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WOMAN TO WOMAN:

ANN CORIO AND THE REHABILITATION OF AMERICAN BURLESQUE

by

Julie N. Vogt

A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of

the requirements for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

(Theatre and Drama)

at the

UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON

2010
© Copyright by Julie N. Vogt 2010
All Rights Reserved
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Acknowledgments

This study is the result of a professional, avocational and personal journey. The process

has been aided by my community of mentors, friends and family members. Foremost thanks are

due to my advisor, Mary Trotter, who supervised this dissertation and launched the investigation

with the simple question, “Who is Ann Corio and is everything she wrote true?” She is a master

gardener of graduate minds; pruning, shaping and bringing to fruit tangential tendrils of inquiry.

She shepherded this study through periods of unparalleled personal challenges and her

mentorship was invaluable in my own rehabilitation. My committee members have incubated

this work at different stages: Preeti Chopra’s class on “Taste” was one of the finest of my

graduate career; it informed every stage of this research and I am grateful for her contributions

to this study. Michael Peterson supervised my earliest graduate work in bawdy women and

sexuality in the suburbs; his ability to cultivate multiple perspectives in a single classroom

informed the structure of this dissertation. Manon van de Water nurtured my awareness of

embodied learning by accepting me as her Teaching Assistant for Drama in Education. Andrea

Harris provided crucial support by joining my committee from a distance; I am honored to have

her participation as a representative of the dance-education tradition at UW-Madison.

Special thanks are due to Carole Nelson, who not only provided access to her aunt’s

collection of memorabilia, she became remarkable friend. She has generously shared her time

and her insight and I am inspired by her respect for all creatures “great and small.” Our

collaboration on Corio’s legacy has been one of the most unexpected and rewarding aspects of

this journey.

My passion for this topic was fueled by the women of the neo-burlesque community who

have worked to preserve, document and revive the rich history of the genre. I owe particular
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thanks to Michelle Baldwin (Vivenne Vavoom), who first introduced me to burlesque in 2000 and

is the epitome of classic grace and wit. As a performer, author and generous individual she has

nurtured the revival across the country. Lynn Sally (Dr. Lukki) is the diva of praxis, combining

scholarship, teaching and performance. The personal histories which informed this study are due

to her tireless efforts, with Tigger! Ferguson, to preserve the living memory of burlesque through

the oral history project of the Burlesque Hall of Fame. The observations of Jo “Boobs” Weldon

added untold dimensions to this study; she sustains lively conversations about burlesque history,

representation and community through her school, web pages and book. Finally, the lonely hours

of writing were brightened my burlesque pen-pal Elsa Sjunneson (Lydia Ransom); thank you for

the countless chats about law, coverture, bodies and burlesque.

Although this study is based primarily on print and visual sources, several burlesque

legends animated my understanding of the live performance. I would like to particularly thank

Marinka, Queen of the Amazons, for her warmth, humor and unparalleled recollection of

accurate details; Satan’s Angel for the most lively conversations about burlesque as an art form;

April March and Joan Arline for their insights into the dynamics of “talking women” in

burlesque skits; and Lillian Keirnan Brown for her fearless book and ebullient spirit.

The aforementioned individuals had the most direct effect on the research, but credit for

sustenance through the personal journey is due to my husband, Todd. He gave his respect and

support to a topic that many would regard as frivolous. With patience and gentlemanly grace, he

encouraged me through long and unprofitable journey of graduate school. I am grateful to share

in his love, magnanimity and humor.


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This dissertation is dedicated to my mother, Patricia A. Chase. As a leader and innovator

in her field, hospital pharmacy, she taught me to always question what was said and assumed

about women.
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WOMAN TO WOMAN:

ANN CORIO AND THE REHABILITATION OF AMERICAN BURLESQUE

Julie N. Vogt

Under the supervision of Professor Mary Trotter

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison

For nearly seventy years, Ann Corio was a star performer and successful producer in

burlesque entertainment. Corio began her career in the burlesque circuits of the 1930s and 1940s

and returned to the genre with her nostalgic variety show, This Was Burlesque, which ran from

1962 to 1991. Throughout the twentieth century, burlesque producers targeted heterosexual male

audiences by featuring semi-nude female dancers. Ann Corio’s burlesque products, which

included the show This Was Burlesque (TWB), three LP recordings and a history book, challenged

the assumption that erotic dance and humor served exclusively male desires. Corio marketed her

brand of burlesque products to female consumers, “woman to woman.” Instead of catering to

male scopic pleasure, dances and sketches in TWB echoed the feminist legal-reform agenda of

the 1960s and 1970s.

This dissertation addresses deficits in the documentation and analysis of twentieth

century burlesque. As a culturally-devalued form of performance burlesque has not been

comprehensively archived or evaluated. Corio’s consistent burlesque aesthetic serves as a vector

for the delineation of theatrical burlesque from competing entertainment industries including

stand-up comedy, topless dance, Broadway theatre and film. The trajectory between Ann Corio’s

early career and her revival illustrates a generational migration in which narrative and visual

archetypes (rich with bigotry, misogyny, and class elitism) are recycled and recuperated by
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performers. This study interrogates the implications of rehabilitating pernicious stereotypes into

positive models and seeks to identify a spectrum of gendered “gazes” in which the spectatorship

of erotic bodies is influenced by class tensions, censorship, intellectual property and laws

governing female autonomy. I argue that the strains of feminism which regard public expressions

of sexuality as patriarchally (and pathologically) exogenic - arising from a constrictive male gaze -

occlude the intangible currencies of the female cooperative culture operating in the Corio brand.

These ephemeral currencies include inter-class and intercultural exchanges, public domain

creative products, theatrical personae, the esteem of other women, and sexual confidence. In

burlesque,these valuation systems operate in tandem with regulated commercial transactions.

The study concludes with recommendations for the applications of burlesque content and

technique in higher education.


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Table of Contents

One Circumstantial Evidence: An Introduction to Scope and Methodology 1

Purpose of the Study and Objectives 4

Research Hypotheses 4

Key Terms 6

Literature Review 14

Structure of the Study, Methodology and Theoretical Model 21

Two Long Live the Queen: Ann Corio’s Early Burlesque Career 37

Literary Burlesques and Ballerinas 41

Burlesque Grotesques 44

The Leg Business 48

Class and Scratch Burlesque 55

Three Me Tondalayo: Conscripted Bodies on the Burlesque Stage 73

Retiring to the Jungle 78

The Minstrel Afterglow 85

Gags and Gimmicks 96

The Politics of Mammy Palaver 108

Four Burlesque for the Ladies of East Cupcake, OH 120

On Tour In Frying Pan, Iowa 125

Sex and Laughter 138

No Professionals 153

Five Merrier Marriages: Striptease and Sex Education 174

Sex Ed in the BurlyQ 179


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Burning Bras and Women’s Bathrooms 195

Sex After Comstock 209

Conclusion T
here’s Always Something More to Reveal 242

This is Burlesque 243

Power Tools 245

Ephemeral Currencies and Pirate Feminism 250

The School of Burlesque 255


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List of Figures

1. Promotional photograph from Girls in Blue 3


2. Stock headshot of Ann Corio 9
3. Illustration of Corio 22
4. Publicity photograph of Corio 49
5. Corio performs “Mr. Striptease is Dead” 65
6. Corio posing in front of the Old Howard 71
7. Candid photograph of Corio at the Old Howard 72
8. Corio as Tondalayo in This Was Burlesque 76
9. Theatrical make up for racial caricatures 88
10. Lew Fields in character roles 89
11. Corio as Tondalayo in White Cargo 109
12. Corio in Sultan’s Daughter 111
13. Corio in Call of the Jungle 112
14. Corio as Tondalayo in “White Cargo” in This Was Burlesque 119
15. Corio in an unknown scene 127
16. Harry Conley in “Minnie” in This Was Burlesque 236
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Chapter 1

Circumstantial Evidence: An Introduction to Scope and Methodology

July 11, 2010 10:46:00 PDT

Just a few moments remain in ebay auction 220622428124, “Burlesque Stripper Ann

Corio 2 original sexy photos.” This dissertation is due in under three weeks, but I am still,

compulsively, chasing evidence. The Google alerts function informs me when new items appear

on the Internet with the term “Ann Corio,” a burlesque dancer who performed for nearly sixty

years, and the focus of this study. Most of the Google notices are duplicates of items I own, but

this listing is unique. It includes two photographs from Corio’s early career. Corio began

performing in the 1926-1927 theatrical season, at age fifteen, but most of my photographic

evidence comes from the revival show she launched in 1962, This Was Burlesque. Images such as

this are uncommon; Corio’s own private archive contained few items from her career as a

teenager.

One of the two photographs I have seen reprinted. A young Corio stands arms akimbo,

revealing the lace body suit she wears which is tied in four places along her torso. She looks

offstage and not directly at the camera. The other item is a particularly rare specimen. Corio sits

on a black box, nude except for the lace shawl she clutches over her torso. Her bare back is

revealed, as are her un-stockinged legs which end in satin heels. Her youthful face smiles directly

at the camera, framed by a tight bob of pin curls - an emblematic look of the jazz era. The

photograph captures not only her youthful presence, it also provides a stark challenge to her

legendary persona as the queen of clean burlesque. Corio was famous for what she didn’t take

off, somehow surviving as a headliner when burlesque began to feature more revealing striptease

acts. The photo might have been a publicity stunt, an image that would have hung outside
2

theatres to entice men inside. It tantalizes as one of those bits of evidence that hint at cracks in

Corio’s carefully crafted public persona.

I clenched my teeth as I increased the bid to fifty dollars for the two photographs. In five

years of researching Corio, only one other photograph from her early career surfaced at auction.

I was outbid on that item (in the middle of the night) by quite a bit of money. Fifty dollars is the

most I can’t afford. Four seconds, three; the screen countdown hiccups at three seconds and I

know in that instant I’ve lost the auction. Professional memorabilia traders set their preferences to

bid higher in the last seconds, so amateurs such as myself have no option to increase the bid. The

ending price for the two photographs is $77.61; three other bidders were involved in the last six

seconds of trading. I never really had a chance.

Fuming, I imagine the scurrilous motives of the man who outbid me. What perverse

desires lead him to collect images of half-naked young starlets? I fume at the injustice that a right-

thinking feminist scholar such as myself has lost, by virtue of the open marketplace, to some

misogynist who objectifies women. Then it occurs to me - are my motives really more pure than

his? Do I not collect (nay, horde) all Corio-related objects? Haven’t I turned her into an object of

study? And why do I assume it was a male bidder who won? I make assumptions because I have

been trained to view objects and artifacts of erotic history through the frame of the male gaze -

the perception of the most misogynistic representative of patriarchal power who seeks to reduce

women to their sexual functions. But then I remember, my project is an attempt to identify the

spectrum of the female gaze - the admiration and emulation of other women - as well as other

perspectives in the male gaze, moments when erotic bodies are emblematic of strained marriages,

periods of conscription and covert forms of sexual education. The winning bidder could have

easily been one of the many other women who prize burlesque memorabilia. Leslie Zemeckis is
3

working to turn her recent documentary, Behind the Burly Q , into a book; she has the funds and

personal research assistants to win any auction she chooses. Perhaps I didn’t lose to a monied

viper with pedophiliac tendencies; perhaps bidder y***a is another female burlesque enthusiast,

or an operative for a photography licensing site, scooping up images with weak copyright

provenance for sale to the burgeoning industry in burlesque documentaries and books.

I am confronted, again, with the limits of research into a genre that was culturally

illegitimate and until recently, not the subject of serious investigation. Most of my evidence is

circumstantial - objects, oral histories and biased newspaper reviews that do not contain facts, but

from which facts (or probabilities) must be inferred. As this chapter will document, the history of

burlesque has been plagued by weak reporting, self-aggrandizing promotions and an inconsistent

archive. There are few facts, only a mosaic of pieces from which I try to deduce the realities of

twentieth-century burlesque. Looking into the past is always a cloudy vision; the glass becomes

murkier when valuable evidence is reduced to the thumbnail I screen capture before the auction

Fig. 1 Corio, circa 1927, provenance unknown.

record becomes inactive on the Internet. Is this micro picture evidence? It enters into the mental

repertoire of stories heard, pictures seen and performances witnessed. But I still have no

photographic proof of Corio’s debut in burlesque, only a fuzzy picture and descriptions of

circumstantial evidence.
4

Purpose of the study and objectives

This dissertation addresses deficits in the documentation and analysis of twentieth-

century burlesque, particularly in the field of theatre history. As a culturally-devalued form of

performance burlesque has not been comprehensively archived or evaluated. Two centuries of

burlesque in England and North America are represented by only four footnoted books from

university presses (and a handful of dissertations).1 As a popular form of live performance,

burlesque technique infiltrated film, sound recordings, radio and television. This study aims to

nourish the impoverished library of burlesque history through a chronological study of one

significant producer-performer. The objective of this study is to parse apart the sundry business

models and performance practices of twentieth-century burlesque with the goal of identifying

the different economies and ecologies of erotic performance. The axis for this nomenclature is

Ann Corio, a dancer and director who performed and produced burlesque material between

1924 and 1991. Corio’s consistent burlesque aesthetic serves as a reference point for the

delineation of theatrical burlesque from competing modes of performance which arose from a

shared genealogy of comic-erotic performance; these entertainments include stand-up comedy,

topless dance and Broadway musicals.

Research Hypotheses

This study was guided by one hypothesis which tested claims in Ann Corio’s brand

products and advertising and a second hypothesis relating to the larger field of theatre history.

Ann Corio persistently used the word “authentic” in her shows, publicity and souvenir materials.

1I count as the footnoted studies works by: Robert Allen, Rachel Shteir (Striptease), Becki Ross and
Lucinda Jarrett, Stripping in Time: A History of Erotic Dancing, Pandora (London: HarperCollins Publishers,
1997).Biographies with chapter notes, but not in-line footnotes include books by: Rachel Shteir (Gypsy),
Noralee Frankel and Kelly DiNardo. Books with bibliographies but no chapter notes include the works of
Michelle Baldwin, Jessica Glasscock, A.W. Stencell and Kurt Ganzel, Lydia Thompson: Queen of Burlesque
Forgotten Stars of Musical Theatre (New York: Routledge, 2002). See bibliography for full citations.
5

Because many modes of performance are sheltered by the word “burlesque” it is problematic to

declare one variant as authentic or uncorrupted. Research for this dissertation interrogated

Corio’s claim that her show was the only authentic reproduction of early-twentieth century

burlesque in the period 1962-1991. The research was initiated with the hypothesis that Corio’s

version of burlesque history and performance diverged from the material conditions of the

industry in the first four decades of the twentieth century. Ann Corio’s pictorial history book,

This Was Burlesque is frequently cited in monographs about the topic but no author or reporter has

thoroughly investigated the content of the book. As a consequence minor, unintentional errors of

the book have been reprinted and Corio’s taradiddles continue to be repeated.

This study was initiated with a second hypothesis which interrogated the denigration of

burlesque through legal and critical censure. A persistent theme in Corio’s brand marketing was

the suppression of burlesque by powerful cultural elitists who lacked the egalitarian humor of

burlesque’s loyal audiences. Why did performances bearing the title “burlesque” invoke censure

and critical disdain while performances with similar theatrical elements were performed without

harassment? Did variables other than class antagonisms affect the cultural reception of burlesque

entertainment? As part of the wider field of entertainment history, this study interrogates the

mechanisms by which established character archetypes and lines of business are reincarnated in

emergent cultural products. Artists build original work from established terms and materials. In

the case of burlesque, the genre first assimilated, and then re-cycled, character types and comedic

structures from minstrelsy. Can tropes which dehumanized and denigrated human subjects be

rehabilitated into narratives which celebrate and lionize? Is it possible to rehabilitate racist, sexist

caricatures into a models for racial and gender equity?


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Key Terms

BURLESQUE

The word burlesque appeared in Thomas Blount’s Glossographia in 1656. The English term

derived from the Italian and French terms burlesco and burla, which were both words for a joke,

jesting or parody.2 In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries burlesque was a literary and

dramatic technique; tragic, romantic and epic works of literature were adapted into humorous

pieces through grotesque exaggerations of the stylistic attributes of the source material. The

definition of burlesque in post-colonial America is historically-contingent and has perpetually

shifted as the genre merged with other forms, diverged into different talent pools and defined its

self in opposition to competing entertainments. (A brief history of burlesque in the United States

will be provided in chapter 1 as context for this term.) Although the definition of the word is

historically contingent there is a basic formula, durable elements that reside even as performers

adapt performances bearing the title burlesque in order to remain competitive. The genre

persistently takes a comic-grotesque approach to: class antagonism, performances of race, female

bodies circulating in the public domain, marital contracts and family structures, gender

comportment and reproductive education. The association between burlesque and eroticized

female bodies took root in the 1860s. Striptease - an act which features partial or full disrobing on

stage - was not an element of burlesque until the 1920s at which time the word became nearly

synonymous with performances which included erotic, semi-nude dances.

BRAND

For this dissertation, Ann Corio’s burlesque products will be examined as a brand, defined

by Graham Hankinson and Philipa Cowking as:

2"burlesque, a and n." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University
Press. 5 April, 2010 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50029715>.
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a product or service made distinctive by its positioning relative to the competition, and by

its personality ... Positioning defines the brand’s point of reference either by price or

usage. Personality consists of a unique combination of functional attributes and symbolic

values with which the target consumer identifies. 3

Marks to identify ownership or manufacture pre-date the Roman empire but a legal code

regulating marks in the United States did not evolve until the eighteenth century. In 1791

Thomas Jefferson advocated for the establishment of trademark laws based on the commerce

clause of the constitution; legislation to protect trade marks was not adopted (without repeal) in

the United States until 1881. Company branding became a more sophisticated process in the

twentieth century as mass production expanded the distribution of goods, mass-media advertising

diversified the options for product promotion and scientific metrics such as advertising-impact

studies generate data which measured the efficacy of a brand’s image and personality. A

company may register marks with the United States Patent and Trademark office to protect a

brand from competitor infringement. Registered marks may include a name, a two or three

dimensional image, a melody, fragrance, product color and internet domain name. Brand

identity is so central to the distribution of goods and services in the United States that a brand’s

value is considered part of a company’s assets. Brand value is a bundle of tangible and intangible

attributes which may include the financial worth of name recognition and consumer trust in the

mark, the durability and cost of the good, the aesthetic qualities which appeal to a consumer

3Graham Hankinson and Philippa Cowking, "What Do You Really Mean by a Brand," Journal of Brand
Management 3, no. 1 (1995): 47.
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demographic, the perceived need addressed by the product or service and a consumer’s

expressions of personal identity through conspicuous consumption.4

Corio’s name and image graced each of the products connected to This Was Burlesque.

Her identity served not only as a visual trademark, it was the brand personality: conveying a

sense of historical authenticity and the values of the product through Corio’s stage persona. The

concept of product brands and branding consumer choices in a marketplace will be used to

differentiate between sub-genres of burlesque in the entertainment industry. By examining

aspects such as iconography, language, production, distribution and target consumers, the

intangible values of the Corio brand will be identified.

ANN CORIO

Ann Corio is the narrative core of this research; she was a vibrant, creative person, not an

inanimate research term. But this dissertation is an examination of her burlesque brand, not a

biography of Ann Corio the individual. An expository biography is presented here as in order to

introduce the reader to the primary subject and to provide background information for the study.

Ann Corio was born in Hartford, CT to Italian-immigrant parents on November 2,

1909.5 She was a younger member of a large family. Newspaper items recorded that her siblings

numbered nine, twelve, or fourteen. The inconsistency may have been inaccurate reporting or

4A Seetharaman, "A Conceptual Study on Brand Valuation," Journal of Product and Brand Management 10,
no. 4 (2001); Michael Beverland, "Brand Management and the Challenge of Authenticity," Journal of
Product and Brand Management 14, no. 4 (2005); Wade Jarvis and Steven Goodman, "Effective Marketing of
Small Brands: Niche Positions, Attribute Loyalty and Direct Marketing," Journal of Product and Brand
Management 14, no. 5 (2005); Leslie de Chernatony, "Modelling the Components of the Brand," European
Journal of Marketing 32:11-12, no. 1074-1090 (1997); Walfried Lassar, "Measuring Customer Based Brand
Equity," Journal of Consumer Marketing 12, no. 4 (1995).
5 This is the birthdate recorded on her final passport. She may have been born a few days earlier. Corio’s
niece, Carole Nelson, recalled that Corio had two “birthdays:” one was the date of her home birth and
the other was the date the local midwife entered records of recent births at the city clerk’s office. The
Broadway Internet Database lists her birthdate as November 29; the provenance of this data has not been
identified.
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changes in the family (some male siblings perished in the First World War), but Corio surely came

from a large and impoverished family who were rendered more destitute by the death of her

father. Corio began dancing at age fifteen in the chorus of a “tab” (for tabloid) show, the abridged

versions of Broadway musicals which toured

to smaller cities.

Unlike most burlesque performers,

who selected a stage name, Ann Corio never

used a pseudonym although her known

name might not have corresponded to her

birth certificate. Fiercely protective of her

real age when she launched her revival in

1962, it is possible that her birth date was

undiscoverable because it was filed under the

true spelling of her family name - Coiro. The

entire family changed the pronunciation of

their name to the inflection used by their Fig. 2 White Cargo souvenir program, collection of the
author.

predominantly Irish-immigrant neighbors.6

By her account, she did not know what burlesque was when she was recruited into the

chorus of a show. Although her mother initially objected, Corio was determined to be a

performer and “Mamma” Corio became convinced that her daughter was not under imminent

6 Fr. Julius L. Licata, "The Queen of Burlesque: An Interview with the Legendary Ann Corio," Abbott and
Costello Quarterly 1992. This is a particularly forthright interview which reveals more personal information
than any other interview with Corio. I find it probable that Corio volunteered more information because
she was being interviewed by a priest for a newsletter which celebrated the work of her close friend, Lou
Costello.
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threat of vitiation on the burlesque stage. Corio quickly rose to the rank of feature performer,

headlining burlesque circuits by 1927. She married her first manager, the theatrical producer

Emmett Callahan in 1933; the couple separated in 1938 but Corio did not file for divorce until

1943. In 1944 Corio married the vaudevillian and Ed Sullivan Show guest-star Bob Williams in

Ensenada, Mexico. (It is likely that the Catholic Ann Corio sought out a civil marriage following

her much-delayed divorce). Friends attest that Williams was a manipulative husband; he divorced

Corio after convincing her to sign over the deed to her beach-front home in Malibu, California, a

property Corio purchased with her own earnings. After spending much of the 1950s performing

in legitimate plays, Corio returned to burlesque in 1962 with the show This Was Burlesque, which

was co-produced with Michael Iannucci, a novice producer who turned to theatre endeavors

after failing to make the Pittsburgh Steelers professional football team. The much-younger

Iannucci became Corio’s third and final husband in June of 1965; the pair remained married

until her death in 1999. Like her marriage to Williams, Corio’s wedding to Iannucci was discreet

and did not include family members.

The romantic and business partnership of Ann Corio and Michael Iannucci was so

collaborative that it is difficult to identify their individual contributions to the incorporated

businesses which held ownership of This Was Burlesque (TWB). On the most superficial level

Corio was the performer, interlocutor and curator of burlesque content in the show and Iannucci

was the business manager. For convenience, I refer to their burlesque products as the Ann Corio

brand, but Michael Iannucci is an implicit, silent partner in all references to brand content and

development. Interviews with Iannucci after his wife’s death suggest that he was the partner who

gathered information about burlesque history; Iannucci spoke with exacting detail about the

literary and theatrical antecedents of the form. However successful Corio and Iannucci were in
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their burlesque collaborations, their non-theatrical business investments were not optimal.

Iannucci invested profits from TWB into high-risk ventures such as oil fields, fashion designers,

and race horses. None of these investments were profitable and it is possible that the duration of

TWB touring can be partially attributed to the couple’s need for continued income. But evidence

of destitution is non-existent; the couple owned properties which served as their homes when not

on tour and they lived comfortably in their retirement. Like most of the comedians cast in TWB

Corio continued to tour well after the age of retirement because she apparently loved performing

and she was determined to distinguish the burlesque industry of her early career from the erotic

dancing and pornography of the later twentieth century. “I think that I will defend burlesque

until the day I die,” Ann Corio wrote in a souvenir program for This Was Burlesque. Although she

retired from public performances in 1991, eight years before her death, she did indeed defend

her industry for most of her professional life. Her later career, which is the focus of this study, was

a sustained campaign to improve the cultural memory and reputation of burlesque.

It is worth noting that in the course of thorough investigation a researcher expects to

encounter testimonies which reveal a subject’s human frailties and moments of weakness. In the

case of Ann Corio, all witnesses consulted were eager to testify to the integrity of Corio’s

personal mettle and her ability to sustain loyal friendships despite extensive touring. She is

remembered fondly by friends, business associates and employees as generous, professional,

nurturing, tolerant and unfailingly kind. Although Corio and Iannucci were not always prompt

with their payroll, I never encountered an associate who cast aspersions on her personal or

professional choices.7 The consistency of character witnesses was surprising. Corio did encounter

7 It should be noted that Corio quarreled with Sherry Britton over similarities in their revival shows (which
will be addressed in chapter three); Britton passed away before this research into Corio’s career was
initiated, as was the case with other business rivals.
12

significant personal obstacles - poverty, harmful spouses, health concerns and libelous claims

about her profession - but these did not detract from the resolve she brought to her career. While

this study does not document Corio’s personal challenges or the strength of her character, she

was a women who succeeded through quiet integrity.

Histories and documentaries disproportionately favor creative agents with obstreperous

private lives; their intimate dramas become the informing sources for interpretation of creative

work. (This is particularly true for stripteasers; recent biographies of Lili St. Cyr and Gypsy Rose

Lee emphasize their personal lives and romantic affiliations rather than descriptions of their

performances).8 The preponderance of books which reveal the intimate details of a subject’s

personal life raise methodological questions about the ethics of human subjects research among

deceased persons; does the subject’s mortality absolve the researcher of obligations to protect that

individual’s privacy?

This study is modeled after the professional choices of its subject, a woman who did not

publicize her personal tribulations for gains in media exposure. This is not to suggest that Corio’s

moral and personal fortitude were unique in the burlesque industry, that she did not have

enemies, nor that she is an unparalleled figure of influence in burlesque performance. Corio is

one of many great female producers who are worthy of more extensive study and

documentation. Rose la Rose, Lillian Hunt, Jennie Lee and Dixie Evans had long burlesque

careers as creative entrepreneurs, mentors and advocates for unionization and historical

8 See Kelly DiNardo, Gilded Lili: Lili St. Cyr and the Striptease Mystique (New York: Back Stage Books, 2007);
Rachel Shteir, Gypsy: The Art of the Tease (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010). DiNardo’s
emphasis was possibly shaped by her sources; she located and interviewed former associates and relatives
of St. Cyr in her research. Shteir had access to Lee’s personal correspondence, which leads to a more
personal portrait than Stripping Gypsy by Noralee Frankel. Frankel does not ignore Lee’s dramatic personal
life (or fail to research discrepancies in Lee’s memoirs), but her exploration of Lee’s romantic melodramas
is subordinate to an examination of Lee’s advocacy for labor organizations and public confrontations with
the Hays Commission.
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preservation; these women represent the many horizons of future research into American

burlesque and the transformation of gender comportment in the twentieth century.

EROTIC

In this study, a broad spectrum of performances with sexual themes and visual elements

will be discussed. These performances are referred to as “erotic,” borrowing from the lesser use

defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, “of the nature of, or pertaining to, sexual love.” While

the OED gives priority to the meaning “pertaining to the passion of love,” “erotic” is used in this

study to address a range of performances and products with sexual content in a large

marketplace of sexual negotiations.9 The word was chosen with the goal of introducing different

theatrical products with a minimum of qualifying judgements about the nature of the commerce,

the aesthetics of production or the motivations of the audience. While it is not possible to entirely

detach one’s analysis from moral conditioning, the term was chosen with the aim of considering

“morally indifferent sex,” as defined by Richard Posner in his work Sex and Reason. Posner

introduces the concept in order to compare sex regulations in different countries, as a means of

attempting an “economic analysis of sexual regulation” and defining those acts “that harm other

persons without their explicit or implicit consent” which require “social intervention.” 10 Because

the legal definitions of pornography have been used to suppress educational materials and

dissenting opinions about sexual conduct (as will be discussed in chapter 5), the differentiation

between pornography and erotica is too unstable for use in a dissertation which must grapple

with the mercurial social nature of commercial products with sexual content. The morally-

9 "erotic, n.b" The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 11
July, 2010 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50077643>.
10 Richard Posner, Sex and Reason (Cambridge, MA Harvard University Press 1992), 204 and 182.
14

indifferent term “erotica” is intended to acknowledge the subjectivity of commercial exchanges

in which crimes against a person are not committed.

Literature Review

The entry on burlesque in the Cambridge Guide to Theatre summarizes the dominant

historiography of burlesque, in which two female performers are icons for two centuries of

burlesque performance. Article author Laurence Senelick names Lydia Thompson as the

inspiration for nineteenth-century burlesque and the “urbane” Gypsy Rose Lee as representative

of twentieth-century burlesque; these are the only female burlesque performers with separate

entries in the volume. Ann Corio appears in the article as a cipher, described as “indestructible.”

