Burlesque Theaters

Burlesque developed as a distinct form of theatrical entertainment in the United States and Great Britain during the mid-nineteenth century. Patterned after the popular minstrel show, burlesque shows entertained audiences by mocking, or “burlesquing,” the cultural tastes and social pretensions of wealthy, urban elites. The typical burlesque program consisted of a first and second act, comprised of individual or small-group variety acts, such as acrobats, magicians, comedians, and singers, followed by a final third act featuring a musical song-and-dance burlesque of a contemporary opera, a well-known play, a private ball, or other high-class cultural event. The appeal of burlesque lay in its ribald humor, sexual innuendo, and irreverent stance toward all forms of established authority. Urban artisans, shopkeepers, and better-off laborers were among early burlesque’s most passionate fans.

During the late nineteenth century, the emergence of a handful of powerful burlesque circuits transformed the burlesque business in the United States. These circuits owned or controlled theaters in multiple cities. Each of the nation’s major circuits hired its own acts and produced its own burlesque shows. Managers combined successful acts into large troupes, which rotated around the circuit, or “wheel,” as a single ensemble. Many of the twentieth century’s most popular actors and comedians honed their craft while touring the burlesque circuits. Fanny Brice, Al Jolson, W.C. Fields, Sophie Tucker, and Bob Hope all broke into show business through burlesque. Touring the country as part of a troupe relieved burlesque acts of the burden of continually auditioning for new bookings at individual theaters and provided them with stable, steady employment.

In Chicago, two national circuits, the Columbia (Eastern) Wheel and the Empire (Western) Wheel, vied against one another and several independent theater owners for a share of the local burlesque trade. Competition was fierce between the city’s burlesque theater owners and managers. In an effort to attract as many customers as possible, they made constant adjustments to the types of acts that performed in their shows. Over time, these changes produced a major shift the structure and style of burlesque. Comedy sketches and satirical skits declined in prominence, replaced by ad-libbing and sexually suggestive musical revues featuring voluptuous show girls known as “burlesque queens.” Scantily-clad “hootchie cooch” belly dancers became commonplace. Performances by Chicago’s burlesque stars were among the bawdiest and most risque in the nation. By the 1920s, striptease acts involving partial or total nudity were standard fare at most of the city’s burlesque theaters.

As sexually explicit dance routines became the predominant mode of entertainment at burlesque theaters during the early twentieth century, the social composition of their audiences changed markedly. Women, who had once comprised a significant portion of the typical burlesque crowd, stopped attending. By 1930, virtually all patrons were men. Typical audiences included a mix of young bachelors, older married men, corporate businessmen, and out-of-town conventioneers. These men attended burlesque almost entirely for the purpose of seeing naked women dance on stage. Although some theaters continued to present comedy acts or dramatic sketches as part of their programs, the striptease act was the main attraction.

The quality of striptease acts varied greatly. Some strippers, such as Gypsy Rose Lee and Sally Rand, imbued their performances with great artistry. But many others aimed only to titillate the sexual desires of the increasingly all-male burlesque audiences. So far as most patrons were concerned, the more clothing the strippers shed, the better. While striptease acts helped many burlesque theater owners stay afloat well into the 1950s, they also destroyed the reputation of these theaters as community institutions. Indeed, as burlesque performances became more salacious, local authorities increasingly challenged their right to exist. In Chicago and elsewhere, social reformers and child welfare advocates condemned the strip shows as a bad moral influence and a threat to the well-being of urban youth. Merchants often complained about burlesque theaters’ tendency to drive away customers from nearby businesses. Landlords saw them as a blight on property values. Often at the behest of these groups, police periodically raided burlesque theaters, arrested the performers, and charged them with unlawful or immoral conduct.

Although police crackdowns and citizen activism forced the closure of several of Chicago’s burlesque theaters over the years, they were only partly responsible for the ultimate demise of burlesque. More important was the general relaxation of society’s attitudes toward sex during the 1960s and 1970s. The development of safe and affordable birth-control pills for women made sexual activity—marital or non-marital—much less risky. And an expanding pornography trade increased the availability of inexpensive images of naked women. As a result, sex lost much of its earlier mystique and humor as Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustlerpublished semi-respectable guides to even the most taboo regions of the female anatomy. Burlesque audiences dwindled as men availed themselves of these more readily available and comparatively less expensive forms of sexual entertainment.

Most of Chicago’s burlesque theaters were located around the periphery of the central business district, where the combination of lower land prices and close proximity to large populations of bachelors, businessmen, and out-of-town visitors created ideal investment opportunities. One cluster of theaters lined South State Street between Van Buren and Polk Streets. Another developed along West Madison Street near Halsted. And a third could be found in the Levee night club district near 22nd and South State Streets.

The following were some of the theaters in Chicago that featured burlesque during the early twentieth century:

Alhambra Theater
The Alhambra Theater offered burlesque from 1909 until the theater closed in 1912. See Alhambra Theater.

