until her 1951 death, Brice performed on radio as a bratty toddler named Snooks in the eponymous “Baby Snook Show,” which sounds like something that should make us grateful we have Netflix.

Carrie Finnell

Carrie Finnell claims to have invented the nipple tassel, which survives to this day as a burlesque necessity (burlesque-ity?). Using just her magnificent mammaries, Finnell could supposedly swing not just tassels, but bells and lights as well. Whutt??

According to, she also:

is credited with talking Gypsy Rose Lee into peeling on stage. She beat Mae West in a strip-off. She’s also said to have invented the nipple tassel. Definitely a woman worth remembering.

Carrie Finnell (What is she even doing?)

As you can see, the history of burlesque is complex and fascinating and worth looking into much deeper than we can here. If you want to learn more, come back next week when we examine burlesque of the ’30s and check out these sources below:

(And if you really like history, stay tuned for ticket info for our fabulous April 22 show, Decadent: 100 Years of Burlesque.)

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