The adjective parallels the tone of the article which describes burlesque as “maculose

entertainment:” a cultural stain with a pernicious resistance to criticism.11

A handful of pictorial books are multi-century surveys of burlesque history. Ann Corio

expanded the roster of women credited with shaping the genre through her pictorial history, This

Was Burlesque (1968) which was published in conjunction with the touring show. Corio’s book, co-

authored with Joseph DiMona, amasses rare photos of burlesque performers and traces the

origins of the genre to Aristophanes and the comedia del arte tradition.12 The objective of the book

is to demonstrate that burlesque was a legitimate branch of entertainment (“it’s the lowest

branch, but that’s the limb nearest the people,” Corio explains).13 Corio and DiMona offer as

11 Martin Banham, ed. The Cambridge Guide to Theatre (New York: Cambridge University Press,1992), 134.
12 As with Corio’s collaborative relationship with her husband, Michael Iannucci, evidence of her
individual contributions to the book have not been discovered. Corio’s personal archive contained a book
proposal, without DiMona’s name, and source materials on burlesque history, but no working texts which
illuminate the collaborative process. Under current intellectual property laws, Corio and DiMona’s heirs
have shared ownership of the copyright. DiMona was a fiction novelist, author of documentaries, and co-
author of non-fiction including The Ends of Power (1978), with H. R. Haldeman.
13Ann Corio and Joseph DiMona, This Was Burlesque (New York: Grosset & Dunlap/Madison Square
Press, 1968), 9.
15

proof of burlesque’s cultural relevance a roster of comedians, playwrights and dancers - from

John Gay to Abbot and Costello - whose careers were incubated in the broad comic tradition.

Other than a chapter about Corio and her favorite anecdotes the book does not explore any

performer in depth. It offers a three-century overview that is amply illustrated and informed by

the historical resources available at the time of composition.

Jessica Glasscock’s pictorial survey Striptease (2003) references Corio and other biographies

in a volume rooted in costume research. The book is unique for the author’s private archive

photographs including photos of the late-Victorian tableaux vivants which featured women in

body-revealing knit suits and Glassock’s well-argued contention that early modern dancers such

as Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller and Ruth St. Dennis contributed to the aesthetic and popularity

of striptease as much as salacious vaudeville dancers and burlesque stars. Neither Glasscock’s or

Corio’s book is footnoted and all quotes appear without sources.

Late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century American burlesque is documented through

the casual pictorial histories of Bernard Sobel. The drama critic and theatre publicist penned

both Burlycue: An Underground History of Burlesque Days (1931) and A Pictorial History of Burlesque

(1956). Sobel’s books served as a source for many twentieth-century authors although the books

are un-referenced social gossip and chattering profiles of famous burlesque stars. Sobel’s works

are relevant to this study because he writes frankly about the class tensions and economic

negotiations between the classes which orbited the burlesque stage.

The lone, book-length fully annotated study of nineteenth-century burlesque is Robert

Allen’s Horrible Prettiness (1991), the foundational monograph of burlesque scholarship. Allen

provides a strong model for the analysis of burlesque because the study is centered around the

historical and theatrical context for a single troupe, Lydia Thompson’s British Blondes. Allen is
16

also has a clear analytic scope, he interrogates the “intelligibility of burlesque” within the

parameters of the British Blondes in America, or in his words, “what did burlesque mean and to

whom?” 14 While Allen acknowledges that the answers are “several, complex and only partially

discernible,” the study centers on a key quality, or problem: the monstrosity of burlesque to

audiences in the nineteenth century. Allen’s history is thorough within its scope and but he does

not seek to be comprehensive.

Allen found scant evidence for burlesque in the late-nineteenth century when burlesque

overlapped with minstrelsy. He relies on posters and films from the era and emphasizes the

influence of minstrelsy at a time when burlesque still encompassed satires of literary and

theatrical tragedies. Since the publication of Allen’s work, more data from this era has become

available through the digitization of archives and retroactive expansion of ProQuest digital

dissertations. The gaps in Allen’s late-nineteenth century research are supplemented by Patricia

Sandberg Conner’s 1979 dissertation Steve Mills and the Twentieth Century American Burlesque Show.

Conner, a dancer with the This Was Burlesque company, focused on the comic technique of one of

Corio’s favorite burlesque comedians. The introductory chapters provide a detailed account of

full-length literary parodies and variety show burlesques, an account informed by theatrical

newspapers and George Odell’s Annals of the New York Stage.

A recent publication which bridges the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is a

thoroughly-researched and annotated, episodic study of eroticized African-American bodies in

performance. While Jayna Brown’s Babylon Girls (2008) is not exclusively about burlesque, it does

include one chapter on black burlesque revues of the 1890s and a chapter dedicated to Ada

Overton Walker’s performances as Salome. Brown scrutinizes the relationship between African

Robert C. Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North
14

Carolina Press, 1991), 25.


17

American female choreography and legitimate white choreographers who took instruction from

black women, enriching the study of the lineage between between erotic dance and modern

dance pioneers. Brown’s engagement with dance theory and primitivist modernism are

particularly relevant to the legacy of minstrelsy in burlesque, discussed in chapter 3.

The social controversies sparked by successive generations of burlesque performers

attracted the attention of social workers and sociologists who approached the genre as a potential

civic problem. Sociologist David Dressler’s New York University dissertation “Burlesque as a

Cultural Phenomenon” (1937) was the first study of twentieth-century burlesque. Dressler’s

structured investigation is unique in the small cohort of burlesque studies. Like all scholars, he

was guided by popular paradigms in his field; the concepts of social hygiene and personal

disorganization as functional disorders which frame the study are no longer in vogue, but

Dressler’s commitment to gathering quantifiable data -- via maps, surveys and interviews -- make

his dissertation a valuable component of the burlesque archive and his eyewitness accounts are

reliably detailed. Dressler’s counterpoint as a witness to mid-century burlesque was Irving

Zeidman, an occasional social worker and practicing lawyer, who published The American Burlesque

Show (1967), a collection of thematic essays about the rise and demise of burlesque circuits -

networks of theatres organized to support touring shows. Zeidman is detailed in his descriptions

of theatres, and performers -- accounts informed by thirty five years of spectatorship -- but the

organization of the book is circuitous. His information about the burlesque circuits, utilized in

chapter 2 of this study, are valuable but the book is not a good introduction to burlesque because

Zeidman assumes that the reader is already familiar with the topic.

The first academic book published about twentieth-century burlesque is problematic. By

neglecting to distinguish between the business models that featured eroticized female bodies
18

Rachel Shteir’s Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show (2004) conflates a wide spectrum of

performance styles under the broad category of female public undressing. Shteir sought to write a

comprehensive account of striptease - any instance in which the female body was revealed in a

public forum in twentieth century America. Her research is admirably thorough, encompassing

twenty one archives and university libraries, including the Kinsey Institute - a unique repository

of American sexual history - and non-public sources such as the Sally Rand archive. This wide-

spectrum approach includes burlesque, but Shteir neglects to interrogate the material and

ontological qualities that delineated the sundry forms of retail female nudity. Shteir has too much

confidence in the veracity of the existing archive and, consequently, absorbs the patronizing

attitude of male critics of the form. When Shteir announces in her introduction that striptease is

“irrevocably sleazy,” she does so as a critique of third-wave feminist claims to empowerment.15

But she unknowingly echoes the moral and aesthetic pronouncements of many elite male critics

without interrogating the social and economic factors which shaped this assessment.

The scope of Shteir’s book precludes close examination of specific historical moments,

although her chapter about Gypsy Rose Lee and analysis of the interaction between burlesque

choreography and American popular music are the strongest elements of the study. The

panoramic scope of the book also generates issues in the research methodology. Shteir depends

on archival sources without interrogating the provenance of the data, a technique which leads to

errors in reporting. She repeats anecdotes from the National Police Gazette as facts without

acknowledging that the source was a tabloid with notoriously low standards for reportage. Shteir

makes un-sourced claims about Ann Corio and other dancers that are highly contested or lack

15 Rachel Shteir, Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004),
4.
19

corroborating evidence and sources.16 Industry veterans take issue with the inconsistencies and

errors in Shteir’s book, perhaps because Shetir did not include oral histories in her study. Striptease

is not included on the otherwise thorough reading list compiled by the Golden Days of Burlesque

Historical Society organizer Jane Briggman. Briggman’s recent compilation of dancer narratives,

Burlesque: A Living History (2009), serves as a rebuttal of the disparaging summation of dancer’s

private lives put forth in Striptease.

Briggman compiled accounts of long-term marriages, families and post-striptease

professional careers, all nurtured through burlesque work, as a retort to Shteir’s portrait of

striptease as a profession which necessarily and permanently damaged the striptease dancer’s

intimate life. Shteir surmises that striptease was tied to failed personal relationships, providing as

evidence accounts of failed marriages, drug dependency and suicide from tabloid newspapers.

(The ubiquity of the fallen-woman narrative will be addressed in chapter 5). In doing so Shteir

asserts a paradigm of domestic harmony and heterosexual social success that she later critiques in

contemporary neo-burlesque performers, who she faults for clinging to stable gender roles. It is

my intention that this study will supplement Shteir’s ambitious archival digest and offer a

different analytic perspective by restricting the parameters of the study to theatrical burlesque

and by interrogating the value judgements leveled against the genre.

16The LP How to Strip for your Husband was never based on a sketch from the show, as Shteir claims.
Another questionable Corio anecdote cannot be fact-checked because the footnote is missing from the
paragraph, which is truncated by a typographical error. Shteir makes the un-sourced claim that Rose la
Rose became a pornographer. (In her later years, Rose operated a theatre in Cleveland and mentored
burlesque dancers as a means of supporting her aging mother.) These small but persistent errors have
generated sharp critiques from veteran dancers, both at reunion-conventions and online sites such as
amazon.com, where readers can input their critiques without editorial review. These forums do not give
Shteir the opportunity to respond to criticisms or source her claims; sadly, the fractures in facticity are
closed to resolution.
20

The merits of a more narrow scope of study are evident in Becki L. Ross’s Burlesque West:

Showgirls, Sex and Sin in Postwar Vancouver (2009). Ross built her study upon paper records, personal

ephemera (such as scrapbooks) and copious oral histories. Ross acknowledges the influences of

her own identity locations within the study and the ethical negotiations inherent in conducting

oral histories. Her purpose is not a definitive survey (à la Shteir) but a compilation of often

competing perspectives. A complex portrait of Vancouver burlesque performance emerges from

Ross’s ability to navigate both contradictory and complimentary testimonies, using performance

and gender theory as a compass through contested historical terrain. By focusing on the clubs,

managers, agents, performers and working conditions of nightclubs in Vancouver after the

Second World War, Ross creates a descriptive microcosm which identifies the male agents who

were the controlling financial partners and creative collaborators to striptease dancers; profiles

the racial divisions manifest in Vancouver clubs; investigates the hazardous working conditions of

striptease; and documents the creative innovations of Vancouver dancers. These features are

uniquely specific to Vancouver and provide a striking contrast to both the aesthetic promoted by

Ann Corio and the my own periodization of American burlesque. While Corio endorsed a

highly-accessorized, parade-and-pose style of striptease, Ross documented a more athletic, yoga-

and-jazz-influenced choreography among Vancouver dancers, many of whom identified with an

unembellished “hippie” feminine style (rejecting heels in favor of barefoot dance). Ross’s account

also locates the shift from theatrical burlesque to solo, nude dancing in the 1970s, twenty years

after the costumes, choreography and live music began to evaporate from burlesque clubs in the

United States. Both Ralph Allen’s and Becki Ross’s monographs demonstrate the usefulness and

specificity of burlesque histories which are delineated by a focus on individual companies and

theatres, geographic zones and delineated epochs.


21

Structure of the Study, Methodology and Theoretical Model

This study was designed to test the veracity of Corio’s claims to reproduce “authentic”

burlesque as it was practiced in the United States before the end of the Second World War. The

investigation was driven by the comparison of Corio’s brand materials to eyewitness accounts of

burlesque before 1946. The ruptures between Corio’s brand and the epoch she was nostalgically

recreating form the portals for analysis. The disjunctures between the Corio brand, the pre-war

burlesque archive, and her contemporary competition reveal that Corio was re-creating the

formula for “stock” burlesque and simultaneously adapting that template to appeal to a new

audience base - women.

The basic methodology for completing the study model was to document the burlesque

aesthetic put forth in Ann Corio’s brand by assembling brand products (including her book,

videos and sound recordings of This Was Burlesque), artifacts of the tour (sixty-five programs,

reviews of TWB, news about TWB in trade papers, product advertising and interviews with

Corio conducted in newspapers and other media). This data was sorted chronologically and

compared with non-Corio sources about burlesque from 1920-1946; these sources included print

histories, oral histories, archival programs, performer images, and dissertations and theses.

A hierarchy of data stability emerged through print and human sources. Newspaper

publication dates and locations (cities and street addresses) were the most reliable evidence

because the materiality of print forms, geographic locations and legal records is difficult to

corrupt. Video evidence was comparably reliable because the pre-digital sources bore little

indication of manipulation or tampering beyond editing for broadcast. Performer identities (in

the form of stage and given names and birth dates) were useful for organizing other information,

but it was unusual to locate a living person to verify what was printed about a deceased
22

individual. Similarly, dancer biographies were a useful source of testimony, but these were

regarded as potentially corrupted sources, influenced by editorial preferences and the author’s

own investment in their public persona.

Fig. 3 Corio illustration possibly by Alberto Vargas (see note 17).


TWB souvenir program, collection of the author. 17

Artifacts about the Corio brand were initially acquired through purchases on internet

auction sites (primarily ebay). Internet purchases were prioritized based on price and the data

contained in the object; TWB programs and magazine articles which featured Corio took priority

over publicity images (which were frequently duplicates) and autographs, which are more costly

and generated no new data. Relics from Corio’s movie career were not collected because of the

exorbitant cost. (Fortunately, a comprehensive collection of Corio’s film memorabilia was present

in her archive). Concurrent to the creation of my own Corio collection, research was conducted

17 The illustration has not been verified or discredited as a work by Alberto Vargas. When contacted by
Carole Nelson, the Vargas estate reported no record of a Corio sketch under their purview. The
illustration may have been a work for hire for advertising purposes.
23

at the New York Public Library and in Corio’s private collection of ephemera, access to which

was granted by Corio’s niece (and executor of her intellectual property), Carole Nelson.

Public lectures and oral histories were another significant source for this study. Oral

histories were collected, following application to the UW-Madison Institutional Review Board,

among Corio’s friends, surviving family members and past employees. These accounts were

utilized less than the oral histories recorded at the annual Burlesque Hall of Fame Convention by

Lynn Sally (a performance studies scholar and burlesque performer) and public lectures at

burlesque conventions.18 Sources from the neo-burlesque movement also informed this study. The

public testimonies of industry veterans were more useful because Corio’s close friends relayed

information about the private person, not the burlesque industry or Corio’s creative choices.

The qualitative differences in the data generated by interview subjects highlights the

challenges of relying upon oral histories as evidence. Personal testimonies are inherently fallible;

quotes are not facts. Oral histories are as accurate or as faulty as the individual’s memory.

Additionally, oral histories are confined to those subjects who self-select to be identified. Subjects

who are deceased or who have no interest in contributing to the historic record are excluded. In

recognition of these limitations, few dancers are quoted directly. Instead, oral histories confirmed

or contested nascent hypotheses and contributed to an aggregate of impressions. The repetition

of certain themes in oral testimonies (relating to styles of management, audience reception,

dance and comic technique, venue atmosphere and performer satisfaction with the industry)

generated patterns and confirmed trends in the industry. This type of information processing

isn’t recognized by current IRB standards, in which data is attached to an individual subject and

18The BHOF oral history project is ongoing. Interviews are transcribed and given to the participant for
spell checking, but these transcripts are not yet publicly available. I was given access to these by Lynn Sally
and served as a technical assistant to the oral history project in 2008 and 2009.
24

the subject can withdraw from the study and have their personal data removed from

consideration. The incompatibility of the medical and social-sciences model for human subjects

research with oral history gathering was most apparent when highly personal information about

Corio was disclosed to me by her close friends. The informant may withdraw from the study, but

the mind can not deliberately subtract what is known. Even when interviews were not transcribed

or quoted, anecdotal data still has the potential to shape the research.

Embodied learning was a small, but informative avenue of research. As Bruce

McConachie notes, the subjectivity of historical interpretation is compounded by the

presuppositions of the researcher - the “values” which guide “the framing of questions.”19

Thomas Postlewait concurs that the historian should be self-aware of one’s theoretical framework

in all stages of research: investigation, analysis and reporting. In my case I was involved with the

neo-burlesque movement as a performer before initiating an investigation of burlesque history. I

began performing with the Burlesque as It Was troupe in Denver, CO in 2000 and continued

avocational performance through 2005. My initial exposure to burlesque was overwhelmingly

positive. I encountered a community of creative, self-directed women and I never felt coerced to

engage in stripteases beyond my modest comfort level. Through performance I was exposed to an

aspect of burlesque dance that is rarely put into print by censorious critics and observers - it can

be pleasurable and mentally engaging to perform for an audience. Only through school-directed

research did I encounter the longer history of the genre and come to the realization that the

contemporary revival movement was creating a new iteration of burlesque, not exacting

recreations of early-twentieth-century burlesque. The disparity between contemporary neo-

burlesque and the economic and creative templates for historic performance inspired the study of

19 Bruce A. McConachie, "Towards a Postpositivist Theatre History," Theatre Journal 37, no. 4 (1985): 468.
25

Corio, who was an oft-cited source in the contemporary revival. It is also important to note that

although I participated in burlesque performance, I was never a professional entertainer. I am a

professional educator who dabbles in burlesque shows; I am indebted to professional dancers,

particularly Jo Weldon and Michelle Baldwin, for illuminating the differences between

recreational and income-generating dance. These differences, and the role of the hobbyist will be

examined in chapter 5 and the conclusion.

The model for this study was constrained by the instability of historical data and weak

facticity of burlesque reporting. “Historians never get the data ‘raw,’” wrote Bruce McConachie,

referring to the lack of objectivity in historical documents, which are mediated by the prejudices

and preferences of witnesses to an event.20 Thomas Postlewait states in Historiography and the

Theatrical Event, a Primer with Twelve Cruxes that a theatre historian needs to be cognizant that “all

traces of the past are circumstantial” and veracity of evidence is mitigated by factors such as the

“partial documentation” of an event by biased participants and witnesses (crux four); factors

which “modify, limit, or distort a document’s reliability” (crux five); and the conditions which

affect “the preservation and subsequent survival” of evidential documents (crux six).21 The

burlesque archive is a swamp of distorting factors which muddy the portrait of a theatrical

moment.

Facts - discrete items of information confirmed through multiple, independent sources -

were few. Stories about burlesque dancers and the industry which appeared in legitimate print

media were limited to novelty items (generally in the entertainment section of the newspaper).

These items often derived from publicity releases generated by publicists and were published

20 Ibid.
21Thomas Postlewait, "Historiography and the Theatrical Event: A Primer with Twelve Cruxes," Theatre
Journal 43, no. 2 (1991): 160-70.
26

without fact-checking research; consequently burlesque news items are littered with promotional

stories that cannot be verified through independent, secondary sources. Additionally, newspaper

and magazine reporting on burlesque performers and houses was tainted with substantial class

prejudice and gender bias. The male reporters for the most readily available newspaper archives

(such as the New York Times and Chicago Tribune) adopted a patronizing tone when covering

news from the burlesque circuits.

As a culturally de-valued genre of performance, the ephemera from burlesque shows was

not systematically collected or preserved. Persistently denigrated for their choice of profession,

few dancers and producers believed their personal collections would be welcomed into reputable

archives. A movement by the Burlesque Hall of Fame organization to establish a permanent

museum was stymied for years by real estate values and operating costs in Las Vegas; a storefront

museum opened this summer, but much of the copious collection remains in storage. Recent

acquisitions have expanded the burlesque holdings at university libraries, including a collection at

Ohio State University and the pending donation of Ann Corio’s items to the Harvard Theatre

Collection. The bulk of burlesque documents are held by private collectors, who are former

performers or burlesque enthusiasts. As a consequence, burlesque ephemera circulates as

commodities in a collector’s marketplace (enabled by online auction sites); only a small portion of

the burlesque repertoire is preserved in archives available for re-investigation by other

researchers.

The low quality of burlesque facts was confronted through the theoretical frame

developed for this study. Burlesque history was approached as a multiverse - temporal moments

which lack coherent order, yet contain a plurality of realities, lived experiences, and individuated
27

perceptions.22 For this study, the multiverse was used to conceptualize performative, past

moments which contained the pluralistic perspectives of both the performers and audience. The

qualitative interpretations of burlesque history and intelligibility presented in this study were

generated by prioritizing the evidence which was most reliable and by artificially stabilizing three

elements of a theatrical event: one performance of an act within This Was Burlesque, an isolated

demographic audience for that event, and the concurrent social factors which contributed to the

relevance of the performance.

The unstable data stream of burlesque can not yield summarizing statements true for all

historical epochs, performers and audiences. The Ann Corio brand is the atomic unit - a

physically observable vector through the many probabilities of burlesque history - but not a

unifying theory of erotic dance. The rapidly mutating business models of burlesque in the last

one hundred and fifty years depose any systemic claims about performances which involve live,

female bodies and broad humor. Images, programs, reviews and eye witness accounts provide

glimpses of specific moments, but the term burlesque and the appearance of a semi-nude woman

are not Occam’s razors for efficiently organizing and interpreting such performances. In a

historic multiverse it is possible that semi-nude displays coupled with humorous sketches have

little in common except for a shifting genre designation and persistently pejorative categorization

of woman engaging in actions that run contrary to normative comportment. The

aforementioned monographs by Becki Ross and Robert Allen illustrate that meticulous burlesque

histories are more divergent than complementary.

22 The term was originated by philosopher William James and is a functional concept in both postmodern
literature and quantum mechanics. In this study, I use the concept to embrace the pluralities of history; it
is not intended to invoke the non-linearity of time or parallel realities sparked by splintering probabilities
and subatomic matter fluttering in and out of observability.
28

Burlesque performance must be interpreted with as much specificity about the performer,

audience, theatre, management and financial structures as can be generated, even though these

sources have unique fallibilities. The portrait of individual performances is necessarily

incomplete, but that does not absolve the researcher of the obligation to mine every potential

source for both reliable data and discontiguous testimonies. Although I do not assert an objective,

deterministic account of burlesque in twentieth-century America, it is important to report the

assembled data because of the dearth of fully-cited burlesque histories. At the risk of making a

“sexy” topic interminably dull, I have chosen to include detailed descriptions over terse

summaries of live performances and social trends. New interpretive theories will emerge and

become dominant, but as humor scientist Robert Provine notes, “systematic descriptions can

serve as building blocks in many different theoretical systems, including those not yet devised.

Good descriptions have a long shelf life.” 23

In this study, the multiverse theoretical frame is an attempt to temporarily reconcile the

competing impulses in historical research: to gather quantifiable data and report findings, while

simultaneously recognizing the limits and inadequacies of the very information invoked as

evidence of a thesis. The conceptual model for the multiverse is a möbius strip - one side of the

ribbon is a post-positivist theoretical frame; the reverse side of the ribbon is research conducted

with a positivist admiration for analysis derived from aggregates of evidence. The möbius strip

model embraces the interdependence of these approaches, since the sides of the möbius strip

only appear to be opposing; the ribbon of the strip is one continuous plane. The theoretical

assumptions of the multiverse möbius draw upon the models proposed by the aforementioned

theatre historian, Bruce McConaghie, and the sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu.

23 Robert R. Provine, Laughter, a Scientific Investigation (New York: Penguin, 2000), 8.


29

This study takes cues from two different analytic models proposed by McConaghie. In

1985, McConaghie presented a challenge to positivist methodologies which lacked “the

advantage of rhetorical insight which relates subjective intentions and meanings to the structures

of social relations.”24 This study imitates in McConaghie’s early work the importance of

recognizing performer and audience subjectivities in relation to social structures (in this study, the

relevant legal themes are intellectual property, obscenity, sexuality and marriage).

In chapter 4, I take a cue from a more recent publication by McConaghie and invoke

scientific studies of laughter in the analysis of burlesque humor.25 McConaghie’s “Falsifiable

Theories for Theatre and Performance Studies” urges fellow scholars to include scientific

publications in their research parameters because emergent scientific investigations have

produced results which directly contest popular theories in performance studies. This tactic is

useful for burlesque studies because the humor that was integral to Ann Corio’s brand

contributes to a cognitive plasticity. It is not possible to isolate a singular (or “best”) interpretation

from performance texts which were constantly-adapted parodies and it is not (yet) possible for

theatre historians to stabilize audience reception and identify all permutations of perception.

McConaghie’s manifesto is a strong provocation for theatre and performance scholars to consider

absorbing the methodologies of scientific research.

However, a close examination of falsifiable studies highlights the fluidity and subjectivity

of knowledge; contemporary humanities research mimics the better-funded academic brethren in

the sciences, but the post-modern paradigms of the humanities can also inform and critique the

scientific method. Robert Provine, the author of Laughter, a Scientific Investigation writes from a

24 McConachie, "Towards a Postpositivist Theatre History," 474.


25Bruce A. McConachie, "Falsifiable Theories for Theatre and Performance Studies," Theatre Journal 59
(2007).
30

determinedly scientific perspective, yet he never concedes that his falsifiable theories and scientific

studies are based on small cohorts and the study designs generate variables that he doesn’t always

interrogate before implementation (such as using acting classes as laboratories and actors as

provocateurs). Provine also doesn’t address the fact that his research frequently confirms the

philosophers he summarily dismisses for inducing their theories from personal observation.26

The other inspiration for a multivalent model, which deploys a polysemic interpretation

of aggregate data is Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Bourdieu

conducted surveys which measured cultural preferences and self-identifications with terms

relating to class status. The data were used to generate a theory about the relativity of cultural

taste. For Bourdieu, aesthetic assessments are not objective: “What is at stake in aesthetic

discourse... is nothing less than the monopoly of humanity.”27 Bourdieu contends that value

judgements were shaped by a subject’s habitus - a combination of personal dispositions and

classification systems which conformed to standards within class-delineated subsets in the field of

cultural production. The boundaries of habitus were defined by taste - “the capacity to

differentiate and appreciate these these practices and products. 28 The economic realities which

differentiated social classes were enforced in the fields of cultural production by the policing of

consumption, comportment and conformity. “Thus, nothing more rigorously distinguishes the

different classes than the disposition objectively demanded by the legitimate consumption of

legitimate works.” 29 Bourdieu’s work is particularly relevant to this study because Ann Corio’s

Perhaps what McCongaghie insinuates by his use of the term “good science” in “Falsifiable
26

Theories” is that the term implies an opposite - weakly constructed scientific studies.
27Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press 1984), 491. Italics in the original.
28 Ibid., 169-70.
29 Ibid., 40.
31

brand products contained critiques of socio-economic class designations and aesthetic elitism; she

challenged the assumptions that rendered her entertainment genre the disparaged “other” to

legitimate theatre. Corio’s critique of class antagonisms is supported by Bourdieu, who asserts,

“The negation of enjoyment -- inferior, coarse, vulgar, mercenary, venal servile, in a word -

natural - implies affirmation of the sublimity of those who can be satisfied with sublimated,

refined, distinguished, disinterested, gratuitous, free pleasures.” 30

If taste is relative and legitimacy is a classist construct devoid of the merits claimed by

the term, then scholars should regard popular cultural products as equally relevant as “high” art.

Postlewait’s third crux has a similar directive, reminding historians that events have “signifying

codes, values and systems that constituted the event as a comprehensible occurrence in its own

time.” 31 Most modern audiences wouldn’t laugh at Ann Corio’s This Was Burlesque. The scenarios

and stripteases have become common currency in sitcoms and advertising, so the jokes appear

tired and trite. In my own experience, TWB made me cringe at the antiquated caricatures of

gender and race as often as it made me laugh. My response does not negate the popularity of

these representations and it is necessary to tear away the valences of taste and consider what

made the Corio brand so appealing that it toured for nearly thirty years.

Research that is restricted to fields of cultural production that one finds congruous with

their own habitus runs the risk of overemphasizing causality and influence. Bourdieu’s writings

advise the reader that one person’s humor is another’s cultural dross. The relativity of taste

makes claims of fame and influence impossible to quantify -- an individual was famous to whom,

and for how long? Do creative styles and product templates need to be assimilated consciously

30 Ibid., 470.
31 Postlewait, "Historiography and the Theatrical Event: A Primer with Twelve Cruxes," 166.
32

and as whole products in order to impact future generations of artists? The persistence of

burlesque ephemera, saved and circulated in defiance of the devaluation of erotic dancers, serves

as a reminder that fame and influence cannot be quantified. Even the records of shows

performed, and tickets, books and albums sold do not account for how these cultural products

were valued by the consumers (who either saved or discarded them) and how many hands and

minds the ephemera have circulated through. In the burlesque multiverse, Corio is not presented

as the best burlesque artist or a singular lynchpin of the twentieth century. She is one long-

enduring performer, an artist with a stable aesthetic orbit who was successful with particular

audiences and who generated a formula for burlesque that can be witnessed in contemporary

iterations of the genre.

In keeping with the descriptive agenda of this study, each chapter opens with an animated

introduction, a present-tense description of one act in This Was Burlesque as seen through the eyes

of a hypothetical audience member. The performances described were recreated through

multiple forms of evidence including: video records, photographic images, audio recordings,

scripts, written descriptions of the routines, reviews and news items. The chapters are organized

both chronologically and thematically. The development of the Corio brand is documented in

chronological order with a focus on specific themes in each chapter. The study departs from the

chronological arrangement when making comparisons to the era Corio claimed to authentically

reproduce. Although the study focuses on theatrical burlesque from the 1960s to the 1980s (the

time span of This Was Burlesque) information about burlesque before 1960 is introduced when it is

relevant to the brand claims and narratives.

