Throwback Thursday: Burlesque in the 1930s

Last week, we learned that burlesque evolved out of vaudeville, showcasing comedy and variety acts rather than straight-up stripping. This changed in the late ’20s and ’30s, when the advent of movies forced theater owners to up the ante to get audiences into their venues and turned the focus toward striptease. Burlesque also provided affordable entertainment to those who couldn’t make it to Broadway shows during the Great Depression.

Thus, the ’30s are considered the greatest era of burlesque, giving us iconic and legendary performers who shaped and defined the glamour of the genre. Here are just a few of them.

Sally Rand

Chicago actress Sally Rand was a silent film star who couldn’t make in the world of “talkies.” According to legend, she was booked for a last-minute dance job, walked past a store and saw some vintage fans in the window, bought them to make into a dress, but ran out of time and that’s how the fan dance was born.

In 1933, she performed at the Chicago World’s Fair and was arrested for indecency four times in one day. The following year, also at the Chicago World’s Fair, Rand debuted her famous bubble dance, appearing with a giant see-through bubble.

Sally Rand fan dance
Sally Rand bubble dance

Faith Bacon

While Sally Rand is widely credited for inventing the fan dance, that account is in dispute by NYC-based dancer Faith Bacon. Bacon claims she invented the fan dance to get around laws that allowed women to be nude on stage only if they were not moving. The fan circumvented the law because she could cover up while dancing and show herself while standing still. The dance took off and was a hit.

Bacon was arrested during a 1930 raid on a NYC theater, but the grand jury declined to indict her or her fellow performers.

Bacon’s career was cut short after she was injured and scarred in an accident. Later in life, she unsuccessfully sued Sally Rand to stop her from doing fan dances. Bacon ended up committing suicide in 1956 at age 46.

Bringing home the Bacon with a pair of fans
Faith Bacon

Gypsy Rose Lee

Gypsy Rose Lee might be the most famous burlesque dancer of the period, if not all time. Gypsy inspired the 1959 Broadway musical Gypsy, which was made into a movie starring Natalie Wood in 1962.

Gypsy Rose Lee got her start in vaudeville, having to take the stage to support herself and her mother after her more-talented sister eloped. She became a burlesque dancer accidentally after a supposed “wardrobe malfunction,” in which her dress strap broke. The audience loved it, so she incorporated it into her act. Gypsy became a huge star at the legendary Minsky’s burlesque, known for her wit and innovation.

Gypsy Rose Lee
Gypsy Rose Lee struts

This golden age of burlesque lasted until the end of the decade, when, in a crackdown against “filth,” NYC Mayor Fiorello Laguardia closed the city’s remaining burlesque houses, putting the industry mostly out of business. Thus began the decline of the genre, which would remain in effect until the neo-burlesque revival of the modern era.

But that’s a story for another time, so be sure to stop by next week when we investigate burlesque of the ’40s.

And if you want to read more, we owe a great debt to the following sites:

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