American Theater
The American Theater was located at 522 South State Street, just north of Harrison Street, and was one of only a handful of early twentieth-century theaters in Chicago owned by a woman. Maud H. Frazier, a wealthy socialite and an active participant in the city’s womens clubs and social reform groups, was the official owner of the American. Her husband, Floyd Frazier, handled the theater’s day-to-day operations. It is unclear how the unique ownership arrangement came into being, but it may have been devised partly as an attempt to protect the theater from police inspection and possible closure. In 1916, an investigator from the Chicago Women’s Church Federation, a moral reform organization determined to eliminate burlesque and all other sexually charged amusements within the city of Chicago, described the scene inside the theater as such: “Soeta, muscle dancer, wore tights. Body above the breast exposed. Spangled decorations over the breast. A scant net drapery from the hips and a wreath of artificial flowers extending from the center of the body below the waist… as she danced.” Under pressure from the Federation and other moral reform organizations, Mayor William Hale Thompson revoked the theater’s permit and ordered it closed.

Empire Theater
Located at 675 West Madison Street, one block east of Halsted, the Empire Theater opened on 5 May 1907. With a seating capicity of 1,450, the theater was one of the largest theaters in the city at the time. Opening night admission charges ranged from fifteen to fifty cents per person. During its early years, the Empire featured mostly burlesque acts, including the “Empire Burlesquers” and at least one thinly-clad female muscle dancer known as “Chooceeta,” whose September 1908 performance at the theater was censored by city authorities.

Follies Theater
See Gem Theater.

Folly Theater
The Folly Theater on South State Street, later known as the State-Congress Theater, featured a mix of burlesque and motion pictures from 1904 until the theater closed in 1933. See Hopkins Theater.

Gem Theater
The Gem Theater was located at 450 South State Street, between Van Buren and Harrison Streets, on the current site of the Harold Washington Public Library. It opened around 1907 in a building formerly occupied by a dime museum. During its heyday, the Gem featured a lively combination of burlesque, motion pictures, and comedy acts. Comedian Red Skelton performed at the theater early in his career. The Gem narrowly escaped destruction in September 1913, when an underground fire swept through the basements of several buildings to its north, and again in the 1940s, when construction of the new Congress Street Parkway necessitated demolition of several buildings to its south. Chicago police and anti-vice squads raided the theater many times during the early twentieth century. One crackdown in October 1937 resulted in the arrest of seven women and five men at the theater. By the 1960s, the theater relied primarily on striptease acts to attract customers. During its later years, the theater was known as the Follies. Live striptease shows ended at the Follies in 1972, replaced by adult movies featuring the era’s leading female porn stars. A fire destroyed the theater in January 1978.

Haymarket Theater
The Haymarket Theater, located on Madison Street near Halsted, presented burlesque shows from 1916 until the early 1930s. See Haymarket Theater.

Rialto Theater
Opened in January 1917, the Rialto Theater at 336 South State Street initially operated as a vaudeville house. It was owned by the Jones, Linick & Schaefer theater circuit, whose other properties included the Orpheum, Bijou Dream, Randolph, and McVicker’s Theaters. Designed by the architectural firm of Marshall & Fox, the theater featured a “modern Renaissance” facade, a marble-clad lobby, mosaid-tiled vestibules, and a rose and gold color scheme. During the 1920s, the Rialto’s owners experimented with various show styles to attract customers, offering not only shows dedicated to vaudeville, but also motion pictures, burlesque, or a combination of all three. By 1927, however, burlesque had emerged as the main attraction at the Rialto, with performances by groups such as “The Heartbreakers,” “The Joy Riders,” and “Babes in Toyland.” From the early 1930s until the late 1950s, the Rialto served as one of the city’s leading burlesque theaters. For much of this period, it was managed by Harold Minsky, son of the great burlesque impresario Abraham Minsky. In the 1960s, the Rialto’s burlesque shows gave way to adult movies. The theater was demolished in the 1970s.

Star & Garter Theater
The Star & Garter Theater at 815 West Madison Street was one of Chicago’s largest and best-known burlesque theaters during the early twentieth century. The theater presented burlesque shows from its opening in 1908 until 1922, from 1927 until 1936, and briefly again in late 1946. See Star & Garter Theater.

State-Congress Theater
Previously known as the Hopkins Theater and the Folly Theater, the State-Congress Theater at 531 South State Street offered burlesque shows from the early 1920s until the theater closed in 1933. See Hopkins Theater.

Trocadero Theater
The notorious Trocadero Theater at 414 South State Street presented burlesque shows from the late 1890s until the early 1920s. See Trocadero Theater.

Sources: Chicago Tribune, 6 May 1907, 10; 25 Sep 1908, 7; 3 Sep 1913, 1; 20 Feb 1916, 1; 2 March 1916, 1; 23 Jan 1917, 13; 1 Feb 1917, 20; 1 Jan 1927, 12; 5 Jul 1927, 31; 12 Oct 1927, 35; 6 Jan 1929, F2; 18 Oct 1937, 13; 1 June 1951, 17 Oct 1937, 21; 7 Nov 1976, 51-52; 5 Jan 1978, B1; Variety, 20 Apr 1907, 4.