Chapter 2, Long Live the Queen: Ann Corio’s Early Burlesque Career, is a portrait of
33

Ann Corio’s work as a feature dancer on burlesque stages from 1924-1946. Corio’s popularity on

early twentieth-century burlesque circuits was the basis for her brand persona and the source of

her claim to be a qualified arbiter of authentic burlesque. This chapter will serve as introduction

to burlesque in the United States by profiling the mechanics of the burlesque circuits and

examining the controversies that fueled censorship of burlesque in the late 1930s. Chapter 3, Me

Tondalayo: Conscripted Bodies on the Burlesque Stage, introduces the basic formula of This Was Burlesque

and examines two ways in which twentieth-century burlesque artists embodied conscription, the

extraction of labor. In the public sphere, burlesque performers were conscripted creative artists

because they could not claim legal ownership of their intellectual work. On stage, in the fictional

world of burlesque sketches, artists portrayed male and female bodies conscripted by global war

efforts. As a form of working-class comedy, burlesque artists offered audiences identification with

bodies that are drafted, unwillingly, into devalued physical labor.

Chapter 4, Burlesque for the Ladies of East Cupcake, OH, addresses Corio’s recruitment of

women into burlesque audiences, the most historically significant aspect of This Was Burlesque.

Corio’s strategies and the implications of re-gendering the burlesque theatre are considered as

part of an examination into Corio’s brand campaign to legitimate stripteasers by distancing

erotic performers from prostitution. Through her show, Corio asserted burlesque as a realm

where women could demonstrate their sexual identity and their capacity for sexual pleasure.

Chapter 5, Merrier Marriages: Striptease and Sex Education examines the rehabilitation of the

stripteaser within the Corio brand, a transformation that was enabled by changes to sex and

marriage laws. In This Was Burlesque, Corio invited women to imitate stripteasers as a form of sex

education, a pedagogy that affirmed women’s desires for erotic pleasure and suggested a path to

companionate marriage through sexual satisfaction. In the conclusion, I address the persistent
34

allegations of exploitation that haunt erotic dance. The empowerment/exploitation paradigm

and the limitations of this discourse are confronted and alternate metrics for measuring the value

of equity are considered.

Limitations of the Study

Corio enjoyed a fruitful early career before her 1960s revival. Other than a general

portrait of her signature performance and the context of pre-1960 burlesque in chapter 2, a

detailed profile of Corio’s career from 1924-1962 is not included in this study. There are no West

Coast sources for this project although Corio was a resident of California during her interregnum

from burlesque.

The scope of this project centers on burlesque performance for ostensibly heterosexual

audiences despite the fact that twentieth-century American burlesque engaged with a broad

spectrum of sexual identities. This study does not include explorations of queer characters and

content in burlesque sketches (including the nance or “fairy” archetype), the homoerotic

potentialities of male and female erotic dance, the queer sexual orientation of many burlesque

performers, the presence of an openly transgendered stripteaser in This Was Burlesque, or

performances by transgendered dancers in the larger industry. Just as TWB mirrored themes of

the sexual revolution in the recruitment of female audiences, the gay liberation movement also

infused Corio’s brand products. A book-length version of this study would include the data

gathered about non-heterosexual identities in the Corio brand.

The continuum between the Ann Corio brand and the current burlesque revival

(frequently termed neo-burlesque) is not charted in this project although the inclusion of neo-

burlesque is the end objective of an expanded study. The performance standards and audience

composition of neo-burlesque more closely resemble Corio’s brand formula than the business
35

models of her competitors. Corio’s coupling of nostalgia and contemporaneous social changes

reverberates through the modern revival which continues to flourish in the form of burlesque

schools, festivals, competitions and websites. Although not included in this study, except for a

synopsis in the conclusion, the neo-burlesque revival resonates through this project because the

past is accessed through the present - through temporal, embodied experiences and interviews

with the people who represent and recall the lived past. The investigation of Corio’s career would

be incomplete without the exposure to legends of the burlesque industry that I encountered

through the contemporary revival.

Significance

This dissertation examines how one genre of entertainment was “rehabilitated” -

removed from its original context of a narrow demographic audience and topical references, and

then “cured” of those elements which were no longer appealing to audiences. I query if it is

possible for iconography and archetypal characters to be freed of former constraints. Stereotypes

delineate identities, enforce hierarchies and abridge personhood. Can narrative patterns be

repurposed into positive models which encourage personal growth and the expansion of social

and economic opportunities?

This study also seeks to reconsider the principal tools used to evaluate burlesque

performance. In the writing about the genre (in newspapers, academic studies and biographies),

considerations of class, race and gender dominate the analysis. These are critical vectors, based

in material conditions, but these two lines of interrogation cannot comprehensively evaluate the

enduring relevance of burlesque performance. In this study theatrical elements, humor and legal

parameters are equally important tools for analysis. Theatrical embellishments and humor do not

align perfectly with the analytic categories of class and race. Mediocre performances may be
36

bedezined with accoutrements of class; not all affordable entertainments were bereft of artistic

sets and considerable talent. Federal and state laws were the often-invisible outlines which defined

burlesque as an entertainment industry. Ann Corio always followed the law, but from within this

compliance she nurtured seeds of dissent about the regulation of marriage, sexuality and cultural

production. This study cannot comprehensively document the spectacular varieties of erotic

performance or all perceptive possibilities in a multiverse; it does offer however a quantum of

Ann Corio.
37

Chapter 2

Long Live the Queen: Ann Corio’s Early Burlesque Career

December 20, 1940, Howard Athenaeum Theatre, Boston MA.

In the last week of the semester, students from Harvard University take a break from their

final exams to engage in a social ritual – attending the Friday midnight show at the Old Howard

theatre in Scollay Square. For forty years, the Old Howard has offered burlesque entertainment

in central Boston. The students enter under arching gothic windows and make their way up a

flight of stairs in the entry way. Ann Corio is one of the stars of the Mutual burlesque circuit, to

which the Howard belongs, and a favorite of Harvard students who will interview her backstage

for The Crimson and on campus in the final student radio broadcast of the year. The show, “The

Girls in Blue Burlesquers” marks the second time Corio has headlined a revue at the Old

Howard that semester. Corio will later report that the students had a saying, “You can’t graduate

from Harvard until you’ve seen Ann Corio.”1 Indeed, she was a consistent Old Howard star and

mentions of the dancer appeared sporadically in The Crimson for the next decade. Sometimes

profiled with giddy admiration, Corio was equally described with gently derisive class-inflected

jabs at her blue-collar Connecticut accent or louche profession.

It is well after one a.m. and the students are packed six and seven deep in the shallow,

shell-shaped boxes that hang over the thrust portion of the stage. 2 Under them, in the seats

behind the orchestra pit, more mature gentlemen fill rows of pricier seats. Called the “bald head”

section by dancers and comedians, the front section at the Old Howard could have contained:

Jim Curley, former Mayor of Boston (and then state Governor), and his wife and staff; Joe

1Corio and DiMona, This Was Burlesque, 154.


2David Kruh, Always Something Doing: Boston's Infamous Scollay Square, revised ed. (Boston, MA: Northeasern
University Press, 1999), 70.
38

Timulty, the police commissioner of Boston; court justices; and Harvard professors such as

George Lyman Kittredge and E. K. Howard. After a program that includes an all-cast opening

number, two romantic “ballets” by the chorus, six comic sketches, a juvenile singer, a male-female

dance pair, a celebrity impersonator and a lesser-known solo dancer, Ann Corio - the self-

proclaimed queen of burlesque - finally takes the stage to thunderous applause. 3

Corio parades slowly back and forth across the stage, she smiles and makes eye contact

with the audience members visible under the stage lights. Wearing a scoop-necked, ruffled pink

dress, large-brimmed pink hat, long pink gloves and carrying a pink parasol, she waltzes lightly to

the music, “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.” She removes her wide-brimmed hat with a delicate

gesture, handing it to a costume catcher off stage, and winks at a student leaning over the

balcony. During her back-and-forth parade she continues to slowly remove the gloves, the skirt

and the ruffled top. She guards her torso, which is well-covered in a union suit covered with

strategically placed sequins, with the spinning parasol. As she nears the end of her tease, the

students applaud noisily and demand to see more.

With a gesture to a stagehand, the spotlight on Corio is thrown onto one of the boxes; the

Harvard students are highlighted, flush with fulsome lust. Their classmates and professors laugh

at the spectacle: the animalistic urges of America’s future scholars, politicians and captains of

industry are publicly revealed. In the moment, the 1360 men in the audience - which includes

Harvard alumni, sailors on shore leave from the Boston naval yard, war veterans and city

laborers -- bond over the thrilling frisson of a nearly-nude woman appearing on a Boston stage.

Although burlesque targeted working-class audiences across the Midwest and eastern seaboard,

American burlesque’s first historian Bernard Sobel noted in 1931, “the classes” patronized

3Program from “Girls in Blue Burlesquers” at the Howard Athenaeum, Billy Rose Theatre Collection,
New York Public Library, Clippings - Corio, Ann 1940-45.
39

burlesque while “slumming, a form of social diversion very popular.” 4 Sobel was referring to New

Yorkers going uptown to Harlem nightclubs and speakeasies, but the concept of tourism to an

economically disadvantaged habitus was not isolated to New York. The Friday midnight spectacle

at the Old Howard included the Harvard boys, strip teasers, prop-gag erections and the

juxtaposition of high and low social classes in close social quarters.5 The light on the boxes falls

on a student attempting to take a photo with a Baby Brownie camera; the Old Howard manager

sends an usher to the box to confiscate the film and eject the student. No photos are allowed in

burlesque theatres; the industry eschews images of live performance. Photographs might become

evidence for a vice squad, or be used to identify the influential patrons. 6

The boys hoot for Corio to “take it all off.” She drops the parasol and just as quickly

grabs a sheer cape hanging behind her back, throwing it over her body. “I can’t take that off,” she

coos in a girlish voice with feigned innocence, “I’ll catch a cold!”7 Irving Zeidman, who attended

burlesque shows for over thirty years wrote of Corio, “No other stripper could show so little, and

do so little, and even survive.” 8

**************

Ann Corio was a credible figurehead for the burlesque products she introduced in the

1960s because of her fame in the burlesque circuits of the early-twentieth century. An

4Bernard Sobel, Burleycue: An Underground History of Burlesque Days (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc,
1931), 256.
5The vintage Old Howard programs reprinted in This Was Burlesque include a listing for a 1902 burletta
entitled Slumming: A satire on the latest N.Y. craze. Corio and DiMona, This Was Burlesque, 188.
6Examples of hidden camera photography can be seen in H. M. Alexander, Strip Tease: The Vanished Art of
Burlesque (New York: Knight Publishers, 1938).
7The description of Corio’s routine is a composite from: Angie Brown, "It's Burlesque!," (USA: A&E,
2001); Marty Callner, "Here It Is, Burlesque," (USA: Vestron Video, 1982).
8 Irving Zeidman, The American Burlesque Show (New York: Hawthorne Books, 1967), 149.
40

examination of her brand would be incomplete without a portrait of the burlesque industry and

historical era she claimed to reproduce. Her performances at the Old Howard in 1940 are iconic

of this phase of her career, a time when she had mastered her distinct persona as a stripteaser

and aligned herself with the more conservative strains of burlesque performance. For the rest of

her career, Corio tied her persona and brand narratives to the Old Howard theatre. But as this

historical overview of burlesque will illustrate, her stage persona and the environment of the Old

Howard were not representative of the entire industry. This is not to suggest that Corio’s

products were founded on falsehoods. Corio’s burlesque products limited the definition of the

term and her version of burlesque history excluded elements that did not align with her taste

preferences.

A brief history of burlesque follows in order to orient the reader to the emergence of the

genre in America and to identify the elements that have persisted in burlesque. The chapter

section, Literary Burlesques and Ballerinas, expands upon the definition of burlesque provided in

chapter 1 and provides a brief history of the genre in America. Burlesque Grotesques examines the

cultural imperialism that defined early iterations of erotic dance in America. The business models

that Corio worked under in her early career are described in the chapter section, The Leg Business,

and the stylistic differences between strains of the genre are addressed in Class and Scratch

Burlesque. The historical synopsis of burlesque that follows may seem like a diversion from the

life’s work of Ann Corio, but it is necessary context for her brand products because Corio was

particularly sensitive to the historiography of burlesque. In her show, interviews and pictorial

history book, she sought to rectify what she perceived as class-influenced prejudices in the way

the form was represented and reviewed. Corio refashioned images and comic themes from

burlesque history in the creation of her brand.


41

Literary Burlesques and Ballerinas

In 1845, when the Old Howard was built, the term burlesque implied a humorous play or

poem. The term was used as a noun for grotesque parodies of poetry, opera or literary drama

through common language, gestures and props. As a verb, burlesque was a rhetorical strategy--

an attack on the credibility of authority figures (religious, civic or cultural) through an appeal to

the logic and emotions of working-class audiences via laughter. Popular burlesques before the

Civil War included parodies of Shakespeare and comedies by John Brougham. Brougham’s Po-ca-

hon-tas (1855) is a comic distortion of Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha and other

nineteenth century poetic fantasies about Native American maidens.

The word burlesque wasn’t intrinsically associated with eroticized female bodies. It was

romantic spectacle shows that offered a glimpse of women’s legs, clad in knitted tights or exotic

costumes. Laura Keene was an acclaimed actress in literary dramas who became a producer of

extravaganzas - visually rich hodgepodges of topical references, popular music and spectacular

sets. Her first blockbuster success was The Seven Sisters (1860), described by the playbill as “a grand

operatic, spectacular, diabolical, musical, terpsichorean, farcical burletta, in three acts.”9 The

show contained a romantic ballet and a drill by a female corps of zouaves - French infantry

divisions serving in North Africa (the routine was a parody of American zouave regiments, which

formed rapidly in the first months of the Civil War). The long run of the show prompted a New

York Times critic to lament that Keene had left the “legitimate business [in which ] she is probably

without a superior” because of her “genius for spectacle. ...In a word, she possesses taste.”

Keene possessed taste and legitimacy in the minds of New York’s audiences and critics - a

cultural capital which insulated her from controversies that were sparked by the next apparitions

9 "Amusements," New York Times, November 27, 1860.


42

of female legs. Adah Issac Menken’s form-revealing horseback ride in Mazeppa (1861) scandalized

New York City. Five years later, a legs-in-tights baring troupe of ballerinas was inserted into the

musical The Black Crook which opened at Niblo’s Garden in 1866. (By some accounts the troupe

was a late addition, booked after the theatre they were contracted to burned down). The Black

Crook was a prototype for musical theater, it contained a book (the plot was a pastoral fantasy

involving nobility, black magic and fairy queens), adapted popular songs and some original

compositions. The Black Crook toured for a decade and spawned several imitators.

Burlesque became synonymous with female performers after 1868, the year Lydia

Thompson and her British Blondes performed in America. Thompson’s English troupe cast

women in some of the leading male roles (although there were men in the company), a premise

which provided opportunities to expose shapely legs underneath short britches and battle armor.

The British Blondes debut show, Ixion, was a vaguely mythological mingling of mortals and

immortals into which the blondes inserted topical references and imitations of American

minstrelsy. Despite public condemnation from religious organizations and quality magazines,

Thompson and her troupe were wildly successful in America, attracting men and women from all

strata of society.10

Most early documentarians of burlesque cite Michael Leavitt’s Mme. Rentz’s Female

Minstrels as the first domestic American troupe. 11 Robert Allen argues that in 1870 several

theatrical managers simultaneously “attempted to meld the gendered nature of burlesque

entertainment with the tripartite structure of the blackface minstrel show, producing a hybrid

10Tamara Leanne Smith, "In Most Things Unlike Women: Domestic Femininity and the Reponse to
Burlesque in American Quality Magazines" (MA Thesis, University of Texas Austin, 2004).
11 Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture, 31.
43

female minstrel form.”12 In Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture, Allen documents

changes in the content and audiences for the genre in the post-Blondes era. Burlesque shifted

from being a mass-culture phenomenon to a marginalized entertainment because burlesque

shows were reoriented toward working-class male audiences, consequently losing “the following

among middle-class women.”13 Allen focuses on the Blondes and troupes that emerged in the

Midwest and East Coast, explaining that censorship prevented burlesque from taking hold in the

southern region of the United States.

Bernard Sobel offers a brief portrait of burlesque along the gold-rush West Coast. On the

West Coast burlesque was offered for the predominantly male population of laborers and

immigrants. Performances were held in honkey tonks, theatres that adjoined a dance hall which

served liquor. Sobel reports that there were two sets of performers in honkey tonks –the

professional performing women and a second unit belonging to the boarding house or saloon.

The house girls had the responsibility of mingling with the male patrons and enticing them to

purchase more alcohol. The proximity to the alcohol and possibly prostitution – cornerstones of

the vice industry - dissuaded East-Coast burlesque performers from touring to western territories.

The honkey tonk business model fueled associations between female performers and prostitution,

a somewhat ironic correlation; because few women could be recruited to perform in the

territories, honkey tonk shows often featured female impersonators. These female decoys would

entice men to buy drinks and direct them to the female prostitutes – or so Sobel reports. The

fluidity between heterosexual and homosexual desire in honkey tonks is unknowable; more

importantly Sobel’s account of honkey tonks illustrates a recurring comic strategy in burlesque

12 Ibid., 163.
13Ibid., 160.
44

despite its geographic dispersion and differentiation. Burlesque comedy employs imitation,

distortion and exaggeration, regardless of the sex of the performer.

Burlesque Grotesques

Female burlesque performers of the nineteenth century employed distorted, non-ideal

images of racial identity and femininity. Post-British Blondes, the female bodies on the burlesque

stage were fetishized inversions of perceived social norms. In the Victorian era, the exposure of

the burlesque costume (bare decolletage, arms and upper bosom, stocking-clad leg exposed to the

top of the thigh) was an immediate visual inversion of contemporary fashion. The “horrible

prettiness” that Robert Allen invokes in the title of his book is a quote from the critic William

Dean Howells, who used the phrase to describe a simultaneous attraction and repulsion to the

British Blondes. One long-touring, late-nineteenth century troupe was Billy Watson’s Beef Trust,

which featured women who weighed in excess of two hundred pounds. Watson’s women were a

spectacle of physical excess; their well-fed bodies hinted at an unrestrained appetite for sensual

pleasures and the title of the show suggested that they were a product to be feasted upon.

Burlesque performer and performance studies scholar Lynn Sally applies the concept of

monster/beauty to burlesque performance.14 The emphasis on exaggeration by burlesque

performers disrupts the binary construction of monstrous as the negative of beautiful because the

performer can “inhabit both fields simultaneously.” Lydia Thompson’s British Blondes were

conventionally beautiful women who transgressed standards of fashion and expectations of

appropriate theatrical roles for the female sex; Billy Watson’s Beef Trust women exceeded the

14Monster/beauty as defined by Joanna Freuh in her book of the same title, proposes that extreme
deviations from cultural expectations of beauty (such as bodybuilders and vampires) can still posses a
“sensuous presence.” Despite the potential to inspire revulsion the monstrous beauty, which can be an
individual or concept, has an “aphrodisiac capacity.” Joanna Freuh, Monster/Beauty: Building the Body
of Love (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 11.
45

cultural norms for femininity, but their display also affirmed that the appreciation of beauty was

not homogenous. The distortion of body, language, movement or costume in burlesque suggests

to the audience member that a female performer’s beauty is not anchored in some commercially-

circulated ideal. For Lynn Sally, the burlesque performer highlights the “slash” between the

words monster/beauty, “suggesting a space of continuity of fluidity between these two terms.”15

An emotional flow of both eros and disgust may be provoked by bodies that are marked as

socially repellent.

The dialectic operation of monstrous beauty in burlesque is perniciously evident in the

origins of twentieth-century burlesque choreography. The pelvic gyrations that became a signifier

of erotic movement in twentieth-century burlesque performances were sparked by North African

dancers at the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Midway attractions featuring

female dancers in a quasi-ethnographic display of world cultures offered the spectacle of bodies

moving in marked contrast to Eurocentric notions of gendered social comportment. The racial

hierarchies constructed on the midway of the fair are now notorious; African and Asian cultures

were situated as inferior and subhuman to the European achievements celebrated by the fair.16

The mingling of transplanted micro-cultures and carnival amusements on the midway

transformed non-white performers into zoological specimens. The Colombian Exposition

featured dance performances by gypsy ghawazi from Egypt, Ouled Nail from Algeria and a

15LynnSally, ""It Is the Ugly That Is So Beautiful:" Performing the Monster/Beauty Continuum in
American Neo-Burlesque," Journal of American Drama and Theatre 21, no. 3 (2009): 8.
16 Rosemarie K. Bank, “Representing History: Performing the Columbian Exposition,” Theatre Journal 54
(2002): 589-606. The popularity of the female zouave troupe in Keene’s The Seven Sisters was an earlier
iteration of white, American bodies accessorized in North African customs and cultural dress, but Keene’s
corps was a satire of an American cultural trend. As a critique of contemporary issues, it is likely that the
monster/beauty eros arose from female bodies transposed into the male military sphere, not a erotic
fantasy about whiteness transposed onto the bodies of North African women. Unfortunately, no images
from Keene’s show have been located to investigate antebellum semiotics.
46

Turkish female impersonator (cengi). Although these dancers were positioned as culturally inferior

(and therefore inappropriate as social companions for the white spectators) their performances

were sold as erotic provocations. The scopic power of American orientalism converted the

gestures of traditional North African dance into signifiers of sexual availability. The spectacle of

these foreign female bodies affirmed the superiority of white culture and the right of the white

citizen to make a conquest of women of color.

Very little of these dance traditions remained in America, instead pelvic gyrations and

harem skits - the reductio ad absurdum of the fair’s ethnographic displays –became a fixture on the

burlesque stage. In burlesque skits, the “East” was the site of women who feigned sexual

disinterest via a veil and belonged to deviant family structures such as the harem. After the fair,

performers named “Little Egypt” proliferated on burlesque stages, exploiting the contemporary

furor for women who danced behind veils – an orientalist fantasy was simultaneously fueled by

international performances of Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1894) and adaptations of Gustav Flaubert’s

Salammbo (1862).

In Looking for Little Egypt Middle-Eastern dance practitioner and historian Donna Carlton

dispels the oft-reported myth that a dancer by the name of Little Egypt introduced the dance du

ventre (belly dance) to America at the Chicago World’s Fair. Carlton identifies the aforementioned

traditional dancers in the fair archives, but contends the more explicitly erotic choreography was

introduced at the Persian Palace of Eros on the fair midway. When the original program for the

Persian Palace (a display of male athletes and wrestlers) failed the management engaged a troupe

of Parisian dancers who “presented pseudo-Oriental dance in gaudy costumes that suggested the
47

east” for a audience of almost exclusively sporting men.17 In contemporary parlance, the belly

dance became known as the “hoochy coochy” or simply “hooch.” Carlton reports that this is a

corruption of the French term hochequeue a term for social dance used by slaves in Louisiana,

which found its way into minstrel shows.18 By the early 20th century “hoochy coochy” was a

palimpsest of imperial gazes: the scopic imposition of white male power on non-white female

bodies with explicitly sexual overtones.

The other signature dance of burlesque entertainment – the striptease – emerged in the

first two decades of the twentieth century. As with the rise of domestic American burlesque

troupes, there was probably no single inventor but a confluence of garment-shedding techniques

employed by creative performers. Anna Held, the protégé of Florenz Ziegfeld, undressed behind

a screen and took a milk bath as a conceit for disrobing. The svelte Hinda Wassau is often

credited with originating the strip after she turned a wardrobe malfunction into stage business.

And much credit for innovating the striptease is given to Carrie Finnell who invented tassel

twirling. Finnell, who could toss a breast in and out of her bodice through muscle control, also

mastered the tease element of the strip by removing only one item a week over a long run. In

1924, when the fifteen-year old Ann Corio entered burlesque, dance was divided into three lines

of business: the chorus, teasers (who removed little and did not expose their breasts, buttocks or

17In the popular vernacular of the late 19th century, the term “sporting man” referred to bachelors and
undomesticated married men who engaged in social activities with other men such as drinking alcohol,
gambling, socializing with prostitutes and sexually active women, and attending sporting events.
18 Donna Carlton, Looking for Little Egypt (Bloomington, IN: IDD Books, 1994), 23.
48

groin) and strippers, who disrobed down to nipple pasties and g-strings.19 Nude dancing was

illegal, but producers circumvented the prohibition by having nearly-nude women pose without

moving or by dressing women in sheer fabrics which could be made transparent by tinted stage

lights. Corio began as a chorus girl and found her niche as a teaser. Corio eschewed any pelvic

gyrations in her routine, which in the jazz era had become the “bump and grind” when the

punctuations of brass horns demanded a different physical response than the undulations of the

faux-belly dance.

The Leg Business

Corio entered an industry more structured and systematic than the touring troupes of the

late-nineteenth century. Competing burlesque circuits were organized contemporaneous to

vaudeville and legitimate theatre. In 1900, thirty three burlesque theatres created a trust, similar

to the Vaudeville Manager’s Association. This coalition was short-lived and by 1905 it split into

two competing circuits with different temperaments. The content of burlesque shows and the

degree to which the humor engaged with the themes of class, gender, sexuality, reproduction and

family defined the character of each circuit. The Columbia circuit – or wheel, as the circuits were

known for half a century – was helmed by Samuel Scribner who initially promoted “clean”

burlesque and sponsored civic engagement activities such as local picnics. The Empire circuit (or

western wheel) was notorious for “hot” or “fast” shows that emphasized sexuality and blue

humor.

19The exact date Corio entered burlesque cannot be verified through multiple sources. She told The New
Yorker in 1936 that she began dancing in 1926. See A. J. Russell Liebling, "Deshabilleuse," The New Yorker
1936, 12-13. Dancer Kitty Madison reported that she recruited Corio out of the chorus and trained her
as a second soubrette for the 1926-27 season. Joel Harvey, "American Burlesque as Reflected through the
Career of Kitty Madison, 1916-1931" (Dissertation, Florida State University, 1980), 95. If she was fifteen
when she began dancing professionally, as she maintained throughout her life, the date would have been
1924.
49

Fig. 4 Undated publicity photo. Collection of the author.

The burlesque circuits did face competition from vaudeville and Broadway revues, but the

audiences, content and venues for these genres differentiated them as products in the

marketplace. Although both burlesque and vaudeville shows were structured as variety

entertainment, a key distinction between vaudeville and burlesque was their target audiences;

burlesque theatres attracted working-class and immigrant male audiences while vaudeville aimed

to be family friendly. Allen describes the two genres as “negative reflections of each other,”

vaudeville was defined as a separate genre by “excorporating” the working class male audience so

that women could attend the theatre unescorted or with family members.20 The vaudeville

circuits did feature women in form-fitting outfits, Salome dancers and suggestive scenes such as

20 Allen, 179.
50

models posing for artists or the nearly ubiquitous pretext of a woman preparing for a bath. But

there was little clothing removed, the choreography hewed to the form and lines of ballet (or

involved static posing) and the context for such displays was romantic or mythic.21 Audiences

were also managed differently on the circuits. In vaudeville, uniformed ushers patrolled the

theatre with the power to eject unruly customers; in burlesque the audiences were expected to

vocalize emotional responses, smoke in public and shout at the dancers. The genres were further

differentiated by content. Burlesque embraced the comic tension that arose from situations with

sexuality and derisive ethnic humor, two elements that vaudeville impresario B. F. Keith

discouraged in his theatres.

The performance spaces for the genres differed greatly as well. Whereas many vaudeville

theatres were purpose-built, burlesque operators minimally rehabilitated industrial buildings,

civic opera houses, dance halls, and in the case of the Old Howard, a church-site-rebuilt-as-

theatre. Vaudeville theatres were decorated lavishly to appeal to bourgeois values of conspicuous

consumption; with the exception of a few upscale houses, burlesque theatres were usually poorly

maintained and very little money was invested in capital expenditures. The geographical location

within urban areas was another distinguishing marker. Vaudeville theatres were developed

proximate to retail shopping to attract women and families -- Tony Pastor created a vaudeville

house near Union Square in 1881 -- while burlesque houses were in working-class and immigrant

neighborhoods. While vaudeville and burlesque producers attempted to parse apart audiences by

appealing to different tastes, performers crossed the boundaries between the two genres. Corio

performed at least once at Keith’s vaudeville theatre in Boston, where she did a modified

21Andrew L. Erdman, "Of Pleasing Face and Form," in Blue Vaudeville: Sex, Moral and the Mass Marketing of
Amusement 1895-1915 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2004).
51

striptease in three numbers and was well reviewed. 22 Other burlesque comedians who crossed the

genre boundaries into vaudeville, upscale variety and musical theatre included Bobby Clarke,

W.C. Fields, Fanny Bryce, Bert Lahr, Red Skelton, Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason.

More direct competition for male audiences came from upscale variety shows on

Broadway. Ziegfeld’s annual follies debuted in 1907 and Earl Carroll offered a comparable

product with his Vanities. The difference between upscale variety and burlesque is harder to parse.

Ziegfeld’s young women posed in elaborate scenes, but were equally undressed. Both Ziegfeld

and Caroll hired the most popular comics and dancers away from burlesque to star in their

reviews. Burlesque and Broadway revues borrowed techniques and promotions from one another.

