Throwback Thursday: Burlesque of the ’40s

As we learned last week, NYC Mayor Fiorello Laguardia closed most of the city’s burlesque houses in 1937, bringing to an end what at the time was known as the golden age of burlesque. By this time, striptease was the name of the game, comics and variety having been dropped completely.

Last week, we also met burlesque legend Sally Rand who is one of the performers who introduced the fan dance. By the ’40s, she was an established dancer and went on to fight against censorship, which as we’ll see, seems to be the key theme of the ’40s. In 1946, Rand was arrested twice in San Francisco for lewdness, but after viewing her performance, a judge declined to convict her.

Sally Rand

Gypsy Rose Lee, whom we also met last week, tried to make it Hollywood in the ’40s but it didn’t quite work out. In 1941, Lee wrote The G-String Murders, a detective story set in the backstage world of burlesque. The novel was made into a 1943 movie musical called The Lady of Burlesque, starring Barbara Stanwyck. However, it was considered too racy for the strict moral code of the time and censored heavily.

Gypsy Rose Lee in a 1949 show
Gypsy Rose Lee in a 1949 show

Ann Corio was also an established dancer of the time, and by the ’40s, she too went to Hollywood looking for a movie career. She appeared in some B-movies in scanty costumes, the most well-known of which is probably 1942’s Jungle Siren. She also volunteered to be a pinup girl for YANK, a weekly magazine for the military.

Poster for Jungle Siren with Ann Corio

Finally, meet Lili St. Cyr, who began her career as a ballet dancer and chorus girl. She was renowned for her beauty and had several acts, including Cinderella, a matador, a bride and Cleopatra.

Lili was dubbed the most famous woman in Montreal in the late ’40s and ’50s, but unfortunately she caught the attention of the city’s top clergy, who condemned her act as filthy and immoral. This led to her arrest for “indecent, immoral and obscene” behavior. She was eventually acquitted, but the theater where she performed was shut down.

St. Cyr also performed in Hollywood (where she was billed as the “Anatomic Bomb”) and where she was ALSO taken to court by someone who considered her act lewd and lascivious. Again, she was acquitted.

Lili St. Cyr
Lili St. Cyr

By the end of the ’40s, the decline of burlesque was in full swing, but it wasn’t dead entirely and the ’50s will give us some icons of its own. But you’ll just have to wait until next week for that!

Please check out these resources to learn more about burlesque history:
And has whole series on burlesque arrests!

As always always always, thanks for reading and we will catch up with you in the ’50s!


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