The American burlesque wheel initiated audience-participation numbers in which male

customers would dance alongside women during their certain routines, or were invited to kiss

parts of a chorus girl’s costume. At least one Broadway revue mirrored the more “blue”

American circuit by creating opportunities for the male audiences to mingle more closely with

young chorines. Prior to the economic depression of the 1930s, Florenz Ziegfeld offered a second

roof-top show, the “Midnight Frolics” in the summer months; this show served as a training

ground for new dancers.23 The rooftop venue lacked an orchestra pit dividing the audience from

the performers. Chorus numbers, such as one in which dancers wore balloons, placed the dancers

in the audience; men were encouraged to pop the balloons with their lit cigars. The most

significant differences between burlesque and Broadway revues were economic: the ticket prices

were higher which affected audience composition, the theatres were better appointed and the

Broadway producers invested more in technical aspects such as lighting, costumes, and the set.

Un-sourced review from a clippings file, Oct. 15, no year, (estimated 1938-1939), Billy Rose Theatre
22

Collection (MWEZ + NC 24), New York Public Library.


23 Florenz Ziegfeld Collection (Series IB), Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas-Austin.
52

The economics of production quality also affected individual performers. Broadway shows were

offered fewer times a week and the performers, consequently, had more time to both rehearse

and rest between shows.

The better production values and higher ticket prices created an aura of sophistication

that suggested the Broadway revues were more artful and conformed to bourgeois notions of

morality, but the distinction was largely rooted in class boundaries. This was acknowledged by

The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” critic in a review of the Irving Palace burlesque theatre

(which aspired to be the most artful in New York City) in 1935. He paid $1.10 for a reserved

orchestra seat and noted that the comic sketches “really weren’t any dirtier than skits we have

paid four dollars to see, but which somehow seemed dirtier…” The critic credits his impressions to

the delivery of the comedians and records that the audience was composed of “milkmen, bus-

rivers and other humbly uniformed persons.” 24 This critic concedes that the distinction was not

in content, but in the atmosphere of the venue and his interpretation of the performers. Corio

contests the class-oriented distinction between burlesque and Broadway revues in her book. In

This Was Burlesque Corio reports that she was recruited by the upscale producer of Broadway

revues, Earl Carroll, but decided to remain in burlesque because she would have been expected

to provide romantic or sexual favors for the friends of the producer; the burlesque circuit, she

contends, did not make such requirements of its stars and it paid her better.25 Corio’s inclusion of

this tale (which has not been verified) suggests to her reader that in upscale variety shows the

social status of the audience did not elevate the moral temperament of the producers. In her

account, the performance of class is a ruse that disguises sexual exploitation.

24 A. J. Liebling, "Burlesk," The New Yorker, June 8, 1935, 14-15.


25Corio and DiMona, This Was Burlesque, 84.
53

The advantage burlesque had over its Broadway competitors was the genre-specific

touring circuits, although the fortunes of these organizations were unstable. Theatre managers

joined circuits as franchises and could change alliances. The Columbia grew to eighty-one

theatres and seventy-three shows by 1914, when the Empire circuit folded. Some Empire

theatres were absorbed into the Columbia circuit and others emerged as the Progressive circuit,

which lasted only one year, because Scribner formed the salacious Columbia No. 2 circuit to

serve as direct competition. After defeating the Progressive wheel, the Columbia No. 2 was

renamed the American wheel and it continued the less-bourgeois formula of double-entendre

humor and bawdy “cooch” dancing. The American wheel’s parent company - Columbia --

retained its innocuous formula, prohibiting profanity, sexual suggestiveness and bare legs. The

interconnected circuits were successful for nearly a decade operating as foils to each other. In

1923, the Columbia circuit hosted thirty-eight touring shows for a forty week season. These

shows featured a cast of thirty five (or more) performers. The content was a conglomeration of

song and dance numbers strung loosely together by a weak plot or theme. A full contingent of a

burlesque show, as reported by Corio included: “striptease star, prima donna, a soubrette, a

talking woman, a boy and a girl dance team, two comics, a straight man, a singing juvenile,

twelve or fourteen chorus girls, a musical conductor, three stage hands and an assortment of cats,

dogs, monkeys (the actor’s pets).” 26

The fortunes of the Columbia circuit peaked in 1921, by 1922 the American circuit was

bankrupt and during lawsuits between the connected wheels, the Mutual Burlesque Association

emerged. The Mutual offered patrons the “hotter” more salacious form of burlesque, described

by Irving Zeidman as “attuned… to the pace of a giddy, jazzy, postwar binge. Its shows were all

26Ibid., 144.
54

rapid in tempo, hot and nude, frivolous and irreverent.”27 The Columbia held to its conservative

formula (although it conceded to bare legs on principal dancers) but this template did not

resemble emergent burlesque style. Literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote in 1925 that the

Columbia circuit “was now as wholesome and boring as any expensive musical comedy.” 28 The

Columbia circuit faced competition from the equally “hot” stock burlesque formula championed

by the Minsky brothers in New York.

Stock emerged in the 1910s as a substitute during the dark weeks between touring wheel

shows. Stock burlesque shows were assemblages of chorus numbers, comic skits and striptease

routines. Although a new show was presented each week, no new material was written for a stock

show and acts were roughly interchangeable on the roster. Stock burlesque shows were cheap to

produce and the admission prices were kept low with the exception of premium seats nearest the

dancers. Because theatres operated under a franchise model, operators mixed stock and circuit

burlesque as economic fortunes and audience demographics shifted. While some houses, such as

the Irving Palace Theatre, sold reserved seats and offered only two shows a day the competing

scheme sold single-admission, unreserved seating for multiple performances. This format became

popular with men unemployed by the economic depression because it was an affordable way to

spend the day. Some houses offered entertainment from approximately 10AM to midnight in the

form of repeating, hour-long shows (with interstitial movies, news reels and candy vendors). The

shows were repeated three to six times a day, six days a week – a performance calendar

nicknamed the “grind.” The slogan of the Old Howard theatre was “Always something doing

from 1 to 11.”

27 Zeidman, The American Burlesque Show, 108.


28Edmund Wilson, "Burlesque Shows," in Shores of Light: A Literary Chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties (New
York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1952), 274.
55

Class and Scratch Burlesque

The Columbia and Mutual wheels endured until 1931, when stock burlesque became the

only viable option during the rising economic depression. Stock burlesque became standard on

the circuits, which shrank as theatres closed. Independent operators rented old properties in

poorer urban areas and filled the stage with low-budget productions. Burlesque houses acquired

reputations based on the quality of the shows. The more lavish and better-rehearsed productions,

such as those at the Irving Palace Theatre, were “class” houses; theatres that featured

inexperienced dancers and fewer variety acts were called “scratch” houses.

Despite her reputation for being pure and demure, Corio emerged on the Mutual wheel

and in stock burlesque, not the Columbia circuit. By her own account, Ann Corio began dancing

at age fifteen in a chorus but quickly progressed to being a feature dancer. (Corio offered many

versions of her introduction to show business and none have been verified). Corio worked on the

Mutual in its declining years, but she still was a star of fully-staged shows with original content.

Throughout the first wave of her career in burlesque, Corio achieved her headliner status

through simple dances presented in a narrative context that reinforced her demure persona. In

one act she dressed as a little girl and invited the audience to “lay your head on my pillow”

through a song of the same title.29 Her juvenile conceit also included a routine in which she

threw candy kisses to the audience from a pail. When not playing a child, undressing with

prelapsarian innocence, Corio’s stripteases invoked romantic scenarios in the vein of nineteenth-

century colonialist fantasies, such as the saga of an “Indian maiden” who sees her lover shot by a

29Corio never mentions her choreography in the few descriptions of this routine. David Dressler does not
name Corio but describes an act of the same title that ends with the small pillow placed over the “mound
of Venus.”David Dressler, "Burlesque as a Cultural Phenomenon" (Dissertation, New York University,
1937), 78.
56

rival “brave.” “In a wild frenzied dance of vengeance” she hunted in vain for the assassin.30

Corio incorporated signifiers of high culture into her performances, such as employing her

nephew to play the violin during one act. By 1936, when she was profiled by A. J. Leibling in The

New Yorker, she was an established star, claiming earnings of nearly a thousand dollars a week

under the management of her first husband, Emmett Callahan.31 One of the challenges for

burlesque performers – and an essential survival tactic – was navigating the varying local laws

governing nudity and profanity. The Mutual circuit took performers to Boston, St. Louis,

Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, with additional bookings in Chicago, Kansas City,

Providence, Minneapolis, Albany, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Each city had local laws for theatrical

performance. Because some locations were more permissive of exposed bodies and sexual

innuendo in comic routines, performances differed city to city. The difference is exemplified in

the East Coast cities of New York and Boston.

Live performance in Boston was supervised by a city censor who had the power to shut

down a show or demand amendments to the content (such as changes to a dancer’s costume).

Boston was also populated with self-appointed vice monitors affiliated with the Watch and Ward

Society, a non-profit organization which used legal tactics to censor literature and performing arts

that it deemed morally objectionable. The Watch and Ward Society succeeded in shuttering the

Old Howard briefly in 1933. Performances in Boston required vigilance on the part of the

performers. Corio reports that the degree to which performances were censored was mitigated by

30 Zeidman, The American Burlesque Show, 148.


31 In 1936 Callahan was also the manager of the Apollo Theater in Harlem, which was a burlesque
theatre for exclusively white audiences from 1913-1934. The Apollo converted to variety format and
allowed African Americans to attend in 1934. By the time Corio was a featured performer, black
entertainers had begun to perform for black audiences at the Apollo and it was no longer iconic of white
tourism in Harlem.
57

two factors: the temperament of the appointed city monitor and an alarm system. At the Old

Howard and other burlesque theatres the box office manager was tasked with identifying

conservative watchdogs as they entered the building. From the box office a light would be

triggered on stage signaling the dancers not to strip beyond the local allowances or warning the

comedians to avoid prurient language. Although the warning system helped prevent injunctions

brought by the Watch and Ward society, the regular patrons of Boston apparently tolerated less

blue material than audiences in other cities. Performers frequently had two versions of their act,

the more explicit “hot” or “whore show” and the tempered “parlor show,” “Sunday-school show”

or “Boston version.” 32 Boston was notorious across the circuit for upholding local laws through

raids and prosecutions. In other cities, raids would result in a temporary cessation of the more

suggestive material but operators would return to more explicit material as box office receipts

declined; in Boston, persistent vice operatives enforced the community standards.

Eyewitness accounts of 1930s burlesque in New York City provide examples of how

greatly performances in New York City differed from the reserved shows in Boston. In his 1937

dissertation Burlesque as a Cultural Phenomenon sociologist and social worker David Dressler tried to

gauge the degree to which New York City burlesque houses incited vice and crime in city

neighborhoods. Dressler reported on shows in which the choreography frankly indicated

intercourse, rather than suggesting the possibility through a bare shoulder or raised skirt hem. In

one routine, the chorus laid on their backs on stage and imitated intercourse with an invisible

partner, in another the dancers squatted over wine bottles and gyrated over the phallic glass neck;

he also observed dancers simulating masturbation with stage props. Dressler does not name

specific theatres in his study, but one burlesque house was the most notorious in New York City in

32 Ibid., 184-89; Alexander, Strip Tease: The Vanished Art of Burlesque, 122.
58

the late 1930s and is a likely candidate for the explicit choreography described by Dressler. The

New Gotham theatre was owned by Abe Minksy, one of a team of brothers who produced

burlesque in several theatres across New York City.

Abe and Billy Minsky were the most notable entrepreneurs of burlesque in New York

City. In 1913 they opened the National Winter Garden theatre, at Houston St. and 2nd Ave., on

the sixth floor of a building owned by their father. The Winter Garden and a legitimate Yiddish

theatre, also in the building, catered to Jewish immigrants. At this space the Minskys claimed to

have introduced the striptease (via dancer Mae Dix) in 1917 and the runway, which was inspired

by Paris cabarets and subsequently imitated by producers across the country. Billy attempted an

upscale burlesque house in Columbus Circle, but it was a failure. In 1931 he leased the New

Republic theatre on 42nd street and expanded family ventures to Broadway. Max Rudnick opened

the Eltinge theatre across the street as a competing venture and burlesque boomed, briefly, in

Times Square.33

The New Gotham was located a few blocks east of the Apollo on 125th St. The theatre

did not advertise but instead relied on word-of-mouth to draw male patrons. Irving Zeidman

observed, “When all the other Harlem houses were gone, the Gotham persisted as the nudest of

all burlesque theatres in New York City.” Zeidman presents a detailed description of

performances at the New Gotham. The chorines ended each routine by turning their back to the

audience and bending over, exposing their bare, “distended rears.” 34 The feature stripteasers did

33 Billy Minsky died in 1932 but the remaining brothers continued to run burlesque houses, operating six
in New York and Brooklyn in 1937. Youngest son, Morton Minksy, worked in family enterprises as a
teenager working his way from the box office to theatre manager; he co-wrote the book Minsky’s Burlesque
which is a semi-factual concoction of burlesque stories, observations and anecdotes pirated from dancer
biographies. Abe’s son Harold took the family formula to Las Vegas and helped found the showgirl genre
in that city.
34 Zeidman, The American Burlesque Show, 190.
59

not sing or dance before their routine; they entered with little clothing, paraded across the stage

without choreography and removed more garments. The dancers fully exposed their breasts and

many removed their g-strings. Zeidman notes that the audience response was unlike other

theatres, where patrons whistled and called out to the dancers. The audience at the New Gotham

was silent, “no shouting, no hilarity, no brassy orchestra noises, no revelry, no adolescent

hooting… it was all conducted with… almost somnolent distinction.”35 The absence of direct

interaction between performer and patron had one gruesome exception: the passage way

onstage. The men’s room of the New Gotham did not have a door so “women in the cast had to

run the gauntlet of an open malodorous men’s lavatory whenever they entered or left their

dressing room” creating the possibility that women and men were physically exposed to one

another.36 Although the New Gotham theatre did not advertise, the activities of the house still

garnered the attention of city officials and operatives from the Bureau of Social Hygiene and the

New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, a moral-policing organization founded by

Anthony Comstock and led in the 1930s by John Sumner. 37

Moral campaigns against burlesque began in the era of the British Blondes. Anti-

burlesque initiatives gained momentum in New York City starting in 1932 when the 42nd Street

Property Owners Association filed a complaint that burlesque audiences – in particular the

character of male patrons -- had a negative impact on the district. The New York Supreme

Court concurred that “the conduct and operation of the theatre” were adequate grounds for the

35 Ibid., 192.
36Ibid., 191.
37The BSH was a moral-watchdog advocacy group incorporated by John D. Rockefeller in 1913 with the
purpose of investigating prostitution which it termed “white slavery.” From 1911 until 1937, The Bureau
of Social Hygiene collected data and reported on social ills such as narcotics, police corruption, juvenile
delinquency and prostitution.
60

withdrawal of a license. But the language of the ruling focused on the advertising and titles given

to the activities outside the theatre, rather than responding to the Property Owner’s Association

grievances about the character of the audience.38 The court resisted validating class prejudices

about burlesque audiences; the probable causes of moral turpitude were the salacious images of

dancers and provocative titles which burlesque operators used to draw patrons in to the theatre.

The 1932 ruling subtly acknowledged that complaints against the moral character of burlesque

audiences could not be substantiated, perhaps because it was difficult to categorize a mixed

audience.The Minsky brothers left free passes to their theatres at the most exclusive men’s clubs

in the city, so members of all economic classes were entering the Broadway theatres and

competing directly with the legitimate theatrical houses. 39

When Fiorello LaGuardia was elected New York Mayor in 1934 on a reform platform, he

appointed Paul Moss as license commissioner. Moss was an anti-burlesque, former vaudevillian

with familial ties to legitimate theatre and cinema. Moss set new rules for decency (including the

removal of the runways) and began raids on Burlesque theatres that did not comply. In 1935

Moss revoked a theatre’s license for failure to comply with his rules. This time, the New York

Supreme court did not endorse the revocation of a license, “making it quite clear that a license

commissioner could only revoke or suspend a theatre license during its term if municipal officials

38In the matter of the Application of Rudhlan Amusement Corporation v. James F. Geraghty, (1932) 262 N.Y.S. 269,
Supreme Court of New York.
39 The term legitimate in reference to theatre arose in England in the 18th century; the term implied legal
compliance in the form of licensure and the approval of the play by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. The
word was still in popular use in the mid-twentieth century. “Legitimate” referred to theatres which catered
to the middle and upper classes by offering tragic and romantic spoken-word plays. Although the term
indicated that the theatres offered content with literary and artistic merit, the word also invokes children
which are legally recognized by their parents as the products of a marital union. The inferred opposite is
illegitimate (or potentially, bastard), the product of sexual activity outside of religious sanction. The
specter of illegitimacy is important considering that burlesque theatres were spaces where classes mingled
and lust between humans, regardless of social status, was acknowledged.
61

had first obtained a conviction on obscenity charges” (which were difficult to obtain in New York

City). 40 The 1935 Holly Holding Corporation v. Moss ruling prevented LaGuardia’s administration

from closing the burlesque theatres. Under the ruling, licenses could only be refused upon the

renewal date and revoked only if a theatre was found guilty of obscenity in court.

For two years, burlesque theatres continued to thrive in New York City and most

operators avoided legal intervention by complying with the prohibition against runways which

extended into the audience. In 1937 the manager of the New Gotham, Sam Kraus, was

convicted on obscenity charges for allowing dancers to expose their “intimate person

completely.” 41 Although genital exposure was prohibited a few dancers circumvented the law

through wardrobe techniques which created the appearance of full exposure, yet still allowed the

performer to enter and exit the stage wearing a g-string. A stripteaser on an elevated stage or

walkway would flick the sides of a panel skirt while dancing to reveal the lower half of the body.

Some dancers wore fur g-strings which suggested pubic hair; the dancer Rose La Rose rolled the

g-string fabric and tucked the slip in her outer labia.42 Only a few publicity-seeking performers

employed these techniques since the practice was discouraged within the industry and frowned

upon by many burlesque stars who felt it degraded their profession.

In April 1937, immediately following the obscenity trial of the New Gotham employees,

Moss initiated hearings against the other burlesque theatres at the urging of the local chapter of

the Knights of Columbus. The New Gotham conviction was timely: the licenses for all fourteen

New York burlesque theatres were scheduled to expire in early May. The 1937 campaign against

40AndreaFriedman, Prurient Interests: Gender, Democracy and Obscenity in New York City, 1909-1945 (New York:
Columbia University Press, 2000), 81.
41Alexander, Strip Tease: The Vanished Art of Burlesque, 96.
42 Public lecture by Marinka/Melanie Hunter, BurlyCon, Seattle WA, October 23, 2009.
62

burlesque was empowered by a sex crime panic that had erupted in New York City. According to

Andrea Friedman, who examined era censorship in Prurient Interests, the panic resulted from

“sensationalized media coverage of violent sexual crimes against women and children… closing

the theatres on the grounds that burlesque caused sex crimes became one of the most visible

responses to the panic.”43 A parade of child welfare agency workers, clergymen and property

owners testified that burlesque dancers incited the “lewd and dissolute” poor to violent sex crimes

including “bestiality and degeneracy.”44 The trials which convicted Sam Kraus and reviewed the

operating licenses lasted only three weeks, with frequent adjournments. The industry was

characterized as homogenous in its operating policies.

The New Gotham’s nude displays were not typical of all New York burlesque houses, but

the theatre was characterized as representative of the genre in the trials. Ultimately, a factual

connection between burlesque and sex crimes and general vice in Times Square was never

demonstrated. The decision not to renew fourteen licenses was made based on Moss’ disdain for

the genre and the incidental testimony from clergymen and individuals of a wealthier habitus. In

May 1937, during a severe recession, more than two thousand dancers, stage hands and theatre

personnel were put out of work. Ten weeks later, Moss granted seven theatres “variety revue”

licenses operating under the auspices of a new trade association. The bylaws of the association

specified that the words “burlesque” and “Minsky” could not be used in connection to the

theatres. LaGuardia claimed it was “the beginning of the end of organized filth.”45

43 Friedman, Prurient Interests: Gender, Democracy and Obscenity in New York City, 1909-1945, 83.
44Alexander, Strip Tease: The Vanished Art of Burlesque, 107.
45 “Moss v. Lice,” Time Magazine (May 10, 1937): www.time.com (accessed December 5, 2006).
63

The 1937 closure of burlesque theatres was politically effective for Moss and LaGuardia.

This highly-visible injunctive relief satisfied the well-funded conservative groups. Shuttering the

Times Square burlesque houses fulfilled LaGuardia’s campaign promises to scour New York

clean of the political corruption and favoritism exemplified by the Tammany Hall Syndicate. (It

is certainly no coincidence that Louis Minksy, father to the brother-producers, was an elected

Alderman and Tammany ally who helped bring the lower east side Jewish vote into alliance with

the cabal). Burlesque was the public image – the visible skin - of Times Square vice and the

allegedly low-moral character of New York City immigrants. Prostitution was on the rise during

the great depression according to a Bureau of Social Hygiene report cited by Thorsten Sellin in

Research Memorandum on Crime in the Great Depression.46 Burlesque dancers were not prostitutes, but

their place of employment was geographically near a mecca of sex work. The city did not have

the labor and funds to identify and prosecute the various prostitution “resorts” (which frequently

had their own arrangements with law enforcement through organized crime). The revocation of

licenses appeared to rapidly suppress sexual commerce.

The action also purged burlesque from the city in advance of the 1939 World’s Fair,

which was engineered to bolster the New York tourism economy. The censorship of burlesque

allowed fair producers to create an event without stripteasers dominating the headlines as they

had at the Columbian Exposition and the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933, where the dancer Sally

Rand gained fame with her fan dance. The closure of burlesque theatres in 1937 was followed by

more legal actions that enforced censorship of the genre in New York City. But burlesque

persisted in other East Coast and Midwestern cities which hosted both class and scratch houses.

Burlesque simultaneously enjoyed a West Coast revival fueled by burlesque shows and a nudist

46Thorsten Sellin, Research Memorandum on Crime in the Depression (New York: Arno Press, 1972).
64

colony at California Pacific Exposition of 1935-36 in San Diego. Corio used her appearances at

the San Diego Exposition to protest the planned exclusion of stripteasers from the New York

world’s fair.47

By affiliating herself with the Old Howard and the city of Boston, Corio distinguished

her professional persona from the performances that earned the genre a reputation for lewd

content. Although she never used the terms, Corio defined her professional life by working

“class” not “scratch” theatres. The Old Howard had a peculiar air of respectability because it

was attended by college men and many believed it was a rehabilitated church- although this was

an urban legend. The first Howard Athenaeum was constructed as a church for a congregation

that believed doomsday was fast approaching. When the apocalypse did not occur in 1844, the

church was rented to theatrical producers. The wooden playhouse was destroyed by fire in 1846

and architect Issiah Rodgers was commissioned to build a new structure. The new building

received financial backing from successful beer and ale merchants, whose offices occupied the

“The Gayway,” Life Magazine, 1939 Lester Sweyd Collection (MWEZ NC 14), Billy Rose Theatre
47

Collection, New York Public Library.


65

first floor.48 As a theatre, the Howard Athenaeum hosted Sarah

Bernhardt and all four Booth brothers. In 1870 the format

changed from straight drama to vaudeville and melodramas; in

1900 G. E. Lothrop took control of the theatre and changed the

program to burlesque. Corio used the liturgical and legitimate-

theatre provenance of the Old Howard to distance herself from

the geographies of performance in New York City. Although she

did perform in New York and starred in theatres owned by the

Minsky family, Corio defers this connection in her history book

stating, “I rarely played in New York.” Her reputation created

opportunities in variety in New York post-1937. In one of her first

appearances after the trials, she performed a number, titled “Mr.

Burlesque is Dead” with a large padlock hanging over the back of Fig. 5 Corio performs “Mr.
Striptease is Dead.” Smith, Life
her dress. She also headlined a “Glorified Burlesque” show at the Magazine (1966), 134.

Shubert Theatre in Philadelphia, that city’s “class” house in 1937

and 1940.

Burlesque, as a genre-specific circuit system, permutated again in the 1940s. Competition

from other media contributed to the decline of the burlesque wheels. The most popular male

comedians were recruited into radio and television. Very few female burlesquers found

employment in the movie industry. Gypsy Rose Lee was not cast in movies made of her fictional

vels; those roles were given to Barbara Stanwick. (The exclusion of stripteasers from the film

industry will be discussed further in chapter 4.) The news reels and movies that provided

Theresa Lang, "Interred in Concrete: The Censorship of Boston's Old Howard Theatre" (dissertation Tufts
48

University, 2004). 20
66

intermission entertainment in the burlesque houses became the feature attractions and theatres

slowly converted into movie houses. Attendance in urban theatres declined further as men were

conscripted into the army for World War II. When the male audiences returned from the war a

shifting social landscape altered the venues available for live performance. Families moved from

cities to suburbs; suburban nightclubs, which courted adult married couples instead of single

men, provided alternatives to urban entertainment. With declining box office receipts, theatres

could not sustain live bands to accompany the dancers and the orchestra was replaced with

recorded music. Until the advent of solo (non-sketch) stand-up comedy in the late 1960s,

stripteasers were the primary talent pool still operating under the headline “burlesque.”

Dancers preserved the tradition of creating original routines with rehearsed

choreography and custom costumes and props but they were booked as solo acts in nightclubs,

not as part of a themed variety show. Innovative striptease performers continued to tour

American nightclubs, special events, and increasingly to theatres in Europe and Japan. But the

variety show format was largely defunct by the mid 1950s. The magazine Cavalcade of Burlesque

attempted to preserve the legacy of comedians and dancers by printing classic routines and

highlighting emerging stripteasers; the magazine only lasted from 1951 to 1954. In urban areas a

version of the honkey tonk and scratch business models took hold in the form of men’s clubs, or

“mixin’ joints,” (which were occasionally operated by organized crime syndicates). Dancers were

now expected to mingle with patrons and entice them to buy drinks, although the top tier of

feature dancers could refuse to mingle. “B” girls who worked for the house provided, or directed

the patrons to, sexual commerce. 1964 marked the beginning of topless dance in America, when

Carol Doda danced without pasties at the Condor Club in San Francisco. Other clubs followed

and striptease performances which did not end with nudity quickly became obsolete.
67

Despite the endurance of burlesque after the operating injunctions in New York City in

1937, Ann Corio cited this date as the death of the “golden era” of burlesque in her brand

products. This marketing ploy served several functions in the narrative of her 1960s brand. The

artificial death allowed her to claim that her products were authentic reproductions of a lost art,

not an antiquated iteration of a durable industry. Her version of burlesque history also suggested

that performances before 1937 were not related to topless dance or the mixin’ joints, despite the

almost direct lineage from New Gotham-style nude dance to the men’s clubs of the 1960s and

1970s. Perhaps most importantly, Corio referenced the court actions in 1937 to argue that the

suppression of burlesque was motivated by class prejudice, not amoral or lewd performances. In

her history book and her patter as emcee in her show, Corio contended that burlesque was the

breeding ground for the best American comedians; it had not been recognized as such because

the genre lacked the legitimacy conferred by wealthier audiences.

Corio’s strategic invocation of Old Howard provided evidence that upper class men did,

in fact, attend burlesque shows as well as the high-ticket Broadway ventures. Some of Boston’s

elite families were attendees at the Old Howard.49 Throughout her career, Corio named several

elected officials and public servants who were regular attendees at her shows (such as Supreme

Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who attended burlesque in Washington D.C.). In

explaining why she disdained zippers which accelerated stripteases after they were introduced

into the fashion industry in the 1930s, Corio explained that a zipper failed to come undone,

49 Corio’s personal archive contains a scrapbook of nineteenth-century headliners at the Old Howard, a
volume lovingly compiled by George W. Clapp, the member of an influential family who was listed in the
1905 edition of Clark’s Blue Book of “elite private addresses.” Dancer Lillian Kiernan Brown recalled
that Jack Kennedy was a guest in Mayor Jim Curley’s private box at the Old Howard; the young Kennedy
was widely known to court the dancer Peaches Strange. Lillian Kiernan Brown, Banned in Boston: Memoirs of
a Stripper, ed. Sharon E. Cobb (Bloomington, IN: 1stBooks, 2003), 27.
68

“quite ruining a performance attended by three members of the Supreme Court.” 50 The ploy

informed her audiences that the aspersions against the character of burlesque audiences were

unfounded and motivated by class elitism. This was not a minor point in the narrative of her

brand; class antagonisms were central to burlesque humor but also to the economic conditions

which felled the industry. The burlesque circuits were compromised by urban renewal initiatives

between the 1940s and 1970s. Aging cities waged economic revitalization campaigns that invoked

eminent domain laws to displace poor citizens from city slums. The Federal Housing acts of 1949

and 1954 allocated government subsidies for slum clearance and the containment of urban

blight. The demolition of immigrant neighborhoods razed many burlesque theatres and

relocated the once-loyal audiences.

In David Dressler’s 1937 dissertation he concludes that he could not find any direct

connections between burlesque and criminal behavior such as prostitution, drug addiction or

petty theft. But his study of the “ecologies” of burlesque includes pages of hand-drawn maps

which chart the location of burlesque houses in comparison to data such as property values,

crime rates and the occurrence of venereal disease. Dressler’s training and methodology arose

from social sciences that used geographic mapping and physical characteristics to evince a

causality between racial identity and criminality. He asserts that burlesque is not a scourge or

even a substantive cause of social woes. But in his logic, the women who work in burlesque are

intellectually and socially limited – they cannot be fully incorporated into a city of bourgeois

values because of personal “disorder.”

Ernest Hooten, a Harvard anthropologist who might have attended Corio’s

performances, belonged to a similar strain of anthropology which classified people on a hierarchy

50 Richard L. Coe, "Promoting Burlesque " Washington Post, October 6, 1970.


69

of civilize-ability. Hooten gathered data about the physical characteristics of African Americans

as evidence that black peoples were less civilized and closer to apes than northern European

civilizations. In Hooten’s scholarship the physical inferiority of non-white races equated to

mental inferiority which was caused by heredity, not circumstance. Corio was invited to a formal

tea at the home of Professor Hooten in 1941, the same year Hooten published Why Men Behave

like Apes, and Vice Versa. Corio’s whimsical audience with the anthropologist suggested an academic

recognition that sexual primitivism was part of the human experience. The mutually-beneficial

publicity stunt affirmed that men were naked apes who barely controlled their primal desires.

Corio and Hooten cooperated in the endorsement of a residual Freudianism in which women

were closer to savage tendencies and had the dangerous capacity to incite primal tendencies over

rational thought; science had a place for burlesque in the social order -- at the bottom along side

“primitive” cultures and evolutionary origins. In the social order espoused by Hooten, Dressler

and the urban renewal movement, immigrant and first- generation American women and

minorities were excluded from American progress narratives. Explicitly or implicitly stated, these

people were considered not capable of contributing to bourgeois civic life because of their

genetic disposition.

Although Corio willingly engaged in these dehumanizing discourses in her early career, a

defense of low-brow and low-class entertainments became central in her campaign to reform the

reputation of burlesque. By placing her performances and her burlesque aesthetic in the

company of Harvard gentlemen, she suggested that the appreciation of low humor and semi-

nude women were not naturalized conditions of race or cultural heritage. Although Corio was

born into a large Italian family begat by first-generation immigrants, she was a social compatriot

of the upper classes – at least while she was in the theatre. Her demure stage persona suggested
70

that birth in a poor home did not necessarily beget immoral behavior, nor did the social

“hygiene” of immigrant classes negatively infect an urban area with crime and vice. The mixed

audience of the Old Howard was her evidence that all classes experienced the same physical,

human desires. The slums might have had higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases, but this

condition was co-created between the poverty-stricken residents and the “slumming” upper

classes who were sexual tourists.

Boston began an urban revitalization campaign in the late 1950s which centered on

Scollay Square, the once Boston-Brahmin neighborhood which was overtaken by immigrants in

the early-twentieth century. The Old Howard, a Scollay Square anchor, was shuttered

permanently in 1953 for indecent performances after detectives secretly filmed performances of

Marion Russell and Rose La Rose (who likely flashed the audience). Using infrared film, shot

through coat button holes, the vice operatives captured evidence which was used to close the

theatre.51 The Old Howard was marked for demolition when Ann Corio returned to Boston in

1961 to try out a new burlesque revue show that she was developing with a novice producer,

Michael Iannucci. Corio became active in a movement to preserve the Old Howard. The city of

Boston intended to build a new city hall, using forty million dollars in government funds to

construct a structure in the brutalist architectural style. The preservation movement did gain

momentum and supporters, but prior to its official demolition the Old Howard a mysterious fire

of “unknown origin” tore through the historic structure. The remains were quickly dismantled

and few relics were preserved.

51 Franklin L Thistle, "Wicked Old Lady of Scollay Square," Cavalier, November 1962, 72.
71

Fig. 6 Corio poses at the Old Howard. This Was Burlesque, 160

In the pictorial history book published in 1968, Corio includes a photograph taken at the

Old Howard after the blaze. The image is quite obviously staged. Corio stands in her wide

brimmed hat and frilly dress, clutching a parasol. She looks mournfully at a poster on the wall, an

advertisement for her show “Girls in Blue” (from 1937). The states “The Old Howard had

burned – and only her poster remained.” 52 In addition to the improbability that the fire peeled

through years of advertisements and spared only one poster, or the unlikelihood that Corio

arrived at the smoldering ashes in full makeup and costume, the photo appears doctored. The

irises of the construction worker standing behind Corio are directed at the dancer, not the wall he

is swinging at with a pickaxe. Another photo, housed in Corio’s personal archives, provides a

52 Corio and DiMona, This Was Burlesque, 161.


72

counterpoint to the staged photo

opportunity. It doesn’t connect Corio’s

signature routine with her performances

there, but the image does show her

sincere emotional connection to the

building and evinces that her claim to the

Old Howard had integrity. Corio sits at

the edge of the rubble in capri pants and

pedal pusher shoes; perched on the edge

of a fire ladder, the grief is evident in her

face. The candid UPI photo captures a

different historical moment than the one

Fig. 7 Corio at the Old Howard. Collection of Carole Nelson published in her book. Corio’s love of the

Old Howard was real and that connection became the root of the brand she was about to

develop. The contrasting photographs also illuminate Corio’s business strategy. The content and

publicity of her brand products were arranged to efficiently communicate dramatic tension and

the major themes. But the ideas, emotions, experiences she based the brand on were authentic in

her world view. Corio did amend and edit her professional experiences on the burlesque circuits

in manufacturing her brand, but she did not invent; her products were creative interpretations of

her early work, not fiction.


73

Chapter 3

Me Tondalayo: Conscripted Bodies on the Burlesque Stage

April 1963, Casino East Theatre, New York City.

Two women exit the Third Avenue subway station; they say nothing but eye each other

anxiously. “I’m pretty sure I know the way,” the shorter woman says to her friend, “my mother

grew up in this neighborhood before we moved to the Bronx.” As they walk east on Fourteenth

Street a flurry of curse words spill out of an upstairs window. “It’s a record” the confident

woman says to her companion, “I read about that comic in the Saturday Review.” 1 They pause at

the corner of Fourteenth and Second Avenue and turn south, pausing to stare at a young,

interracial couple coming out of a nightclub. Music floods out from behind the couple and the

ladies spot a belly dancer scurrying past the door frame.2 The women giggle slightly and walk on,

unaware that they are passing under the marquee for their destination: the Casino East theatre at

189 Second Avenue. The pair stroll another hundred paces and join a line forming down the

back of a church. At the door the usher turns them back “This is a performance of The Blacks,”

he says gently but with a mocking smile, “You want the theatre up on Fourteenth Street.”3 Loud

jazz howls out of the neighboring Five Spot club, pushing the women back up the street. The

quiet woman finally speaks, “Was that a beatnik?”

Moments later, the women’s tickets for This Was Burlesque are accepted at the Casino East.

They take their seats under the star of david plaster molding on the ceiling, a relic from the

theatre’s days as a respected Jewish theatre. After the band plays a short overture, Ann Corio

1Gerald Nachman, "The Elvis of Stand-Up: Lenny Bruce," in Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the
1950s and 1960s (New York: Pantheon Books, 2003), 393.
2 "Castanet Clicks and the New Bumper Crop in Burlesque," Cavalier, November 1962.
3 Sally Banes, Greenwich Village 1963 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 20-21.
74

strolls in front of the battered velvet curtain and extols the virtues of burlesque as a training

ground for America’s best comedians. She assures her audience that the show is never vulgar.

“We do get a little bit naughty, but if we didn’t then you’d be disappointed.” 4 Vulgarity has killed

the burly-q, she claims, before promising that her show is an authentic reproduction of the

“golden era” of burlesque. 5 The audience is receptive and laugh loudly through the first act,

which is a potlatch of four classic sketches from the burlesque repertoire, three chorus routines

(including Dance of the Orient, a number with Harem Belles, a Sultan and a Sheik), a solo dancer, a

singing comic pair and two stripteases.6 At the start of the the intermission, the Candy Butcher

begins his spiel - promising that every box of confections comes with a small booklet of

provocative “French” stories or, for the lucky few, a gold watch. A few older gentlemen laugh and

purchase the pink-and-white stripped box of candy with the This Was Burlesque logo on the front.

In the lobby the taller, shyer woman of the female couple buys a copy of the original cast album

for This Was Burlesque as a gift. “My sister will be thrilled,” she says, “she saw Ann Corio once in

Boston.”

The second act opens with the chorus singing Powder My Back and another rotation of

sketches and striptease. Absent from the stage since the middle of the first act, Corio returns in

the sketch White Cargo. The sketch is a parody of a dramatic play by the same name which toured

extensively in the 1920s and 1940s. The scene begins with the arrival of a new overseer to a

British colonial plantation on the coast of West Africa. The naive overseer, played by burlesque

veteran Steve Mills, is warned by the comic straight man, Paul West, that the country isn’t the

4 This Was Burlesque Original Cast Album, 33 rpm, orchestra dir. by Sonny Lester (Roulette SF 25185: 1962).
5 Marty Callner, Here it Is Burlesque, videocasette (Vestron Video: 1982).
6 Program, This Was Burlesque, 1963, collection of the author.
75

lush tropical paradise he is expecting. West cautions Mills, “You’ll start drinking that rotten native

whiskey, and then there are other things!” West continues his prelude, “For instance, there’s

Tondalayo she’s a native girl, half-caste.” 7 “Half gassed,” Mills replies, “well, women drink, you

can’t stop them.” The audience laughs heartily as the straight man becomes flustered trying to

caution Mills, who swears he will remain true to his husky girlfriend back home. West builds to a

comic rage, “Wait until you feel her warm body against yours... It only means one thing: mammy

palaver!” Mills retorts “Aye, what are you giving me here, double talk? What is this Mame

Palava?”

As West departs the scene exasperated, Corio makes her entrance. She slinks across the stage

wearing a batik halter top and sarong tied thigh-high; her hair and wrist are accessorized with

gigantic clusters of fake flowers. 8 “Helo, Helo. Me Tondalayo,” Corio purrs.9 The scene

progresses as Corio attempts to seduce Mills into her hut. From the orchestra pit, the drum

thumps a rhythm that Corio bumps to as she moves towards Mills, who jumps nervously at each

beat. Corio rubs Mills’ belly and promises “Tondalayo do so many nice things for you” and Mills

succumbs with minimal resistance. Their exit is followed by the entrance of West and Mac

Dennison, in character as Tondalayo’s jealous lover Unga from the tribe of Hunga. Unga speaks

in a repetitive gibberish based on Yiddish terms, which are translated by West. Mills and Corio

re-emerge and West interrogates the happy overseer: “Unga wants to know, did you and

7White Cargo scripts from This Was Burlesque. Undated MS, private collection of Carole Nelson.
Quotations are taken from one partial and two full scripts. The scripts are annotated with multiple
variations, corrections and some blocking notes; emphasis on “half ” in the original.
8"Castanet Clicks and the New Bumper Crop in Burlesque."; Marshall Smith, "It's Ladies' Day at the
Burleyque," Life 1966.
9Variant spellings of Tondalayo from burlesque scripts and White Cargo programs include: Tondeleyo,
Tondelayo and Tondalaya.
76

Tondalayo mammy palaver?” “Twelve times” exclaims Mills. This impresses Unga and the scene

ends in a blackout.

Fig. 8 Corio and Mills in “White Cargo.” Photographed by Bob Gomel for Life Magazine
(September 16,1966), 133. Used with the kind permission of Mr. Gomel.

Lewis Funke of the New York Times gave the show a generally favorable review, singling out the

“hilarious” comics and reporting that “only the bluest nose could refrain from laughing at the

burlesqued version of a scene from White Cargo or the episodes in a lunatic asylum.” But he also

criticized Corio for trying to “stir nostalgia for a chapter of show business that is as dead as the

dodo in this town.” And his prognosis for a long run was not optimistic: “This Was Burlesque may

have some merit for the curious and those who have been wondering what it was all about. But as
77

for the future? No Miss Corio, you more than likely will have to live with your memories.”10

Funke’s forecast was inaccurate; This Was Burlesque toured America in various incarnations until

1991.

**************

For twenty-nine years, This Was Burlesque remained a variety show in the style of stock

burlesque, following a template of burlesque sketches, chorus numbers and feature stripteases.

Although the comics and feature dancers would change, the company was always helmed by Ann

Corio and her partner, Michael Iannucci. Corio was able to sustain her brand for nearly three

decades because the brand personality was anchored in her identity as a burlesque queen. This

chapter will demonstrate that Corio’s fame was an intangible gravity that gave coherence to her

brand when burlesque artists could not claim their creations as intellectual property.

The chapter section, Retiring to the Jungle, will review Corio’s interregnum from burlesque

and the origins of TWB, the show. The Minstrel Afterglow introduces the comic technique preferred

by Corio and the residues of the minstrel tradition in stock burlesque and stand-up comedy.

The migration of burlesque ingredients into other media was facilitated by the subordination of

burlesque content into the public domain. The second half of this chapter considers two ways in

which twentieth-century burlesque artists embodied conscription, the extraction of labor. Gags

and Gimmicks details the legal precedents for the exclusion of burlesque from intellectual property

claims and The Politics of Mammy Palaver examines of the geopolitical context for “White Cargo,”

the skit which introduced this chapter. As a form of working-class comedy, burlesque artists

produced an identification with bodies that are drafted, unwillingly, into devalued physical labor.

10Lewis Funke, "'This Was Burlesque' at Casino East Narrrated by Ann Corio," New York Times March 7
1962.
78

Retiring to the Jungle

Ann Corio left stock and touring burlesque in the early 1940s to pursue a career in stage

and film. She signed a contract with Monogram Pictures and starred in five low-budget movies

released by the Producers Recording Corporation between 1941 and 1944. Technically, the

movies are poor: scenes end abruptly, there is little continuity of plot and action, the soundtrack

does not synch with the images and the sets are stock-jungle backdrops. The movies were made

on such tight schedules that scenes not shot by the end of the day were simply dropped from the

picture.11 Corio reported that she never saw a full script, she was handed only single sheets to

rehearse. Corio knew immediately that the movies were a poor career move. Despite some

financial success (the movie Swamp Woman earned half a million dollars on an $18,000 investment

in production costs), as early as 1946 Corio was distancing herself from the movies, claiming that

the producers, “don’t want them good. They want them Tuesday.”12 Other than the contracts

with Monogram, Corio was not offered other film roles. The movies belonged to a class of

cinema called exploitation films, so named because the limited-distribution, low-budget releases

required special marketing, such as the sarong modeling contest which was a promotion for Sarong

Girl.13

Although the poor quality of her first releases may have have been a limiting factor,

Corio’s film career was also limited by film industry attitudes towards stripteasers and content

Interview with Ann Corio and Jennifer Fox, Skip E. Lowe Looks at Hollywood (Hollywood, CA: 1985),
11

DVD.
12 Harry Henderson and Sam Shaw, "Queen of the Quickies," Colliers, June 8, 1946, 18.
13In later decades, the term exploitation referred to outre films which contained more violence, sexual
scenarios and nudity than movies produced by major studios which adhered to the self-regulating
censorship recommended by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributers Association (which became
the Motion Picture Association of America) as outlined by MPPDA President Will Hays and overseen by
the Production Code Administration. The ratings system was implemented by MPAA President Jack
Valenti in 1968 in cooperation with the National Association of Theatre Owners.
79

which treated sex as comic fodder. Beginning in 1930, the film industry instituted policies of self-

regulation in order to prevent government intervention. The Production Code Administration

guidelines discouraged any content which treated sex as comedy or farce and forbid

choreography which emphasized indecent movements or suggested sexual actions. Under the

PCA stripteasers couldn’t be portrayed on screen, even by legitimate actresses, and studios were

discouraged from recruiting burlesque dancers. In a 1937 interview for a trade newspaper, Joseph

Breen, (director of the PCA from 1934-1954), suggested that the Motion Picture Producers and

Distributors trade association should review industry policies on the employment of stripteasers.

Although the on-screen presence of stripteasers did not require action from the PCA, Breen

stated that such performers garnered “headline attention through acts considered against general

public acceptance.” 14 Breen’s power and influence were so pervasive at the time, the mere

suggestion that studios should employ stripteasers with caution limited the hiring of burlesque

dancers in the film industry. The PCA acted more aggressively in 1941 censoring Billy Wilder’s

script for Ball of Fire, a Howard Hawks comedy about a romance between a bumbling professor

and a Minsky’s burlesque star named Miss “Babe” LaBranche. In a letter to Samuel Goldwyn,

the PCA objected to “sex suggestive” and “dangerous” material, the use of the word “stripper”

and stripteases. The character of Babe was changed to Sugarpuss O’Shea, and her occupation

altered to nightclub singer.15 Key words that indicated the burlesque roots of O’Shea were

removed from the script, but the movie subtly invoked burlesque through covert references. “Ball

14James P. Cunningham, "Issue Not for Code Administration but Hays, Breen Holds," Motion Picture
Herald, April 24 1937, 15.
15Liz Goldwyn, Pretty Things: The Last Generation of American Burlesque Queens (New York: Harper Collins,
2006), 175-76. The 1938 RKO comedy Vivacious Lady, staring James Stewart and Ginger Rogers, also
turned on a professor-loves-nightclub-singer plot.
80

of Fire” was the established nickname of burlesque star Betty Rowland and Sugarpuss O’Shea’s

costume was a replica of Rowland’s stage outfit.16

When Gypsy Rose Lee appeared in five Twentieth Century Fox films between 1937-1938,

she appeared under the name Lousie Hovick, an attribution which distanced her screen presence

from her reputation on the burlesque circuits. Lee appeared as herself in Stage Door Canteen (1943)

performing the poem “Stripper’s Education” as part of a variety show at a nightclub for

servicemen headed off to war. This appearance is a rare instance of striptease in a widely-

released film and the performance is appropriately tame: Lee’s strip is limited to decorative bows,

gloves, stockings, a garter belt and a layered petticoat which are removed from under her outer

layer of clothing; throughout the routine Lee distracts the audience with the verbose patter about

the esoteric and mundane topics that occupy a stripper’s mind during performance. This

“reverse” strip was a signature routine of Lee’s and the only Hollywood product which captures

her burlesque persona. This modest success was unmatched by any other burlesque performer

who attempted to break into Hollywood movies. Corio was unable to create a separate identity as

a legitimate actress because she had always used her own name while performing in burlesque.

She claimed that she “wasn’t let out of the jungle” because she refused to change her name, as

Gypsy had been forced to do.17

After abandoning her film career in 1944, Ann Corio appeared in nightclubs and

legitimate theatre for the next eighteen years. In the 1940s Corio performed in variety revues at

high-end nightclubs such as the Florentine Gardens in Hollywood and the Latin Quarter in New

16 In a lawsuit against MGM, Rowland claimed that costume designer Edith Head visited her backstage
after a performance in Los Angeles. Liz Goldwyn documented this incident through studio archives and
interviews with Rowland. Goldwyn presents persuasive visual evidence in Pretty Things, juxtaposing a
Rowland publicity photo between two images of a nearly-identical costume in Ball of Fire.
17 Bill Little, "This Was Burlesque - Ann Corio," Jem October 1965, 70.
81

York. In the 1950s she migrated to appearing in light comedies on the straw hat circuit (a

network of summer stock theatres on the East Coast) and as a featured performer in small

repertory company shows. But she continued to be typecast as an erotic centerpiece or

supporting actress in light romantic comedies. Her repertory included recurring roles in The

Barker, Sleep it Off, Those Endearing Young Charms, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, Separate Rooms, Between

Husbands, and Sailor Beware (with co-star Karl Malden). She remained busy on summer tours, but

was rarely well-reviewed as an actress. Corio told many reporters that the audience: “came to see

my lines, not hear them.” While appearing as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Corio met her

business partner and future husband, the novice producer Michael Iannucci. Iannucci

encouraged Corio to revive her burlesque talents and together they created the show.

After a weak tryout in Boston, Corio and Iannucci rented the Casino East theatre in the

East Village and This Was Burlesque opened on March 1, 1962. The East Village was a hotbed of

jazz, poetry, and experimental theatre at the time. Although Corio’s show drew a few curious

young adults (including students from NYU who were sent to experience an antiquated

performance genre), the bulk of Corio’s audience were suburban couples or women from the

remaining Jewish families that had not been displaced by the bohemian counterculture.18 Ann

Corio is not mentioned in accounts of the East Village avant-garde community, but the Casino

East theatre was a few blocks north of St. Mark’s Church and Ellen Stewart’s first La Mama

location on Second Avenue.19 In Corio’s 1968 history book, she mentions only that the affordable

theatre was the “right background for our raffish show” and she told a reporter that some tourists

18Interview with Maria Collin, June 12, 2008. Collin (nee Bradley) was a chorus member in the original
cast of This Was Burlesque.
19 Banes, Greenwich Village 1963, 20-21.
82

“were afraid to come” to the neighborhood.20 The East Village jazz scene did infuse one aspect

of This Was Burlesque, the souvenir albums were produced and directed by Sonny Lester, an A&R

representative for the jazz label Roulette.21

Corio and Iannucci’s production was largely self-financed because few investors were

confident that a traditional burlesque revue could succeed. According to former cast members,

Corio took a hand in all aspects of the original production - she helped sew the costumes and

sold tickets in the box office as needed. Corio claimed that she could not find backers for a

burlesque revival because many investors were convinced that burlesque was still outlawed in

New York City. After the 1937 closure of burlesque theatres, shows with striptease and broad

humor were produced on Broadway, but at the sparse rate of approximately once a decade. In

Broadway shows the erotically-charged elements of the genre were circumscribed within the

book and dance traditions of musical comedy; the inflexibility of a performance script eliminated

opportunities for ribald improvisation. The Broadway musical Pal Joey contained a thinly-veiled

reference to Gypsy Rose Lee’s “Stripper’s Education” routine in the song “Zip.” The song is

performed by a former-dancer-turned-ambitious reporter and the acknowledgement of

burlesque and the inspiration for the number is scant (although the production did star Lee’s

sister June Havoc in the role of showgirl Gladys Bumps). A revival of the backstage comedy,

Burlesque, starring veteran comic Bert Lahr ran for just over a year in 1946 at the Belasco Theatre.

Burlesque veteran Phil Silvers headlined the show Top Banana, a romantic musical which ran for

350 performances in 1951-1952. In Top Banana, Silvers plays Jerry Biffle, a former burlesque

Corio and DiMona, This Was Burlesque, 189; Lewis Nichols, "Hip! Hip! For the Strip," New York Times,
20

March 14, 1965.


21A&R stands for artists and repertoire; agents are responsible for discovering new artists and contracting
them to a recording label. In 1966, Lester became a guiding partner in Solid State, the jazz division of the
United Artists Corporation.
83

comic who has become a television star. The Silvers vehicle satirized the commercial tie-ins

pervasive in television but it is light on burlesque references. The titular song minimally

references burlesque comic technique and the penultimate number is the “Top Banana Ballet,”

Biffle’s “moment of sad introspection... colorfully staged.”22

Gypsy, inspired by the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, opened in May of 1959. It ran for twenty-

two months and won eight Tony awards in 1960 (the film version was released in 1961). Gypsy

contains only two numbers which illustrate performances in a burlesque theatre; the bulk of the

show concerns the travails of a vaudevillian family. Burlesque is not celebrated, rather the circuits

are depicted as the lowest rung of show business and characterized as morally suspect. Corio’s

proposal - to celebrate the genre through the recreation of vintage comic routines and stripteases

- had little precedent to suggest that the venture would be profitable.

Corio aspired for This Was Burlesque to capture the same middle-class demographic as

Broadway fare, a different niche of consumers than the all-male audiences who attended the live

shows and movies which continued to operate under the term burlesque. The past-tense verb in

the title of the show suggested to consumers that burlesque belonged to a historic moment, not

the contemporary present, despite the existence of adult entertainments which permutated out

the early and mid-twentieth century circuits. Corio appealed to mixed middle-class audiences by

keeping the bawdy elements of the show consistent with the levels of language and nudity

contained in mainstream Broadway shows. Corio policed the conduct of This Was Burlesque

comedians and placed limitations on the language used in routines. She told reporters that a

speaker was installed in her dressing room so she could constantly monitor the on-stage comedy

for appropriate language and content.

22 Top Banana, (Hollywood, CA: Capitol Records 1951), 33 rpm.


84

By insisting that her comedians never used potentially offensive keywords such as “hell”

and “damn,” Corio differentiated her burlesque revue from the new generation of comedians,

many of whom began their careers in burlesque houses.23 When Corio debuted This Was

Burlesque, Lenny Bruce was nationally-known as a controversial monologuist. Four albums of his

nightclub material were released on vinyl in 1959 and his midnight Carnegie Hall concert in

1961 received national press. Bruce had strong connections to burlesque. Before developing his

signature style Bruce worked as an emcee in strip clubs and performed as a comic in West Coast

burlesque halls from 1951-1955. (During Bruce’s burlesque career his mother and occasional

collaborator, Sally Marr, taught at the Pink Pussycat College of Striptease in Hollywood and was

a comedian with the stage name Boots Malloy).24 In the early 1950s Bruce also wrote screenplays

for, and performed in, two low-budget movies which feature burlesque clubs - Dance Hall Racket

(1953) and Dream Follies (1954). Bruce was arrested twice while performing at Cafe au GoGo, on

the west side of Washington Square Park, while This Was Burlesque was still running at the Casino

East Theatre.

Bruce was not the only risque comedian with ties to burlesque. Redd Foxx claimed that he

had released seventeen comedy albums by 1962, the year he penned the article “Burlesque: The

Best Friend a Comic Ever Had” for the mens’ magazine Swank.25 Although Foxx did not use

language as explicit as Bruce, his work was sufficiently “blue” enough that his albums were often

sold under the counter and by request only at record stores. Comedy albums, which proliferated

23The terms “hell” and “damn” were disallowed under the Hays Code. Since there was no universal code
of theatre standards, it is possible that Corio imitated a cinematic code with national jurisdiction.
24 Jane Briggeman, Burlesque: A Living History (Albany, GA: Bear Manor Media 2009), 134.
25Foxx’s comedy albums did not always contain unique material. Like burlesque exploitation films,
previously recorded content was re-compiled and packaged under a new title (see chapter 4, No
Professionals).
85

in the 1960s, represented another permutation of burlesque humor into new media. 33 rpm vinyl

records of solo comic acts, called party albums, allowed consumers to enjoy nightlife

entertainments in their own homes and served as promotional materials for the artist. Corio did

release a cast album for This Was Burlesque but the fixed media did not represent the flexibility and

improvisation that Corio claimed was a marker of authentic burlesque humor.

The burlesque comic method preferred by Corio is exemplified by Steve Mills, first lead

comic hired by Corio for This Was Burlesque and a company member until 1968 (and

intermittently thereafter) when he was replaced on tour by Pinky Lee and Jerry Lester. Mills

worked as both a variety artist and a comedian in book-centered burlesques during the heyday of

fully-produced circuit shows. He was employed first as a candy seller for the conservative

Columbia circuit in the 1910s before becoming a stock burlesque comedian for Billy Minsky. For

This Was Burlesque, Mills reproduced both his stock burly routines and the musical numbers and

choral harmonies that he performed on the Columbia circuit. Mills represented a generation of

team-oriented comedians who specialized in group improvisation. In nightclubs and on the

remaining burlesque theatres, solo monologuists were eclipsing comedy duos; stand-up made

Mills and his cohort appear antiquated. In 1965 when The New Yorker profiled Mills, the reporter

James Stevenson feared that Mills would soon disappear like Pennsylvania Station, which was

destroyed in 1963 to make way for Madison Square Garden (Mills lived until 1988).26

The Minstrel Afterglow

Unlike the book musicals of the Columbia circuit, stock burlesque technique involved

improvisation within standard scenarios. Many burlesque comedians worked in the oral tradition,

memorizing scenes and variations without writing them down. The comedians who did maintain

26 James Stevenson, "Comic," The New Yorker, April 17, 1965.


86

an archive of scripts attests to the depth of the stock burlesque repertoire. According to Andy

Davis, author of the dissertation Baggy Pants Comedy: Burlesque and the Oral Tradition, the burlesque

corpus contained approximately 500 scenes. Comedian Jess Mack created a list of 1500 titles, but

many of the sketches are variations on a standard premise.27 A premise, such as a con man

running a shell game, could be altered through props and context. Davis reports that the scene

“One Banana Have You” had variations with cigars, pipes, and alcoholic beverages.28 Common

premises for burlesque scenes included: conflicts with authority (set in a doctor’s office or

laboratory, courtroom, military recruiting office); flirtation, seduction, infidelity and wedding

night scenarios; parodies of classic literature and the legitimate stage (such as “Julius Sneezer”

and “Romeo and Juliet”), many of which had origins in nineteenth-century minstrel after pieces;

ghost and graveyard scenes; gambling, betting and graft; education, which included schoolhouse

scenes, golf lessons and employee training; and insanity. In a scene such as Flugel (or Floogel)

Street several of these elements may combine. In the premise a man is trying to return a hat to

the Susquehanna Hat Company. As he asks for directions to the company he is assailed by

passersby who respond to him with increasing violence and rage. The motivations of the people

on the street were often illogical and the responses were non-sequiturs - burlesque comics reveled

in absurd situations which allowed them to interject different references, eccentric characters and

exaggerated gestures.

A large repertoire based on variation enabled comedians to avoid repeating recently-

performed scenes. Steve Mills and Phil Silvers recalled that a comedian had to propose a litany of

27Andrew Harvey Davis, "Baggy Pants Comedy: Burlesque and the Oral Tradition" (dissertation, New
York University, 2000), 61-62.
28———, "Baggy Pants Comedy: Burlesque and the Oral Tradition " (dissertation, New York University,
2000), 64-65.
87

burlesque scenes to the house manager before identifying one that had not been played in recent

weeks. Although the scenarios were well known to both performers and comedians, constant

improvisation kept the material fresh. Comics adjusted the language and gestures to the

temperament of the audience (including more - or less - suggestive gestures and language) and

inserted topical references. This is how comics were able to switch from a “hot” to the “Boston”

version of a show if alerted by the warning light. The improvisational repertoire was necessary

because stock burlesque allowed little time for rehearsal. Stock burlesque shows changed the

content every one to two weeks; the forthcoming show was rehearsed during performer breaks

and backstage time or late-night after the theatre closed. The album Gypsy Rose Lee Remembers

Burlesque contains a diegetic comic bit about the minimal rehearsal time in burlesque and the

shorthand terms developed for quickly blocking a scene. The character of Rags (Ragland) gives

Gypsy instructions for the “Pickle Persuader” scene:

You cross stage center with the yakety-yak... I give you a double skull and bit about the

newspaper around the neck. We go into the clinch and grab, you do the porkchop rave off

and I segue way into the fairy godmother finish, with you taking the seltzer water in the

pants. 29

Burlesque sketches were a constantly-changing potlatch of plot outlines, stock characters, physical

comedy, and improvisation.

At the core of burlesque sketches was comic banter between the straight man and the

comic. The straight man was well dressed, quick-witted and more intelligent than the comic, his

baggy-panted, clumsy co-star. The straight man would personify aggressive characters - playing

29Gypsy Rose Lee Remembers Burlesque, (Fort Lauderdale, FL: Fletcher Smith Studios, 1962). A different
version of the burlesque staging anecdote appears in Gypsy’s memoir. In both works she claims the tale is
based on her first speaking appearance on stage, but in her memoir the burlesque sketch is about a
shipwrecked sailor. See also Davis, "Baggy Pants Comedy: Burlesque and the Oral Tradition", 66.
88

roles of authority - or the suave seductor, the man who steals the attentions of a woman away

from the downtrodden comic. Two-man routines could be expanded with the addition of the

juvenile (a male cast member who sang and danced in musical numbers) and the talking woman,

(the term for attractive soubrettes), mature “prima donna” vocalists, or stripteasers who

performed in a comic sketch. Most burlesque sketches were short vignettes performed in front of

the curtain (called “in-one”). In blackout sketches, the routine ended with a suggestive gesture or

line which was punctuated by a sudden darkening of the stage lights. Longer scenes involving

props and small sets - such as a bedroom, restaurant, or courtroom scene - were played on the full

stage and could include the entire cast, as was the case with “Crazy House” a sketch set in an

insane asylum that was a perennial finale to This

Was Burlesque.

The structured improvisation of the

burlesque repertoire freed comics to interject

more racy (or demure) material and expand

dialogue that sparked an audience to laugh. But

this technique also limited the development of

new routines because the repertoire relied on a

limited roster of stock characters and archetypes.

This creative environment reinforced the use of

stereotypes, consequently broad racial caricatures

were the base ingredients of American burlesque.

A 1906 handbook on actor make-up technique


Fig. 9 Young, Making Up (1906), 131
delineates the primary character types in late-
89

eighteenth century American comedy. Making Up provides detailed instruction for a white male

actor or actress to create the impression of different “types and nationalities” such as the

Irishman, Chinaman, Swede, Indian, stage yankee and minstrel negro. The text of the make-up

book reinforces the notion that a character’s physiognomy was indicative of mental capacity and

their fixed place in social order. Exaggerated costume touches - such as putty noses, crepe hair,

padded bellies and skin blackened with cork - served as a visual shorthand, rapidly establishing

social hierarchies in a skit or longer scene.

The comedy duo Webber and Fields,

who headlined their own theatre in the late

19th century, specialized in “Dutch” roles, the

term for German immigrants. These broad

types were necessarily reductive and permitted

hyperbolic stage dress. The most frequently-

reproduced images of Weber and Fields show

the duo posed together wearing wide,

checkered pants, crepe wigs, putty noses and

fake beards. The tall, lean Lew Fields usually

looms over the shorter, heavily-padded Joe

Weber. An illustration of three roles played by

Fields hints at the expansive variety a comedian

could develop within a limited ethnic type.


Fig. 10 Lew Fields. Young, Making Up (1906), 155

Field’s manipulations of posture, expression and

costume illustrate the plasticity he was able to create in the potentially-limiting realm of German-
90

immigrant comedy. Fields asserts that in order “to be original” a comedian needed to present “a

recognized truth underlying the exaggeration.” Laughter was generated when a burlesque

performer ruptured the predictable elements of a stereotype or paired the gross exaggeration

with some “touch of real life.” 30

Although minstrel performers of the nineteenth century similarly defended their work

through the a presentation of “truth,” American burlesque has contained moments when a

performer voiced a critique of the caricature they were simultaneously inhabiting. Jana Brown

concurs in her analysis of The Creole Show, an all-black burlesque variety show which toured from

1890-1895 including a summer run on the outskirts of the World’s Columbian Exposition in

1893. Brown argues that despite operating in a “violent field of referents” the performers were

“multi-signifying.” “Working with and playing against the structure of a heroic drama set in

northern Africa, the women in The Creole Show drew upon a parodied English and U.S. discourses

of racialized female sensuality.” 31

Subversive performances that resist the limiting functions of a stereotype rely on gesture,

inflection or the context of the skit as indicators of irony. Lew Fields advised: “An inflection as

every comedian knows, will make or mar the point of a story; and this makes burlesque one of

the most difficult of stage presentations.” 32 A performer could employ irony to endorse - or reject

- the premise of a scene or character. Irony could be indicated through inflection, gesture or

expression, but these actions were difficult to capture in still photographs. Static photographic

30James Young, Making up - a Practical and Exhaustive Treatise on This Art (New York: M. Whitmark and Sons,
1906), 155-56.

Jayna Brown, Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern (Durham, NC: Duke
31

University Press 2008), 95-97.


32 Young, Making up - a Practical and Exhaustive Treatise on This Art, 155.
91

portraiture from early American burlesque only reinforces the genre’s reliance on reductive racial

caricatures.

Brown makes a compelling argument for artists’ capacity to load their performances with

resistance and dissent, but dehumanizing stereotypes could still be sued in the service of racism.

Corio’s book, This Was Burlesque, includes images of Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor in blackface

from the burlesque chapter of their careers. Corio includes the pictures to connect burlesque and

the more legitimate film industry. But the images evince how readily the minstrel characters of

burlesque and vaudeville migrated into cinema. In Blackface, White Noise Michael Rogin examines

the role of blackface and minstrel-influenced character types in Hollywood movies from the

1930s to the civil rights era. Rogin asserts that racial masquerades by Jewish performers (such as

Jolson and Cantor, who both stared in blackface films) assimilated European ethnic groups “into

the melting pot by keeping racial groups out.” 33 Blackface caricatures “deprived black men and

women of adult authority” while giving white performers the permission to navigate new social

and political positions within their European identity.34

The occasional integration of the stage was mirrored in the audiences at the most

affordable theatres. In 1935, an English chronicler of American burlesque, Geoffrey Gorer,

observed that “in the really cheap burlesques Negroes and whites sit side by side; in the amateur

nights there are as many Negro as white performers.” 35 The Columbia circuit also hosted the

lone theatre where African Americans were permitted to perform in New England in front of

Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley, CA:
33

University of California Press 1996), 12.


34 Ibid., 13.
35 Geoffrey Gorer, Hot Strip Tease (London: Cresset Press, 1937), 71.
92

mixed audiences. The Gaiety theater in Boston hosted Josephine Baker, Moms Mabley, a young

Sammy Davis, Pigmeat Markham, and Buck and Bubbles.36

The burlesque industry was sparsely integrated in the twentieth century, but it would be

inaccurate to suggest the genre was quietly progressive or equitable. Segregation and racial

impersonation dominated the modest inclusion of black performers. Before the great depression,

“black and white” shows, with a white-cast first act and a black-cast second act, were a popular

attraction. The Columbia circuit featured two of these productions in the 1926-27 season.37

Black comedians did appear in burlesque and variety shows in the early twentieth century, but

they were expected to “black-up” for performance as Bert Williams did for Florenz Zeigfeld’s

shows. Minsky comedian and dancer Eddie “Coffee” Green appeared with Steve Mills in the

Columbia Circuit book musical A Perfect 36 in the 1927-28 season; the presence of a black

performer superficially integrated the show, but like Bert Williams, Green appeared in

blackface.38 When Josephine Baker appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, she was harassed

and humiliated in print reviews, despite her international success in Europe.

Baker’s case illustrates that the slight segregation of audiences and burlesque comics was

not mirrored in the bodies of the dancers. Dancers of color faced greater obstacles to

employment. In the early 1940s, Corio appeared alongside the Chinese-American fan dancer

Noel Toy at the Cafe Savoy nightclub in San Francisco. After debuting at the club Forbidden

City, Toy enjoyed a successful striptease career on the West Coast and in New York City clubs but

her attempts to crossover to television and film were stymied by typecasting. Other than

36 Briggeman, Burlesque: A Living History, 294.


37Patricia Sandberg Conner, "Steve Mills and the Twentieth Century American Burlesque Show: A
Backstage History and a Perspective" (Dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1979),
252.
38 Ibid., 255-58.
93

occasional appearances in the television show M.A.S.H. in the 1970s, the Berkeley-educated

dancer abandoned acting because she felt her roles were restricted to "the ornamental

Oriental."39 African American dancers did not sustain profitable careers in the predominantly

white burlesque circuits until the late 1950s. Lee Angel (also Angel Robinson or Robin Lee)

began performing in a 1956 revue. She was a dancer, comic straight-woman and carnival barker

who was a headliner on the Cetlin Circuit of traveling carnivals.40 In 1960 two African-American

dancers, Lottie “the Body” Graves and Tori Elling, became popular features in burlesque

theatres. The classically-trained Graves and self-taught Elling performed with legendary jazz and

blues musicians in Detroit nightclubs before expanding their careers into burlesque theatres. But

they were not always well received in the communities where they travelled. Elling recalled that

Las Vegas club managers were particularly averse to black performers and Graves remembered

being singled out on the streets of Madawaska, Maine as a “walking chocolate bar” and she was

billed as the “most exotic of exotic.” 41

Black comedians had similarly circumscribed cross-over successes with white audiences.

Pigmeat Markham and Moms Mabley were both Apollo headliners who expanded their

audiences through nightclub performances and 33 rpms of their live shows. But the sustaining

industry for Markham, Mabley and many black performers in the twentieth century was a

network of black-owned entertainment venues. The Theatre Owners’ Booking Association,

(TOBA) circuit was incorporated in 1920 after two antecedent circuits collapsed. High-profile

black performers, such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Ma Rainey, became frustrated with the

39 Chuck Squatriglia, "Noel Toy - Famed Exotic Dancer of '40s," San Francisco Chronicle, January 23, 2004.
40 Briggeman, Burlesque: A Living History, 68-69.
41Sarah Klein, "Paradise Regained " Metro Times, August 3, 2005. See also http://
blackburlesquehistory.weebly.com/ accessed January 14, 2010.
94

limited bookings available on the vaudeville and burlesque circuits. Theatre managers often made

housing arrangements, or ran adjacent hotels, for performers who were brought to cities with no

boarding options for African-Americans during the Jim Crow era.42 The TOBA circuit enabled

black-authored book musicals, tab shows and variety revues to tour the United States. The circuit

was supplemented by independent nightclubs and producers, including the Creole Palace in San

Diego and the Atlantic-City based touring venture Larry Steele’s Smart Affairs, a high-quality

cabaret revue which ran for over twenty years.43

The occasional presence of African-American performers in burlesque was consistent

with the slow integration initiated in the civil-rights era. But inhospitable touring conditions and

paucity of performers in stock burlesque lessen the probability that reductive stereotypes were

being challenged or critiqued on stage. Unfortunately, there has been little research in theatre

history studies which recovers the content and touring range of African American dancers and

comedians after the jazz era and it is possible to underestimate the influence of a distinctly black

aesthetic in stand-up comedy. Pigmeat Markham was closely associated with the classic burlesque

routine “Here Comes da Judge” because he left a unique mark on the skit through his rapping

entrance and the vocal cadence he brought to the character. Markham’s performance might have

drawn attention to the paucity of black judges and hinted at the perspective an African-

American might bring to the position. But the persistence of reductive racial caricatures in

burlesque and the lack of performer, producer, and audience integration mitigates the subversive

potential of race-based figures in American humor. Minstrel iconography and social hierarchy

42Thomas Riis, More Than Just Minstrel Shows: The Rise of Black Musical Theatre at the Turn of the Century
(Brooklyn, NY Institute for Studies in American Music 1992).
43Jaye Furlonger, "San Diego's Bygone Burlesque: The Famous Hollywood Theatre," Journal of San Diego
History 51, no. 1 (2005): 23-24.
95

embedded in these caricatures was reiterated to burlesque audiences throughout the twentieth

century. The repertoire of American humor functioned like advertising - repetitive exposures

heightened a brand-like recognition of racial tropes, which inspired audience confidence through

their stability.

As audiences grew more sensitive to reductive representations of racial and ethnic

identity, burlesque comics dropped their racial specialties and developed eccentric, clown-like

personas instead. In his early career, Steve Mills was a “Dutch” comedian. While performing in

This Was Burlesque he reported that he changed his specialty to singing and more clownish

comedy because audiences in the American midlands, where he found consistent work, did not

empathize with a persona inspired by New York City immigrants. While Mills migrated away

from racially-inspired lines of comic business, Lenny Bruce launched a direct critique on racial

stereotypes. Bruce’s burlesque training is evident in the routine “Father Flotski’s Triumph,” a

satire about the conventions of Hollywood prison dramas. “Father Flotski’s Triumph” contains

racial impersonations rooted in the stock characters of the burlesque repertoire. In the sketch, the

prisoner who is holding guards captive is named “Dutch,” the burly term for characters based on

German immigrants; the “handsome mixed-up prison doctor” speaks in a Yiddish-based

gibberish and the heroic Father Flotski speaks in a broad Irish brogue. Bruce impersonates an

African American on death row and critiques the cinematic stereotype by labeling the moment

the “Jim Crow/Uncle Tom scene,” the character’s advice to the convicted man is, “You don’t

mind dying boss, if you have a natural sense of rhythm,” a reference to the musicality which was

ascribed to black people in the minstrel tradition. The prison standoff is resolved by Kiki the

hospital attendant, a character based on a uniquely burlesque type - the nance, a typically fey,

lisping characterization of homosexuality.


96

The recreations of stock burlesque comedy and stripteases in This Was Burlesque set the

show apart from topless bars and “sick nik” stand-up comics. The formula of minimal nudity and

no profanity was more risque than Broadway fare but still modest enough to appeal to a broad

middle class demographic. The show ran for three years at the Casino East before transferring to

the Hudson theatre on Broadway in March 1965 for a limited, three-month run. The departure

from the Casino East may have been instigated by a conflict between Michael Iannucci and the

1964-65 World’s Fair Committee. Iannucci had a verbal - but not written - contract with Gen.

William B. Potter to bring the show to the Danceland Room of the Bourbon Street Pavilion and

the show was put on hiatus at the Casino East in August of 1964. But in the week before This

Was Burlesque was scheduled to transfer the fair’s executive committee chairman Robert Moses

intervened and prohibited the company from taking up residence. Despite attending the show

without complaint, Moses felt the show was not appropriate, perhaps seeking to distance the

faltering event from past world’s fairs dominated by striptease attractions. Iannucci sued the

financially-troubled fair, unsuccessfully, and five months later Corio and Iannucci rented the

1,100-seat Hudson Theatre.44 Corio told the press that the move was to allow tourists to find the

show easier.45 The run was moderate (six weeks and 124 performances) but it allowed the duo to

bill their show as a “Broadway hit” on tour around America.

Gags and Gimmicks

This Was Burlesque was the longest-running recreation of the genre but it was not the only

burly-themed entertainment venture. In December of 1963 “Burlesque on Parade” opened at the

Village Theatre a few blocks away from the Casino East. The show featured Blaze Starr, a

44Ralph Chapman, "Robert Moses Turns Down Ann Corio - Fair Won't Admit Twb," New York Herald
Tribune, August 6, 1964.
45 Sam Zolotow, "Burlesque Sets Broadway Move," New York Times, February 17 1965.
97

stripper who gained notoriety for her creative props, which included a couch which appeared to

catch on fire, and her enduring relationship with Louisiana governor Earl Long; that show did

not survive the winter and Starr returned to her touring career. A nostalgic, stock-burlesque

template was also used for Gypsy Rose Lee Remembers Burlesque an album released on the

StereOddities label in 1962. The record features sketches and spoken recollections by Lee. The

album is more structured than the rambling collection of anecdotes and home movies compiled

by Lee for her show, A Curious Evening with Gypsy Rose Lee, which ran for a limited engagement at

the Mayfair Theatre (the former Diamond Horseshoe club) in 1961, opening just a few months

after the first run of Gypsy closed.46 Other short-lived burlesque-themed shows included Burlesque

as You Expect which played the Hillside Theatre in Jamaica, Queens and the Fractured Follies of

1966 at the Hudson theatre (the same theatre TWB played in 1965).

Stock burlesque was the centerpiece of the movie The Night They Raided Minsky’s, a 1968

movie staring Jason Robards and featuring Bert Lahr (who died during the filming). The movie

was based on Rowland Barber’s 1960 book of the same title; the live-theatre segments of the

movie were shot in the Casino East theatre, the launching point for TWB. The movie shares

several elements with Corio’s show: the cinematic Minksy performance opens with the song

“Powder My Back;” Rachel is wooed by the comic straightman during a performance of “Crazy

House;”and the first act finale is a patriotic medley followed by intermission patter by a Candy

Butcher. In New York City burlesque revivals petered out in 1970s, with the exception of a

46 Whitney Balliett, "The Theatre - Off Broadway Diary," The New Yorker, May 9, 1961, 118-19. Milton
Esterow, "Theatre: Memories of Gypsy Rose Lee," New York Times, May 10, 1961. As further example of
the murky provenance of burlesque performances, Frankel reports in her Stripping Gypsy that the show
started at the off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre in October, 1960 before transferring to Broadway on
May 9, 1961 with Gypsy serving as her own financial backer (she lost almost $7,000). However, according
to the Lortel Archives and the Broadway Internet Database, the Mayfair was, technically, an off-Broadway
not an Broadway production. Noralee Frankel, Stripping Gypsy (New York: Oxford University Press 2009),
224.
98

Broadway revival of Gypsy, starring Angela Lansbury, which ran for three months in 1974-75. In

1979, Corio served as a consultant to the show Big Bad Burlesque, coaching the young dancers and

comedians. The show ran for four months, closing shortly after the opening of the Broadway

show Sugar Babies.

Sugar Babies, starring Ann Margaret and Mickey Rooney, was the most successful

Broadway adaptation of burlesque; it was also the most sexually tepid.47 The show reanimated

Sam Scribner’s “clean” Columbia wheel burlesque. Although Sugar Babies lacked the connecting

plot line of Columbia wheel book shows, it had a stable script and retained a Victorian

sensibility: song and dance numbers were emphasized over bawdy sketches; there were no

stripteases; and the chorus girls performed with mechanical precision in ragtime costumes. In lieu

of stripteases Sugar Babies contains numbers which allude to historic strips including an ensemble

song and dance tribute to Sally Rand and a solo performance in which doves land on a dancer.

The bird conceit was taken from Rosita Royce, a stripper who trained doves to remove her

clothes. But no skin is revealed in Sugar Babies, at the climax of the one, modest glove-and-

petticoat strip routine the dancer’s bra strap triggers a folded paper shade to fall around her body.

Sugar Babies is so faithful to the nineteenth-century sensibility that it included an adapted

minstrel routine. In the sequence the chorus sings a reference to Madame Rentz as Ann Margaret

leads her chorines “sister bones” and “sister tambourine” in a ladies minstrel show. The routine

does not use blackface, instead Margaret wears a sparkling-white tap outfit covered in sequins, as

if to cleanse burlesque of any association with the use of burnt cork. But minstrel iconography is

47 Sugar Babies ran for 1208 performances at the 1500 seat Mark Hellinger theatre.
99

partially restored, by shadows, when the act ends in a blacklight sequence which highlights white

gloves, playing green guitars, as the chorines sing “Mr Banjo Man.” 48

During the run of Sugar Babies Corio and Iannucci attempted to bring This Was Burlesque

back to Broadway. The revival opened at the Princess theatre Jun 23, 1981 and closed after 28

performances. Advertising for the show included a direct attack on Sugar Babies. Print

advertisements for Corio’s revival featured a photograph of the young dancer and the slogan

“Why settle for sugar, baby, when you can see the real thing?” A telegram feud between the

show’s producers was leaked to the press.49 The publicity war was provoked by a personal

conflict between the producers; Corio and Iannucci believed that Ralph Allen, author of the

comic scripts and overall concept for Sugar Babies, had poached the burlesque scenes from the This

Was Burlesque repertoire. Iannucci claimed that Allen toured with the company in the 1960s under

the auspices of studying burlesque technique and writing an academic book on the topic. 50 Corio

and Iannucci were probably just one source contacted by Allen, who earned a DFA from Yale in

1960, and was a life-long collector of burlesque ephemera.

The Sugar Babies feud was rooted in contentious legal claims on the burlesque repertoire.

The corpus of sketches, jokes and scenarios belonged to the public domain in the early twentieth

century. But new media technologies and changes to copyright law enabled artists to claim parts

of the repertoire as their personal intellectual property. If a sketch was published in a book, or

recorded for film, television or the music industry a copyright could be established. The twentieth

century transition from public domain repertoire to defensible intellectual property generated

48 Sugar Babies, recorded 1980, Theatre on Film and Tape (NCOV 139), New York Public Library.
49 Cindy Stivers, "Sugar-Coated Burlesque," New York Daily News July 1, 1981.
50 Lecture at UCLA conference. Tape recording of UCLA in the archive of Carole Nelson.
100

conflicts between burlesque artists over authorship and attribution. Ann Corio and Michael

Iannucci navigated this new terrain cautiously but with an inconsistent strategy.

Corio lobbied attacks on Sugar Babies and acknowledged Gypsy, but she did never admitted

her indebtedness to a burlesque revival show that preceded hers. A comparison of This Was

Burlesque and Sherry Britton’s Best of Burlesque reveals the contentious nature of intellectual

property in the genre. Slight, but significant, distinctions between the two shows reveal how Corio

shaped her brand into a more successful touring product by exploiting her own professional

reputation – both the high and low points. Best of Burlesque starred Sherry Britton, a feature

stripteaser from the 1930s and 1940s, and Tom Poston “as the top banana.” The show opened

on September 27, 1957 at the Carnegie Hall Playhouse as part of a series of experimental

offerings on Friday and Saturday nights in a basement venue.51 It was generally well-reviewed

during the limited-engagement, month-long run. The show was modeled on the class burlesque

houses, such as the Irving Palace, and the Minsky stock formula: it contained a a mix of chorus

routines, skits, recreations of famous striptease dances, and a sales pitch by a candy butcher. The

innovation in Best of Burlesque, as staged and written by Jack Vaughan, was the narration between

scenes by a veteran burlesque stripteaser - a facet replicated in This Was Burlesque.

It is highly probable that Ann Corio had access to some iteration of Britton’s show and

modeled This Was Burlesque on the Best of Burlesque template. An original cast album for Best of

Burlesque, released by MGM in 1958, expanded the range of exposure for the show beyond New

York City. In July 1960, Corio appeared in a show titled Best of Burlesque at the Ritz Theatre in

Los Angeles. Billed as a satire of burlesque in the 1930s, Corio told a reporter that she was lured

51Louis Calta, "Opening Tonight for 'Burlesque'," New York Times, September 27, 1957. A Jack Vaughan
received doctorate from the University of Denver in 1964 and a was professor of Theatre Arts from
1968-1990 at California State University, Dominguez Hills, but he has not been positively identified as the
author of BOB.
101

out of her retirement in Malibu by the opportunity to “redeem a medium of show business that

has been kicked around and so degraded.” 52 It is unclear if Corio’s West Coast revue had the

same script as Britton’s because the show’s author was not named in reviews of the Best of

Burlesque starring Corio. The two shows had different producers and it is possible that Corio

participated in the production without knowledge of Sherry Britton’s New York City

engagement. However, it is notable that Corio never mentioned her appearance in the 1960 show

in her history book or in sundry interviews when she discussed the origins of This Was Burlesque.

Corio adhered to the story that she had retired from burlesque until recruited by Michael

Iannucci after she appeared in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in Philadelphia in 1958. Programs from the

first season of This Was Burlesque describe the production “as suggested by Eddie Jaffe,” a

publicity agent for Corio, but this attribution was dropped in subsequent seasons and replaced

with the tag line “a satire based on Miss Corio’s recollections.”

As with Sugar Babies, the slight adaptations to the stock burlesque formula in Best of

Burlesque (BOB) rendered it structurally similar to This Was Burlesque (TWB).The shows shared

some common themes and musical numbers. BOB opens with the chorus number “Hello

Everybody,” the same number chosen by Corio to open her Casino East show in 1962 (in later

seasons the opening became “Hello New York,” “Powder My Back” or another enticing anthem).

BOB had elements of female exoticism including the “Pagan Love Song,” a number marked by

off-key, atonal chanting that was intended to imitate Tahitian tribal music. Corio could have

taken the title of her show from Britton’s remarks on the cast album. Britton concludes her

narration with the line, “This, to the best of our recollection, was burlesque.” Sherry Britton

believed that Corio’s show had pirated her material and Britton toured Best of Burlesque as

52 Don Alpert, "First Lady of Burlesque Ann Corio Revives Lost Art," Los Angeles Times, July 10, 1960.
102

competition to This Was Burlesque on the summer-stock circuit in 1966.53 Corio was operating

within the law, but like black jazz dancers who had no legal protections when their choreography

was appropriated by other producers, Britton felt her moral right to attribution had been

violated. In an article on the open exchange between black choreographers, Anthea Kraut noted

that dancers voiced “the right to have one’s creative agency acknowledged.” 54

There is a key distinction in the tone of the two nostalgic recreations of stock burlesque;

Corio did not parrot all elements of Britton’s show. Corio exalted the low physical humor and

proletarian world-view of burlesque humor in her narration for This Was Burlesque. In her class-

antagonism argument, it was populist elements which drew individuals of all economic categories

to the theatre. BOB is not a low parody of high manners; rather, the show attempts to validate

burlesque’s cultural significance by framing it in academic terms. In the liner notes for the BOB

cast album Jack Vaughan complains of the “Freudian and Kinseyesque overtones” that polluted

burlesque after 1942. Corio often cited Aristophanes, but always with information that identified

the Greek comedian and she never deployed a historical reference as an adjective. The difference

between the burlesque revival shows is most striking in two education sketches. The TWB

repertoire included several variations on teacher-and-student miscommunications (and

flirtations). In a school house scene filmed for television, Corio is a kindly teacher trying to

educate unruly boys - played by her geriatric comedians. The sketch is full of light innuendo

generated by a basic spelling lesson. In BOB Britton speaks in cultured, rounded tones when she

53Britton voiced this complaint to her friend the neo-burlesque dancer and author Jo Weldon, who wrote
about Britton’s claim in her blog Burlesque Daily http://burlesquedaily.blogspot.com/ July 2, 2009. This was
confirmed by Weldon in an email to the author on November 11, 2009. See also Lewis Funke, "Life
Begins on the Summer Rialto," New York Times, June 12, 1966.
54Anthea Kraut, "'Stealing Steps' and Signature Moves: Embodied Theories of Dance as Intellectual
Property," Theatre Journal 63, no. 2 (2010): 185.
103

introduces the education sketch with the comment, “It demonstrates as well that social

commentary by parody and travesty was the essence of burlesque comedy.” The BOB sketch

takes place in a co-ed college where a egotistical male professor harangues a ditsy female student.

In BOB the traditional burlesque school scene has been transposed to higher education and fitted

with innuendo around academic terms such as “matriculate.” Best of Burlesque was prolix whereas

This Was Burlesque was plebeian. The vocabulary and diction of the two shows was divergent, but

TWB did mirror the satiric tone of BOB. Both productions recreated the unrehearsed, rough

elements of burlesque through a female chorus member, who clumsily executed the

choreography and sang in flat tones.

If Corio was inspired by Britton’s show and did obscure the influence, her actions were

consistent with the attitudes towards intellectual property in the burlesque industry and the

launch of TWB did not violate copyright law at the time. In 1962 American copyright law did

not grant the content of live burlesque entertainment the same protections as print publications,

sound recordings and film. Because of the premium placed on fixation in a tangible media as the

means of establishing an author’s rights, original live performances which did not simultaneously

generate a recording or document for deposit at the U.S. Copyright Office were not, by default,

protected material.55 The subordinate status of performed material was consistent with the

priorities for intellectual property in the constitution, which allows for legal protections (copyright

and patent) which “promote the progress of science and useful arts.” 56 As light, comic

entertainment burlesque was not within the purview of scientific-rational investigation or

55Performances of previously-copyrighted material (such as play adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or the
original song and book compositions of Gilbert and Sullivan) were protected by an author’s right to
display and distribute their work.
56 United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8, Clause 8.
104

industrial craftsmanship (the colonial meaning of “useful arts”). Dramatic works could receive

copyright protection if they were original, literary compositions.

Burlesque - as both literary device and genre of live entertainment - belonged to a realm

of parody and adaptation; it is a work of criticism or parody derivative of an original

composition. Burlesque artists invoked enough of their source material so that it could be

identified by an audience even as the performer satirized that source through exaggeration and

hyperbole. Furthermore, two significant legal cases singled out burlesques as ineligible for

copyright protection because of the low moral character of the material. In Martinetti v. Maguire

(1867), two San Francisco producers sued each other over rights to produce The Black Crook, the

wildly-popular melodrama-spectacle that included a troupe of dancers in leg-revealing tights.

The California circuit court dismissed the claims of both producers; Justice Deady wrote, “In my

judgment, an exhibition of women ‘lying about loose’ or otherwise, is not a dramatic

composition, and, therefore, not entitled to the protection of the copyright act.” He further

dismissed the claims on the grounds that the melodrama was “a dramatic composition which is

grossly indecent, and calculated to corrupt the morals of the people. The exhibition of such a

drama neither ‘promotes the progress of science or useful arts,’ but the contrary.” 57

The precedent of Martinetti v. Maguire was cited in Barnes v. Miner (1903) a case involving

two productions which used the same conceit: a kinetescope projected images of the performer

rapidly changing costumes between a series of celebrity impersonations. The actress Hattie

Barnes and the actor Adolf Zink impersonated infamously risque variety and burlesque

performers (Barnes imitated Anna Held, Florenz Ziegfeld’s petite ingenue, and Zink aped May

Irwin, a popular burlesque star). The opinion by New York circuit court Judge Ray took

57 Martinetti v. Maguire, 16 F. Cas. 920, (1867) U.S. App. LEXIS 769; 10-12
105

particular aim at Hattie Barnes for imitating a “woman of some notoriety” and for her

introductory preface which contained, “commonplace and vulgar and suggestive dialogue of

some considerable length.” Although the extent of the cinematic disrobing in the two

performances was not detailed, the New York judge wrote that “it is evident they are not the

same, except in the general sense that they are lascivious and immoral.” Justice Ray asserted that

although the public may tolerate and patronize such performances, “courts will degrade

themselves when they recognize them as entitled to the protection of the law.” 58

In Corio’s life burlesque had always been a realm where material was pirated from

popular song, dramatic plays, vaudeville routines and musical plays for comic fodder. As

entertainers working in the realm of suggestive dialogue and lascivious content, dancers and

comedians had no recourse to defend their original compositions from piracy. Comedians

persistently stole jokes and material from one another. Abe Minsky unashamedly took material

from Broadway musicals and revues. Burlesque comics often stamped their type-or-hand-written

scripts “property of ” but the comic was laying an indefensible claim to their version. Routines

circulated among stock houses and only could be considered “owned” to the degree that a

comedian could indelibly mark their persona on the material. Sammy Davis Jr. added little to

Pigmeat Markham’s rapping entrance to “Here Comes the Judge” when he performed it on

Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, the television variety show with burlesque elements (including

blackout sketches and a variation on “Crazy House”) which ran from 1968-1973.

The mercurial nature of burlesque comedy within copyright law is exemplified by the

duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello - former burly comedians who mined the repertoire for their

radio shows and movies. The sketch “Who’s on First” had been circulating in several forms since

58 Barnes v. Miner, (1903) C.C.S.D.N.Y.,122 F. 480, 491.


106

the late-nineteenth century under variant themes. After Abbot and Costello began performing

the routine on the radio, burlesque comics complained that seemingly overnight audiences came

to believe the routine was an original creation by one comic team. Abbott and Costello

intentionally selected burlesque sketches for inclusion in their movies, thereby establishing

copyright, through recorded film, over public domain material.59 Abbott and Costello were not

the only comedians who attempted to stake legal claims on the repertoire (Joey Faye

unsuccessfully tried to copyright the routine “Floogel Street”) but contracts inconsistently

recognized a performer’s separate right to copyright through visual media. In 1979 when This

Was Burlesque was filmed for the cable channel Home Box Office, performer contracts stipulated

that the recorded content either belonged to the artist or was part of the public domain. Because

Corio and her comedians could not make defensible claims to authorship, Corio closely guarded

her private archive of burlesque scripts, a cache she inherited from Harry Conley, a comedian

who died while in her employment. Although scholars including Ralph Allen and Andrew Davis

consulted with Corio and Iannucci about baggy-pants comedians, neither apparently were

informed of the private library of scripts.

Female dancers experienced similar entanglements over signature routines and

catchphrases. But unlike the male comedian, dancers could not establish creative authorship for

their original stripteases because choreographic works were not protected until the 1976

copyright code (enacted in 1978). In 1963 Faith Dane sued the producers of Gypsy because her

original, bugle-playing striptease was interpolated into the show, in the musical number “You

Gotta Have A Gimmick,” during the rehearsal process. Although the court acknowledged that

Dane performed a bugle-corps inspired dance at nightclubs and in her audition for Gypsy before

59 Davis, "Baggy Pants Comedy: Burlesque and the Oral Tradition", 30.
107

being cast as Miss Mazeppa in both the Broadway production and the movie, Dane’s copyright

claim was denied because her original choreography contained nothing of a dramatic, literary or

musical character which elevated, cultivated or improved the intellectual and moral character of

the audience, and therefore did not contribute to the progress of science and the useful arts.60

The court also held that Dane did not write the song and it was only through the “talent and

ingenuity of the songwriter” were the producers able to give a “good effect” to Dane’s bumps,

grinds and bugle playing. The creative skills of the educated, male songwriters (Stephen

Sondheim and Jule Styne) demonstrated dramatic merit, Dane’s choreography did not.

Lacking any means for copyrighting the innovations that distinguished them from other

dancers, stripteasers relied on self-promotion and coast-to-coast touring in order to connect their

name with the creative premises for their strips. Although Sally Rand was the most famous fan

dancer, Faith Bacon claimed to have created the technique (Rosita Royce also claimed that Rand

took the idea of a large-balloon dance from her, although Rand invested her own money into

developing a semi-transparent bubble prop which screened her body). Georgia Sothern became

famous as a young teenager for her fast and frantic style of dance. In an interview with June

Hovic, Sothern claimed that a novice stripteaser seriously injured her neck while trying to imitate

Sothern’s hair-flipping, head-tossing moves.

Dancers also pirated quotable slogans from one another. The expression “ecdysiast” is

consistently attributed to H. L. Mencken, who invented the word after the Greek term for

60 Dane vs. M & H Company, (N.Y.S.C. 1963), 136 USPQ 426-429. Broadway contracts after this case
included a clause which stipulated that an actors’ stage business was the property of the producer. The
number “You’ve Got to Have a Gimmick” included another piece of stage action taken from a burlesque
dancer who did not receive attribution or compensation; Electra, the dancer with an illuminated costume,
was inspired by the real-life Electra, who performed in an electric-light outfit. Electra was actually a rival
of Gypsy Rose Lee’s over talking-woman roles in burlesque sketches. Jane Briggeman, Burlesque: Legendary
Stars of the Stage (Portland, OR: Collectors Press 2004), 36-41.
108

“molting” or “shedding.” Many stripteasers, including Gypsy Rose Lee, Ann Corio and Georgia

Sothern, claimed that Mencken coined the term at their personal request. Corio ended her

stripteases with the line “I can’t take that off or I’ll catch cold!” Gypsy Rose Lee used the same

line at the end of her “Adam and Eve” number on the album Gypsy Rose Lee Remembers and at the

conclusion of her routine in the movie Star and Garter.

Most of Ann Corio’s career was lived in an era when burlesque dancers and comedians

could not defend their original, creative compositions. To distinguish This Was Burlesque from the

other revival shows built around the stock burlesque template, Corio established her authority as

a burlesque curator by reinforcing audience associations with her public persona and striptease

fame. The “White Cargo” sketch was one Corio revived in order to feature herself and to evoke

the roles which made her famous. Her performance as Tondalayo referenced her past

performances of the role and her ill-begotten movies.

The Politics of Mammy Palaver

Ann Corio’s first role on the legitimate stage was that of Tondalayo in a 1941 touring

production of White Cargo; she also performed the role in New York City and in summer stock

theatres on the East Coast in the mid-1940s. White Cargo, by Leon Gordon, opened in New York

City in 1923. Although the play was critically dismissed as lurid, it ran for 702 performances on

Broadway and toured extensively for the next decade.61 The potboiler play concerns the travails

of Langford, an overseer at a West African plantation, who becomes enamored of Tondalayo.

Seeking to uphold his civilized morality, Langford marries Tondalayo rather than engage in an

informal sexual relationship (as his predecessors had done). But Tondalayo quickly becomes

61 White Cargo became a movie in 1929 and again in 1942 staring Heddy Lamar.
109

bored with the arrangement and attempts to poison Langford; her assassination attempt is

thwarted and she is forced to drink the poison by other plantation executives.

Fig. 11 Corio as Tondalayo in White Cargo. From the


White Cargo souvenir program and Spot Magazine (August
1941), 8.

White Cargo marked Corio’s only known foray into makeup-enhanced minstrelsy - when

she performed Tondalayo in Cambridge, she wore a heavy brown make up on her body (she

quipped in her book that when local censors faulted her for being scantily clad, she added an

extra layer of body powder). Prior to her appearance on the legitimate stage, Corio played

Tondalayo in a parody of the Broadway hit while appearing in stock burlesque at a Minsky

house. Since Steve Mills claimed to have authored a parody of White Cargo while working for

Minsky, it’s possible that Mills and Corio were paired in the skit thirty years before reviving it in
110

the East Village.62 Variations of “White Cargo,” the skit, circulated around burlesque houses

when the play was popular (Gypsy Rose Lee claimed she performed the role of the “native girl in

‘Black and Blue Cargo’”), but the sketch was not an entirely new premise. Trish Sandberg reports

that “Teddy in the Jungle” scenes were common on the popular stage during Theodore

Roosevelt’s expeditions to Panama, Africa and Central America. 63 Andrew Davis notes that White

Cargo variants are also structurally similar to sailor-on-the-island sketches popular from the turn

of the century, sketches precipitated by the United States’ armed annexation of Hawaii (from

1887-1893) and the Philippines (1899-1902).

Classic burlesque sketches were cautiously political. With the exception of satires about

war which revolved around conscription, burlesque comedy centered on the shared, quotidian

experiences of working-class men. Sketches did not criticize or endorse politicians to avoid

alienating members of the audience with varying political affiliations. But the “White Cargo” skit

is exemplary of political references that percolated under the surface of broad physical comedy.

The play White Cargo was first popular during an era of economic imperialism and military

intervention. In Bananas, Beaches and Bases, Cynthia Enloe reports, “Between 1880 and 1930 the

United States colonized or invaded Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, the Dominican

Republic, Cuba and Nicaragua. Each was strategically valuable for its plantation crops.” 64

Tondalayo of the “White Cargo” sketch was a cypher for the sexual opportunities encountered

62Conner, "Steve Mills and the Twentieth Century American Burlesque Show: A Backstage History and a
Perspective", 260-61.
63I use White Cargo to refer to Gordon’s published play and the typesetting “White Cargo” to refer to
unpublished sketch parodies, of which there are many variants.
64Cynthia Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics (Berkeley: University
of California Press 2000), 124.
111

by plantation workers and the servicemen stationed at the bases established during this era of

American imperialism.

In 1963, Ann Corio’s audiences were probably more familiar with her movies, which were

distributed nationally, than arcane variations on a play about British colonialism (as a foil for

American economic expansion). The “White Cargo” sketch performed in This Was Burlesque

would have simultaneously evoked Corio’s ill-fated film carer because the characters she played

were extensions of the Tondalayo prototype. The titles of Corio’s films evoke the untamed

eroticism that was ascribed to indigenous, non-white women in White Cargo: Swamp Woman (1941),

Jungle Siren (1942), Sarong Girl (1943), Sultan’s Daughter (1944),

and Call of the Jungle (1944).65 Corio found herself typecast as

an attractive native (or half-caste) help-mate in jungle

adventures alongside athletic male co-stars such as Buster

Crabbe, the Olympic swimmer who played Tarzan and

Flash Gordon in 1930s serialized short-subject films. In the

hour-long, black and white movies Corio’s dark hair and

olive skin is metonymic for the indigenous “darkness”and

primitive sexuality that the white, American hero encounters


Fig. 12 Corio in Sultan’s Daughter (1944)
Collection of the author
on his foreign travels. The archetype presents women who

were not beholden to “civilized” western traditions such as courtship and marriage. The

receptive native woman is an outlet for extra-marital sexual interactions which were legitimated

by her modest mental powers to consent. The stereotype was legion in the 1940s; Corio’s

65 Despite the critical reception, Corio’s movies acquired cult status. In December 1983 the non-profit
Cooperative Film Society hosted an Ann Corio film festival, which was attended by Corio. Advertisement
from the folder, Clippings, Corio, Ann, the Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York Public Library.
112

striptease rival, Margie Hart, was also cast in a monogram picture, Lure of the Islands (1942). Hart

played Tana O’Shaughnessy, a half-caste woman who falls in love with an F.B.I. agent and

conspires with him to investigate Japanese spies on a south-seas island.

Jayna Brown describes the white, female identification with racialized bodies as

“absorption” - akin to cork soaking into the skin. She writes “Empathic access to black bodily

memory is made possible in conjunction with how these bodies were understood as

commodity.” 66 Corio’s jungle movies were released following

Roosevelt’s “good neighbor” policy to Latin America, a

foreign policy which sought to facilitate economic

cooperation through diplomatic, financial and cultural

interventions, rather than military involvement. (Enloe

presents Carmen Miranda and the Chiquita Banana

campaign as exemplary of domestic imperialist

propaganda). Corio’s female fans who were prompted to

imitate her, via sarong modeling contests in the theatre, were

absorbing-via-imagination the perceived sexual freedoms of Fig. 13 Call of the Jungle (1944).
This Was Burlesque souvenir program

South American and Pacific Islander women. As Brown

notes, this racial impersonation was founded on a pernicious irony: middle-and-upper-class white

women imagined a liberation for themselves via the bodies of women who were colonized and

conscripted into sexual and manual labor. “For white women, performing fantasies... of native,

66 Brown, Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern, 73.
113

femaleness provided moments of immunity from restrictive social protocol, a license for physical

expression and self-possessed sexuality.” 67

“White Cargo” was a preferred sketch in the This Was Burlesque repertoire, it received

critical acclaim and sparked laughter - but what about the Corio and Mills performance made it

funny to audiences? Was it Corio’s exaggerated performance of a dangerously lascivious woman

or Mills’ inability to resist a non-white “native”? It is possible that Corio’s company regularly

played the skit because it was flexible. In the civil-rights era the show toured to audiences that

would have had varying sympathies for integration. Burlesque technique allowed comedians to be

adaptive, deploying a straight face or mugging a line based on audience response. Tondalayo

could be a predatory wench or sexually-curious everywoman as provoked by audience laughter.

Returning to the centrality of race in burlesque humor, did Corio subvert the “native maiden”

stereotype or did she reinforce it? This question presents one of the most significant challenges in

the historiography and analysis of humor because the query is riddled with variables: burlesque

technique is rooted in improvisation so the representation changed with every location and

showtime; static images do not adequately convey indicators of irony; and it is impossible to

know the mindset of a potentially-diverse audience. It is possible, however, to present possible

interpretations of “White Cargo” in This Was Burlesque by evaluating what the sketch could have

symbolized to one sector of the burlesque audience - military servicemen and veterans.

Burlesque theatres were historically attended by men engaged with some branch of

military service. Burlesque houses thrived in locations where the theatre was proximate to a naval

port (such as Boston and New York) or a military recruiting office. The Hollywood theatre in San

Diego was less than two blocks from an Army assignment center. The Follies Theatre in Los

67 Ibid., 100.
114

Angeles was a destination for enlisted men from World War Two through the Korean war and

defense bonds may have been sold in the theatre.68 Throughout Corio’s career she recognized the

importance of servicemen to the industry. During the second world war, she posed for Yank, a

magazine distributed to branches of service. The This Was Burlesque repertoire contained the red-

white-and-blue musical medley “George M. Corio” -- a play on the name of patriotic musical

theatre composer George M. Cohan. While the show was in residence at the Casino East,

servicemen were invited to attend through the USO.69 Humor in “White Cargo” arose from its

illustration of the sexual experiences of men serving abroad, interactions which disrupted

domestic segregation and military policy. The rupture of racial comportment is most evident in a

comparison of the play and sketch.

The “White Cargo” sketch introduced themes and ideas that were contrary to the

dramatic conflicts in White Cargo the play. In Gordon’s potboiler, the “mammy palaver” lines are

delivered as a threat, tantamount to damnation. Langford’s boss Wetzel rejects his attempts to

validate miscegenation through marriage: “Trick it out with your ceremony, but it’s mammy-

palaver; sanctify it with the church if you like, but it’s mammy-palaver... Get that, Langford, it’s

mammy-palaver, mammy-palaver, mammy-palaver.” 70 In This Was Burlesque the term “mammy-

palaver” is a punchline, an eccentric euphemism for sexual activity. In one script, the phrase is

defined by the straight man, “some call it love, some call it emotion, some call it passion.” In this

text, inter-racial sexual activity is provoked by common human impulses that are shared across

68Jane Briggeman records this in Living History but it has yet to be substantiated with a second source.
Briggeman compiles useful oral histories but does not verify claims made by dancers in her organization,
The Golden Days of Burlesque Historical Society. This approach plays an important role in archival
assembly because dancers trust Briggeman not to distort their testimonies. Briggeman, Burlesque: A Living
History, 288.
69 John G. Rodgers, "Something for the Girls: Burlesque " New York Herald Tribune, May 5, 1963
70 Leon Gordon, White Cargo (Boston, MA: Four Seas Press, 1925), 90.
115

cultural boundaries. The union of Tondalayo and the overseer is one of willing consent in TWB.

Some part of the humor arises from Mills’ brief and insincere attempts to resist Corio’s advances.

In Gordon’s play, Langford resists Tondalayo’s advances because he does not want to

pollute his whiteness by fraternizing with a woman whose “blood and instincts are all nigger.” 71

(The “White Cargo” sketch contains no racial epithets). Langford’s failure to uphold his

whiteness is the cause of his near-poisoning (metaphoric and literal) and serious debilitation that

causes him to be sent back to England as white cargo; the title phrase suggests a fallen superiority

which places him dangerously close to the category of black cargo, or slavery.

In the “White Cargo” sketch, Mills is cautioned against “going native” but his

indulgences in local music and whiskey make him content - his sexual and social tourism is

felicitous. There are no pretensions of marriage in the sketch, the comic tension in the later part

of the scene arises from a lover’s triangle with Tondalayo’s native lover. Conflict in the sketch is

rooted in human jealousy and envy over sexual prowess, which Mills, as the white visitor,

possesses more of. The “White Cargo” sketch potentially subverts cultural resistance to

miscegenation by emphasizing sexual desire as a universal aspect of the human experience. But

the sketch is not without the residues of imperialist hierarchies. The very fear of “going native”

and Unga’s guttural, grunting dialect suggest that Tondalayo belongs to a lower order of peoples

who do not have the capacity for civilization or sophisticated speech. (While the Yiddish-language

inspiration for Unga’s dialect simultaneously creates a parallel to Jewish identities subsumed in

assimilationist American culture).The hierarchies of colonialism that frame the dramatic play are

carried over to into the satire.

71 Ibid., 30. Langford tells Wetzel, “I’m white and I’m going to stay white. I’m going to keep myself clean
if I have to take the last drop of water out of your damn river.” Ibid, 41.
116

The most subversive aspect of the “White Cargo” sketch is the emphasis on mutually-

consenting sexual activity without racial anxiety. But placed in the context of the material

conditions to which the skit subtly refers - the sexual life of enlisted men serving in foreign

territories - the subversive potential is deflated. Consent, when language is not shared, is far from

concrete. In men’s magazines of the era, tropical native women are the subject of narrative

fantasies. These range from ethnographic-styled studies of island culture nearly free of

conventional moralizing, to disturbing rape scenarios, such as the short story “Girl on the Beach”

from Sir Magazine. In the World War II tale, eighty-five sailors encounter an woman alone on an

island, “she blurted out a few words of broken English. Her words meant only one thing, and

with a terrific shout the men mobbed her.”72

For Corio’s audiences, the “jungle” of the sketch is not an English colony, but the

territories occupied during the imperialist expansion and two world wars (one script fragment

explicitly names Hawaii). American military interventions brought United States servicemen into

more immediate contact with non-white women than the segregated public spaces of middle-

class America. Military units were stationed on bases which were surrounded by retail sex trade.

(Hawaii did not become a U.S. state until 1959, during World War II prostitution was not illegal).

As Enloe details in Bananas, Beaches, and Bases the United States military tacitly permitted brothels

and allowed servicemen to patronize them. The sexual outlets provided by prostitution were

considered ameliorative to more serious threats to company morale - such as homesickness and

homosexual contact. Although controversial, the United States military further acknowledged the

sexual commerce around bases when it distributed condoms and provided materials about

sexually-transmitted diseases during World War II.

72 Jay L. Fowler, “Girl on the Beach” Sir Vol. 15 No. 7, 1958, reprinted by Java’s Bachelor Pad, http://
javasbachelorpad.com, accessed January 17, 2010.
117

Tondalayo was a comic figure who represented the sexual outlet for servicemen, but

unfortunately, this comic figure (and her dramatic echo) mask the systematic exploitation of

women who were induced into prostitution. However, not all off-base relationships were with

prostituted women. Tondalayo possibly represents genuine romantic connections in overseas

military bases. If this is the case, she a figurine for discarded lovers, wives and potential children.

Enloe reports that the U.S. military encountered diplomatic resistance in England when

segregated black soldiers, who were stationed in the United Kingdom, began to date and marry

local women. Of the 6,000 British women who filed applications to emigrate as war brides, “very

few of those whose prospective husbands were black were accepted. There appeared to be a

‘gentleman’s agreement’... to forbid marriages between Black GIs and white British women.” 73

Given this evidence, it is unlikely that other inter-racial marriages (in which women had no

ostensible military utility), enacted in other military theaters, would have been honored at the

conclusion of the war.

The muted political topicality of “White Cargo” is not critical of the government or

military, nor does it pass judgement on the servicemen who engaged in casual sexual liaisons

while fulfilling their draft requirement. The serviceman-as-overseer was the sympathetic center of

a sketch which burlesques the notion that interracial sex provoked an existential crisis. The sketch

also satirizes the transfiguration of domestic relationships and disruption of marital stability

during wartime. Instead of marrying within the circumscribed boundaries of ethnicity and class,

conscripted soldiers are placed in an artificially-structured homosocial world and their sexual and

physical energy is harvested into violent action. The specter of non-consent haunts the women of

colonized countries who performed sexual labor around military bases, but during periods of

73 Enloe, Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics 71.
118

military draft there is a spectrum of consent, enthusiasm, and commitment to ideology among

servicemen. Conscripted men are rarely written of as a forced diaspora, taken from the

normative “ideal” of being domestic providers, contributing to a national economy. The “White

Cargo” skit subtly recognized the pains of conscription by creating a scenario in which the

pleasure of sexual activity takes priority over nationalism and military objectives.

The erosion of interracial aggression was consistent with the initiatives of the civil rights

era and the waning popularity of minstrel-inspired caricatures on the burlesque stage. In three

generations, the immigrant populations who filled late-eighteenth century burlesque theatres

coalesced into Americans united by serving their country abroad. Pan-European whiteness was

forged through collective effort within military units. Corio’s persistent inclusion of the “White

Cargo” sketch in the first decade of This Was Burlesque emphasized her early career and hailed a

demographic that had consistently patronized burlesque. The sketch was a nostalgic glimpse back

at an era in which men quietly fulfilled their commitment to the selective service, in contrast to

the public draft-resistance waged by conscriptees to the Vietnam war and Nixon’s draft lottery,

implemented in 1971 (when “White Cargo” was still included in TWB). The choice of a world-

wars-era sketch reinforced Corio’s authority as a preservationist of the genre: she was a veteran

who valued other veterans - of both the stage and American military. Corio certified her

authenticity through the audience’s memory of her early career. Remembrances were all that

remained of her past performances because she could not claim any dance, script or movie as

intellectual property.

Despite attempts by burlesque artists to sue for legal protections (and the attendant

financial rewards) performers were denied protections which would have conferred legitimacy via

authorship. The author of the copyrighted work may name a descendent as future benefactor for
119

royalties, like a parent bestowing privileges to acknowledged offspring. Burlesque was legally and

culturally illegitimate because the proletarian sexuality of the dances and sketches was a

contamination - a poisoning - of middle-and-upper-class moral codes. The male and female

bodies which performed in lower-class, public spaces were relegated to the public domain. When

burlesque performers crossed racial and class boundaries they were engaged in a kind of pirate

commerce - claiming cultural production as their own, although they had no legal entitlements.

In this chapter the audience for “White Cargo” was characterized, for the purposes of

analysis, as a cohort of male veterans. But the audience for This Was Burlesque was not exclusively

stag; Ann Corio’s courtship of female audiences was central

to her brand. The two women who entered the Casino East

theatre in the opening premise were not entirely fictive -

female audience members brought a perspective to

burlesque after 1960 that altered the course of the industry.

Steve Mills was likely the sympathetic target for male

members of the audience, but as Tondalayo, Corio also

played to the women in the audience. The image at right (in

contrast to the image on page 110) illustrates how Corio

might have altered her posture, expressions and vocal

inflection to mock the character through exaggeration,

providing an opportunity for female audience members to

laugh at the limitations of Tondalayo or to absorb her


Fig. 14 “White Cargo” in TWB.
Photographed by Bob Gomel for Life
sexual initiative. Magazine (September 16,1966), 133.
Used with the kind permission of Mr.
Gomel.
120

Chapter 4

Burlesque for the Ladies of East Cupcake, OH

July 25, 1979 Broadway Theatre, Pitman NJ

Ann Corio walks out to her theme music, “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” wearing a

white sequined dress and floor-length pink peignoir accented by large marabou puffs. Corio tells

the audience that the show is a new edition of This Was Burlesque: “We do have those marvelous

burley cuties, we have beautiful stripteasers, exotic dancers, baggy pants comedians, classic

comedy sketches and for the ladies, the all-American male striptease dancer.” There are some

loud male chuckles from the audience. “It’s a new concept version and a very glorified edition of

burlesque” she announces. The first act contains all of the features promised in the introduction -

comic banter between a straight man and comedian, a feature striptease, the “Here Comes the

Judge” sketch, a bizarre chorus routine in which the dancers’ pastied breasts form the eyes to

body puppets wearing top hats, a xylophone comedy routine by Pinky Lee, a champagne-glass

striptease by the breast-augmented Tami Roche and the appearance of the atonal male tenor,

Bill Cook, who sings a song about the joys of having “hundreds of girls” in front of eight chorus

dancers wearing Las-Vegas styled feather headdresses and cascading pink chiffon arm gauntlets.1

“This thing called man was never destined, with one eternal partner in mind. So I gotta yell, to

hell with propriety, viva variety!” the tenor sings, reassuring the male audience “that every Man

from Duluth to Atlanta sees all of his fantasies” despite the impending appearance of the

announced male stripteaser. Edited for broadcast on Home Box Office, the show does not have

an intermission. The tenth number of the presentation begins with six chorus dancers strutting

1Tami Roche was a ten-year veteran of This Was Burlesque. Publicity photographs in the Corio archive
provide evidence of Roche’s pre-augmentation figure. By 1979 breast augmentation was becoming
common for erotic dancers, especially on the west coast. Dusty Summers wrote about breast
augmentation becoming an industry standard in her autobiography The Lady is a Stripper.
121

out in front of the curtain wearing matching dresses of different colors: the cross-front halter top

of the dresses reveals their slender bellies and a long slit up the back of the skirt opens on the

dancers’ muscular legs; a dangling rhinestone broach hangs below their belly button, pulling the

skirt into a dropped “V” shape. Forming a rainbow of polyester satin, the chorus dances in

double time to “Let Me Entertain You” from Gypsy. The synchronized strip is fast, lasting just

under a minute. The women are barely in their places when they remove an opera glove, spin

around and pull the glove between their legs. Stepping quickly they shimmy with their shoulders,

twirl gloves over their heads and spank their backsides before teasing the audience with a few

“no-no” finger wags. The dancers pop the left and right straps of the halter top from behind their

neck and the fabric strips drop to reveal breasts covered with color-matched pasties. With deft

gestures, the bottom half of the garments are unclasped and the dancers hold their dresses next

to their bodies like a swim towel. They part down the middle of the stage as the music vamps up

and the curtain parts for the appearance of Patrick Bagwell, the All-American stripper. Clutching

a microphone, Patrick takes over singing “Let Me Entertain You.”

Patrick glitters in contrast to the slick synthetic dresses of the chorus. Iridescent rainbow

sequins line the lapels, suit vest, pants and cummerbund of Patrick’s costume. He wears a long,

red-lined black cape, like the male tenor who appeared previously in the act, but Patrick’s cape is

covered in a crest of sequins which wrap around his shoulders like owl’s wings. Patrick grins at

the audience through his speak-singing of the song. He is handsome - with the same features of

teen-idol David Cassidy - a generous meringue of feathered brown hair (which nearly hides his

manly sideburns), boyish features and perfectly-rounded teeth. Patrick struts down the catwalk

and twirls off the cape, which he passes off to one of the chorus dancers. Under the cape, Patrick

is wearing skin-tight pants with slits up the sides. He whips off the ruffled tuxedo-front dickey,
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unveiling a thick moss of curly chest hair, bisected by the sequined vest. Under the dickey is a

black velvet chocker which frames his delicate facial features over his hirsute body. He poses with

the chorus women, who fawn over him and coax him to “take it off.”

“Are you ready for this?” Patrick calls to the audience with a warm smile. He teases off his

long-tailed tuxedo jacket, revealing sculpted muscles rippling along his arms. He struts stage right

and back to the extreme side of stage left, making eye contact with audience members as he

removes his large shoes. Unlike a classic stripteaser, who replaces her shoes after removing her

stockings, Patrick dances barefoot for the remainder of the number. Crossing the ramp which

forms a bridge over the enormous footlights between stage and catwalk, Patrick’s eyes twinkle as

he reaches into the top of his tight pants. A bit of flash paper ignites and the audience giggle

nervously at the burst of fire. Having deployed some humor to dispel any residual anxieties about

a male stripteaser, Patrick begins to remove more clothing. A few quick kick-ball-change steps

take him back onto the stage where he stands in profile and begins to pump his leg. “Watch this!”

he instructs the audience. With strands of brown curls falling in his face, Patrick undoes the

dozen toggles which clip the pant slit shut; as the pant falls open like a gutted fish he twirls and

unlocks the other side of his pant leg. Still mostly dressed, the male-stripteaser crosses far stage

left and begins to focus his visual attention and verbal patter on one audience member. “Come

right here, come up here,” he beckons to a woman wearing a bright yellow dress. The audience

member’s advanced age is evident by her short gray hair and arthritic gait as she approaches the

short staircase onto the apron of the stage. Patrick gently guides the woman up two steps so she is

more visible to the rest of the audience. He holds her hands in his and guides her to unbutton the

clasps on the vest; the sequined vest falls open and Patrick guides her hands down his furry chest.
123

The interaction lasts just a few seconds; the volunteer is thanked with a kiss and she smiles

agreeably.

Patrick returns to stage center and flicks off the pants, leaving a sequined thong on the

lower half of his body. He continues to parade back and forth at a heated pace, taking off the

velvet chocker and performing a few forward hip bumps that make his genitals flop in their

sequined case. Sweating gently and pulling at the hip straps to his thong, Patrick calls out to the

audience: “Are you ready? Oh, I don’t think so!” He vaults back onto the runway and teases open

the sides of his vest. He runs back stage left to deposit the vest and retrieve a silk top hat. After a

few Fred Astaire-type hat gestures he dances back down the runway with the hat held over his

thong. He makes eye contact with an audience member in front of the runway. “Are you a little

bashful?” He asks her. “She’s not bashful!” He answers to the audience as a magician’s wand

pops out from behind the strategically-placed hat.

As he runs back to stage left to discard the hat and wand and retrieve the cape, the band

transitions to the the “Peter Gunn Theme.” Patrick clasps the cape around his neck and wraps

himself in the red-and-black satin. Back on the runway again he removes the thong from under

the cape, which is held out like a matador hiding a sword. He dangles the sequined thong in front

of the audience. “Are you ready?” He says, thrusting a bare leg out from under the cape. He spins

around with a fluttering cape twirl and there is a gasping laugh from the audience as he is seen

mostly naked, but still covered by a g-string with invisible hip bands. Patrick continues to twirl the

cape in wide circles as he spins around the stage, pausing to use the edge of the satin garment to

hide his genitals as he unclasps the invisible g-string one side at a time. He turns in profile to the

audience again and dangles the g-string with another charming smile. Patrick spins quickly to

face upstage, drops the cape off his shoulders and down his back, revealing bare buttocks
124

highlighted by tan-lines and the faint smear of a tattoo on his right buttock. A strobe light flashes

as the band hits the eight-dissonant, staccato notes at the climax of the “Peter Gunn Theme.”

Patrick twirls the cape in front of and behind his body in a series of fluid gestures, the ripples of

satin gleam off his bare body and flexing arm muscles. He ends the strip by wrapping the cape

around his waist and falling into a lunge - the red satin draped over his raised leg, the other bare

leg tucked behind him as a crashing wave of brown curls falls over his last, triumphant smile. The

audience applauds heartily as he surrounds himself with the cape and runs off stage right. His

appearance is immediately followed by another chorus routine, featuring eight women in

sequined wigs and top hats performing a tap routine in long, silk-tuxedo tails.

**************

Ann Corio recruited female audiences and made it possible for women to enter the stag

world of burlesque through three major interventions: by changing the performance venues for

burlesque and tweaking the content; by using comedy to neuter the erotic impact of semi-nude

striptease; and by distancing the stripteaser from prostitution. The chapter section, On Tour in

Frying Pan, Iowa, investigates why the presence of women at burlesque shows was newsworthy and

novel. The section documents Corio’s efforts to bring burlesque to theatre-going women at

legitimate suburban theatres. By changing the venues and audiences for burlesque Corio

sustained stock burlesque as other entertainment offshoots of the genre became more exclusively

male or corrupted broadway fare. Corio distinguished her show from the burlesque-themed

competition by retaining the comic elements and by presenting the stripteaser as a talented artist,

not an accessory to prostitution nor agent of sexual deviance. The section Sex and Laughter

investigates the importance of humor in the Corio brand formula and the curatorial choices

which rendered This Was Burlesque female-friendly. Corio insisted that the comedians were a
125

defining element of burlesque and testimonies from historic burlesque venues evince that comedy

did indeed create a morphological difference between spectator environments. The concluding

section, No Professionals, examines the methods Corio used to differentiate stripteasers from

prostitution, challenging a historic link between actresses and sex work. In the TWB brand, the

striptease dancer was a sexual free agent - a libertine with a moral compass who could be

emulated by other women. Corio and the TWB brand redefined the professional image of the

stripteaser by enforcing boundaries at the box office, at the bodies of the dancers and on the

stage. These clearly defined thresholds allowed Corio to partition off her version of burlesque

from entertainment products which used burlesque elements, including legitimate musicals,

topless bars, carnival shows and movies.

On Tour in Frying Pan, Iowa

Newspapers in New York City reported on the phenomenon of female audiences at This

Was Burlesque during the first year it was in residence at the Casino East. Social organizations such

as ladies’ auxiliaries, veterans associations, fraternal lodges and charitable clubs were purchasing

group tickets as theatre parties.The New York Herald Tribune observed: Ann Corio has “not

revolutionized burlesque... but Miss Corio has revolutionized the audiences.” The reporter noted

that chartered buses full of clubwomen were attending the show (in the instance observed by the

reporter, forty two “chattering” women “from Trenton NJ of all places,” hinting that in the

urban imagination, suburban audiences were improbable consumers of burlesque).2 A year and a

half into the run at the Casino East, the New York Times noted that TWB “has been doing well,

even bringing in suburban women by bus for Wednesday matinees.” 3 When not busing in curious

2 Rodgers, "Something for the Girls: Burlesque ".


3 R. F. S., "2d Burlesque Show in Downtown Bow," New York Times, Dec 12, 1963.
126

suburbanites, Corio also filled seats with friendly women by allowing local neighbors from the

East Village to attend for free. She gushed to June Havoc in a television interview that the older,

Jewish ladies brought food as gifts of gratitude.4 But Corio also knew how to mine the female

interest into a publicity-generating curiosity. She told a reporter from the New York World Telegraph

that she appreciated the female patronage, “but wishes the ladies wouldn’t gather in the front

rows. ‘I’ve got to have some men there when I strip’ she said... ‘My number has audience

participation and it doesn’t work with women.’” 5 Corio never left the stage in her routine or

engaged directly with the audience beyond eye contact and verbal exchanges, so her “complaint”

does not arise from disruptions to her choreography. The story serves to highlight the potency of

Corio’s popularity with women; female audiences were changing the dynamic of the

performance by filling the front rows.

The flourishing female attendance was newsworthy in the 1960s because women were not

regular attendees of burlesque in the pre-war era. “Women didn’t think it was proper for them to

attend,” Corio told the World Telegraph reporter. Corio’s claim is substantiated, although the

evidence is circumstantial and scant. Rachel Shteir found only two anecdotal accounts, in the

trade newspaper Zits, of women attending burlesque.6 The data from Zit’s is descriptive (a “large”

number of women and a “smattering”) not quantitative. The theatrical trade paper noted that

female attendance varied by location; more women attended in the outer boroughs but far fewer

dared venture into a theatre in the working-class Bowery. Other anecdotal evidence from the

4More Havoc television show, recorded January 3, 1964, Theater on Film and Tape (NCOX 1590), New
York Public Library.
5 William Pepper, "Housewives Take Bounce out of Ann Corio's Act," New York World Telegraph, Undated
clipping 1962. Lester Sweyd Collection (MWEZ + NC 14 900), Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York
Public Library.
6 Shteir, Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show, 137.
127

early-twentieth century suggests that female attendance was closely tied to the class status of the

venue and women were not dissuaded from attending theatres with a more legitimate reputation.

In an undated, un-sourced photograph taken from a clippings file purchased on Ebay, a young

Ann Corio is helped out of a coat in what appears to be a sketch. She stands before two comics,

one of whom is speaking into a standing microphone. From across the footlights of mixed bulbs,

five women are visible in the audience. They are identifiable by their corsages, jewelry and

dresses; the special-occasion garments and dress coats on the male audience members hint at an

Fig. 15 Corio in an unknown scene from the 1930s. Collection of the author.

upscale venue.7 While the women visible in the photograph are a small portion of the male

audience, the image, which clearly pre-dates Corio’s burlesque revival, indicates that Corio did

perform for women in her early career. Corio’s top comic Steve Mills also reported that the sex

7 The image could also have been taken in a nightclub or in a vaudeville theatre, following Corio’s brief
foray into that industry following the 1937 closure of burlesque theatres in New York City.
128

of burlesque audiences was tied to the reputation of the theatre. Mills recalled that women did

patronize pre-war burlesque, but they sat discreetly cloaked at the back of a box or in the loge.

He also testified that women attended conspicuously if the theatre had a respectable reputation.

According to Mills, the same burlesque show would revisit different theatres in a city and perform

for different audiences. In Boston, women would not attend the Old Howard, but they would

patronize shows at the Columbia Wheel house. “Women went. Different theatres, different

localities,” he concluded.8 Mills described the all-male atmosphere at the Old Howard as unique

to “two or three” stag theatres on the rougher, American wheel: “This was a thing they built up,

the owners of the theatre built it up... in the cities where the burlesque theatres were in a slum, or

a half-slum area this became an outlet for the sailors and the soldiers.” 9

Women did not attend the Old Howard. This fact did not detract from Corio’s invocation

of theatre in her brand narratives. The Old Howard served several purposes in brand literature:

Corio’s popularity at the Old Howard allowed her to align herself with elite audiences (via the

students of Harvard) and a conservative performance aesthetic which appeased the strict Boston

censors. Howard Athanaeum also served a purpose in the narrative threads of her brand which

were spun to attract distaff audiences. The exclusively male audiences at the Howard identified a

need addressed by the brand - the need to correct the exclusion of women from a male social

sphere. Women who attended TWB were symbolically rectifying an institutional and historical

form of sexism.

The centrality of Old Howard mythology to Corio’s brand of burlesque is evident in the

focus the theatre receives in her 1968 history book. The section titled “You Can’t Graduate Until

8Conner, "Steve Mills and the Twentieth Century American Burlesque Show: A Backstage History and a
Perspective", 335.
9 Ibid., 334.
129

You’ve Seen Ann Corio” provides two pages of anecdotal history about the venue (including

famous performers, notable audience members and ghost stories). The tales are introduced by

Corio’s recollection of her close connection to the Harvard crowd: “I was their girl, and around

the circuit, wherever there were other colleges, I was known as ‘Harvard’s Baby.”10 In Corio’s

most frequently-repeated Old Howard tale, fed to reporters across the country, it is her popularity

with men that provokes the curiosity of women. Corio’s story about “ladies night” at the Old

Howard is quoted here at length because it is the nucleus of her efforts to attract female

audiences and one of the foundational brand narratives; therefore the details of the story require

close examination:

The wives of the men in the audience said they wanted to come see me perform. In the

thirties a girl in the audience was a rarity indeed, one who was stared at and who others

considered a fallen woman - or, at least, one about to fall. ...together we [Corio and Al

Somerby, manager of the Old Howard] came up with a unique idea, one that, to my

knowledge was never tried before or since in a burlesque theatre. Not only would we let

ladies into the theatre, but we would hold a special Ladies Night -- women only. That

show was a complete sell-out and the publicity was tremendous. I had struck new pay dirt,

and I went right to Mr. Somerby and requested a ladies night every week. But Mr.

Somerby said no. When I cried, “Why not?” he answered with indisputable logic, “We

don’t have a ladies room.”11

Mr. Somerby’s logic is not infallible and the restroom tale is inscrutable. The theatre was

purpose-built to be a performing-arts venue and it served mixed Boston audiences until the stag

10Ann Corio and DiMona Jospeh, This Was Burlesque (New York: Grosset & Dunlap/Madison Square
Press, 1968), 158-59.
11 Ibid 159.
130

atmosphere was cultivated by American-wheel aligned managers. So it is probable that the

building would have contained multiple restrooms and it is unlikely that the exclusion of women

was formalized in the architecture of the theatre. But the Howard Athenaeum was incinerated by

the time Corio was propagating this tale, making it difficult for entertainment reporters to check

the veracity of the bathroom fable. Secondary sources which confirm Corio’s “ladies night” story

only appear after TWB was produced, making it possible that Corio herself was the source. In a

profile of the theatre titled “The Wicked Old Lady of Scollay Square” Cavalier magazine writer

Franklin Thistle reported that women attended a midnight show featuring Corio “with or

without escort” but this article appears in an issue which profiles contemporary burlesque and

profiles Corio, making it possible that Corio was an informant.12 Although this author has not

located evidence which verifies an instance of a Corio-headlining “ladies night” at the Old

Howard, Corio’s did attract female audiences in her early career. According to comic Mickey

Flynn, Corio’s appeal to female audiences was apparent when she was booked into Boston’s

RKO vaudeville theatre. “Now, women wouldn’t go into the Old Howard... So when RKO put

her in for a week, she stayed there for three and broke records. Because RKO was a respected

name, you couldn’t get near that place for women.” 13 The real events which alerted Corio to her

popularity with women may remain as nebulous as other myths attached to the Old Howard and

its razed Boston neighborhood, but Corio used this information in her brand development.

Corio’s Old Howard fable offered women the incentive to redress a minor social injustice

- their exclusion from certain performance venues and genres of live performance. Corio also

facilitated female attendance by bringing TWB to theatrical venues with a legitimate reputation.

12 Thistle, "Wicked Old Lady of Scollay Square," 72.


13Conner, "Steve Mills and the Twentieth Century American Burlesque Show: A Backstage History and a
Perspective", 288.
131

When Life magazine profiled Ann Corio and TWB in 1966, the subtitle for the article “Ladies’

Day at the Burlycue” was “tents take the stigma out of burlesque.” Marshall Smith effused, “Miss

Corio erased the last great obstacle to female attendance. Matrons who would never have dared

brave an old-fashioned burly house, with its overtones of sex and sin, felt no compunction at all

about queueing up for burlesque in a tent.” 14 In the 1960s and 1970s a passel of summer tent

venues offered a mix of musical theatre, variety shows and popular entertainers. In these venues

Corio’s theatrical burlesque appeared between offerings such as Camelot and a Bob Hope show;

the show did not appear in dedicated-burlesque venues. The seasonal content and suburban

locations made the tents more respectable than the working class and immigrant habitus of the

Minsky theatres.

The summer tents also altered the performer-audience dynamic because many were

configured with the stage in-the-round. This nearly negated the opportunities for covert, under-

the-coat autoerotic stimulation because the spectator’s focus was not limited to the stage.

Attendees could see one another collectively accepting or rejecting the display through the

approbation of laughter. Modern tents and renovated legitimate theatres also had the technology

Corio needed to support another claim she frequently made to newspapers - that she had a

loudspeaker installed in her dressing room so she could ensure that the comedians didn’t ad lib

any salacious new lines. Corio made this claim frequently as a way of assuring audiences that

curse words such as “hell” and “damn” weren’t part of the TWB aesthetic. It’s possible that

Corio had a loudspeaker installed at the Casino East, but it is less likely that audio cable and a

receiver were wired at every touring location. By touring to modern or refurbished venues, Corio

could have made use of the speakers which allow actors to hear their cues. On one occasion

14 Smith, "It's Ladies' Day at the Burleyque," 133.


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TWB was presented at a former burlesque theatre - the renovated Mineola Theatre on Long

Island. The Newsday theatre critic complained that the content of the show added an undeserved

air of respectability to the Mineola which had been “the squalid, broken-down joint you snuck

off to in junior high days.” Murray Frymer complained that Corio’s contingent of “well-dressed

suburbanites and the guys with their dates and nice, clean teenagers as usherettes” along with an

on-key orchestra “scrubbed” burlesque to a state of near-respectability.”15 Always a publicity

opportunist, during the Mineola run, Corio demonstrated the civic goodwill of her company by

bicycling with the TWB troupe across the Queensboro bridge during a transit strike.

As This Was Burlesque continued to tour Corio sought new audiences by traveling to

increasingly small towns. The show was initially booked in large cities such as Chicago and

Boston but Corio found more reliable annual bookings in mid-size cities and venues like The

Music Carnival in Cleveland OH, where annual editions of the show played for a decade. The

company performed in tent venues along the East Coast during the summer months and

travelled deeper into the Midwest for the winter season. Programs from TWB provide the most

concrete evidence of the touring range for Corio’s company, (although this data

disproportionately favors East Coast venues because of coastal theatre archives which contain

collector’s programs). When interviewed by the New York Times Corio jokingly referred to mid-

western metropolises as “East Cupcake, Ohio” and “West Frying Pan, Iowa.” 16 The joke

acknowledged the lower cultural status of these cities but also allowed Corio to pledge that

nothing in her show would be offensible to one’s proverbial aunt in East Cupcake. Touring to

cities as geographically dispersed as Ft. Lauderdale, FL, Lakewood, ME, Sunbury, PA, Los

15 Murry Frymer, "Twb Just Isn't Big Top Banana, but Little Peel," Newsday, January 3, 1966.
16 Fred Ferretti, "Ann Corio Is Back, Putting It On," New York Times December 26, 1976.
133

Angeles, CA and Houston, TX, Corio’s company found enough theatre bookings to hire new

features and chorines, rehearse a new edition of the show and take it out on the road.17 The show

was consistently well received although the reviews from New Haven, CT and Boston, MA were

bilious, demonstrating that not all communities accepted burlesque in respectable venues. The

respected drama critic Elliot Norton groused, “It is designed, as were most of the old burlesque

shows... for delinquents and degenerates and how it ever came to be booked in the Shubert

Theatre is a puzzle.” 18 Corio had taken her genre upmarket, but burlesque was still was an easy

target for class-inflected scorn.

Corio aspired for burlesque to be accepted as a legitimate genre and the transfer of TWB

to Broadway in 1965 was a marker of the show’s social mobility. But the Broadway appearance

cut deeply into the bottom line of the raffish show. Financial reports for the This Was Burlesque

company record significantly greater profit margins when the show was on the road instead of in

residence at the Hudson Theatre on Broadway. During the thirteen week run, TWB earned

$169,000 in tickets and concessions but cost $213,000 to produce including $127,000 in payroll

and $25,000 spent on rent. The show ended with a capital deficiency of of $119,000 and a total

loss of $44,000 during the run. Corio loaned the company her own money in order to re-stage

TWB for a twenty-six week tour. The touring venture earned $290,000 on the road, with

17Asfurther evidence of the non-cosmopolitan touring destinations for TWB, the author has collected
programs from: Cleveland, OH; Gaithersburg, MD; Westbury, CT; Haddonfield, NJ; Valley Forge, NY;
Wallingford, CT; Owing Mills, MD; Hershey, PA; Lakewood, ME; Northampton, MA; Latham, NY;
Toledo, OH; Houston, TX; Sunbury, PA; Fishkill, NY; Cape Cod, MA; Buffalo, NY; Albany, NY;
Houston, TX; Nyack, NY; St Louis, MO and Baltimore MD.
18 T-Clippings This Was Burlesque (Revue), Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York Public Library. The
review is one of several clippings in the file with no, or handwritten, sources. The clipping is marked in
red pen “pan.” Another poor review from a Shubert Theatre is marked “New Haven, CT” but it is more
likely that the Norton review refers to a show at the Shubert Theatre in Boston since Norton spent his
career in that city.
134

comparable expenses, and generated $73,000 in profit. 19 Corio’s touring stops did not have the

cultural cache of Broadway or the off-Broadway East Village, but the strategy did effectively

replicate the business pattern of early twentieth-century “tabloid” shows (the abridged versions of

Broadway musicals) which visited small cities and rural communities where there was less

competition for audiences. Early in his career as a comedian, Steve Mills found steady

employment with “tab” shows in Texas and Oklahoma oil country.20 This Was Burlesque was

remarkably successful on the South Coast. In 1974 at the Casa Manana Theatre in Fort Worth,

TX TWB pulled in just over $99,000 for fifteen performances at the 1,800-seat house.

(Newspaper coverage included a preacher giving his congregation permission to see the show).21

Corio was not only adept at finding bookings in dispersed venues with her business-

partner-husband, they owned or operated several regional theatres. Managing theatres provided

a separate revenue stream for the producing couple; their joint ventures in this arena are rare

examples of Corio and Iannucci receiving shared credit for their cooperative efforts. The venues

supplemented seasonal touring income and allowed Corio to tailor her production to the taste

preferences of suburban audiences. In 1968 Corio and Iannucci purchased a summer theatre

tent in West Springfield, MA on the fairgrounds of the Eastern States Exhibition, a site for farm

fairs, antiques markets and dog shows. The red-and-blue stripped Storrowton Music Fair offered

touring shows like Lorelei, starring Carol Channing, and musical headliners such as Liberace;

during intermissions guests could partake of alcohol in the “champagne garden.”

19 Financial records from the collection of Carole Nelson.


20Trish Sandberg and Steve Mills, "An Interview with Steve Mills," Educational Theatre Journal 27, no. 3
(1975): 333.
21 "Ann Corio's 99g, Tex," Variety, August 14, 1974.
135

Corio and Iannucci consistently produced profitable burlesque shows, but their side

business ventures were less stable and the Storrowton Music Fair was always in the red. The West

Springfield police attempted to close the tent in 1977 because more than $3,000 was owed to the

township for fire and police protection. Following a decade of operation and increasing subsidies

from TWB profits, the tent was put up for sale in 1978 after an expensive and unprofitable Perry

Como show.22 When the tent was put on the market, Corio and Iannucci had already invested in

an alternate permanent venue. In 1976 Corio and Iannucci leased the 635-seat Playhouse on the

Mall in Paramus NJ which opened in 1962 as the “first year-round legitimate theatre in a

shopping mall.” TWB was an audience favorite for the New Year’s Eve show for over a decade. 23

While managing the theatre, Corio and Iannucci produced conventional musicals such as

Shenandoah and burlesque-themed shows including Gypsy and The Powder Puff Revue. 24

As This Was Burlesque entered the 1980s (and Corio entered her late 60s), the company

apparently reduced the forty-five-week touring schedule of the 1960s and 1970s. Corio and

Iannucci supplemented their income by managing small theatres. In 1983 Corio and Iannucci

become the producer and general manager of the 394-seat Cecilwood Playhouse in Fishkill NY.

When the duo took the helm of the theatre, Iannucci was developing plans to winterize the

theatre and surround it with a mini-mall, restaurant and “large paved parking lot,” perhaps

imitating the shopping-and-theatre formula from Paramus, NJ. 25 The season once again included

22 "Storrowton Tenter Ends 19th Year in Red; May Not Resume in '79," Variety, September 6, 1978.
23 “All Year Playhouse in Shopping Center Opens at Paramus” New York Times, September 19, 1962.
24In 1976 the New York Times reported on multiple occasions that the Manhattan-based Home Box Office
was going to tape the show at the Playhouse on the Mall in 1977 with Red Buttons as the lead comic. The
show was taped in 1977, but without Red Buttons.
25Anita Manley, "Cecilwood Theatre to Open with New Management," Newburgh Evening News May 29,
1983.
136

sentimental musicals (Shenandoah and Godspell were perennial Corio and Iannucci-produced

favorites) and erotically-spiced productions such as Chicago. The publicity releases for all of these

theatres stressed affordable seats. The financial accessibility of theatre was a quality Corio strove

for consistently; “quality theatre at prices that don’t bleed your wallet” she promised the town of

Fishkill while simultaneously putting out a plea for housing for visiting stars and cast members.

The last theatre operated by Michael Iannucci was the Encore Dinner Theatre in St. Petersburg,

FL, which he helmed in 1989. Although Corio was no longer a regular performer, she made

special appearances in revue productions such as Artists and Models. The couple had purchased a

house in the area and This Was Burlesque was presented sporadically as a special production, such

as the 1985 version presented at the Variety Arts Theatre in Los Angeles.

Corio’s incursions into legitimate theatre enabled women to sate their curiosity about

strippers without attending the few remaining dedicated-burlesque theatres or the clubs and

carnivals which offered erotic dance. The industry that supported Corio’s stock-burlesque style

was defunct, but in 1965 the American Guild of Variety artists estimated that 25 burlesque

houses remained (with many more in Canada). The Bryan and Engle Circuit ran approximately

ten of the venues which featured headliners such as Tempest Storm and Blaze Starr. (This figure

does not include nightclubs which also exhibited erotic dance). This Was Burlesque never played

the remaining burlesque theatres. Functionally, Corio’s show was more akin to musical theatre

than the business model for burlesque in the 1960s and 1970s: burly venues booked individual,

touring, feature stripteasers who headlined a roster of local dancers - not full-cast shows. By

contrast, TWB had a large payroll and travelled with its own band - a performance element

which was rapidly dissipating from burly theatres in the 1960s as recorded music replaced trained

musicians. In 1963 Jack Ruby’s Carousel Club in Dallas, Texas employed just four stripteasers, an
137

emcee and a small band. The 1964 TWB show had 54 people on the payroll including three

stripteasers, five comics, ten chorus girls, six musicians and five stagehands plus house

operations.26 Corio encountered few labor issues while touring with such a large company; that

same year members of the Theatrical Protective Union, Local 1 protested the discharge of two

stagehands.27

Economic factors were not the only reason Corio eschewed the remaining burlesque

theatres: the venues were persistently dilapidated, the audience was almost exclusively male and

the venues and staff dancers spent little on theatrical elements. In 1965 Murray Frymer (the same

critic who was displeased by Corio’s “scrubbed” clean show) wrote of the two dozen strip clubs in

New York City: “the houses are shoddy, the exotics lewd and the aging comics... have lost the

pride they once had. The audience fits the attraction.” Only touring headliners still invested in

elaborate costumes and custom props. When Corio appeared on a talk show panel with striptease

legends in 1989, host Sally Jesse Raphael asked the ladies, “What’s wrong today” with burlesque?

The dancer’s answers aimed at the loss of theatrical elements. Dixie Evans noted the lack of

scenery and costumes; Jennie Lee, (founder of the Exotic Dancers League and the Exotic World

Museum) lamented: “You don’t have the bands, you don’t have the theatres, you don’t have the

runways, you don’t have the big costumes.” 28 When Corio was a headliner in stock and circuit

Untitled article about stagehand strike from clippings file (MWEZ - NC 24, 711), Billy Rose Theatre
26

Collection, New York Public Library.


27 Corio was involved in libel suit in 1981 when she was a candidate for regional vice president of the
American Guild of Variety Artists. She was one of multiple candidates branded “unqualified” by an
anonymous mailing sent by the “Committee for an Effective AGVA.” The mailing claimed that Corio had
failed to pay cast members for a three week period. Corio filed suit against Alan Nelson, the union’s
executive president. The settlement involved court costs and a public apology in the form of an
advertisement in Variety. "A.G.V.A. Veep Candidate Corio Slaps a Libel Suit on Nelson, Others," Variety,
December 9, 1981; "A.G.V.A. Execs Settle with Corio over Election Charges," Variety, September 1, 1982.
28Sally Jesse Raphael Show transcript (September 6, 1989), Bambi Vawn papers (Clippings File 1985-89),
Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York Public Library.
138

burlesque, each routine contained two or three popular songs. As dancers began to find more

steady work in nightclubs, performances grew longer. Feature dancers such as Lili St. Cyr

performed for nearly twenty minutes to a multi-song selection which contained discrete dance

and strip sections. When recorded music became standard, dancers entered wearing less and

performed for the length of a three-minute popular song. Venues still advertised their

performances as burlesque, but the term indicated barren bodies with a long stage exposure and

almost no accompanying variety acts.

Sex and Laughter

The geographies of TWB performances made stock burlesque more accessible to women

than the predominantly-male burly houses of the early-twentieth century. Booking the show in

respected venues was one arm in a three-pronged strategy to render burlesque a safe

entertainment environment for the distaff population that had been discouraged from attending.

The second strategic column was Corio’s insistence that comedy was an essential element of

authentic burlesque. Corio emphasized this point to suggest a dimorphism between burlesque

and erotic dance in men’s clubs; burlesque contained satires about sexual impulses but it was not

a sexual outlet. For Corio, an audience who thought about sexual activity was materially different

from the patron who paid for visual stimulation. Comedy ensured that the exchange between

performer and audience member was an intellectual act - laughter diffused the specter of sexual

gratification.

The previous chapter documented the presence of stock burlesque comic technique in

TWB and the legal conventions which rendered this repertoire part of the public domain. This

chapter section will examine the role of comedy as part of the TWB campaign to attract women

to burlesque performance. Corio was disposed to comedy based on her experiences in stock
139

burlesque and the organized circuits. Testimonies from the early-twentieth century demonstrate

that comedy affected the amplitude of erotic stimulation and audience response in burlesque

theaters. While Corio preserved many elements of stock burlesque comedy she also altered some

aspects of stock burly in order to appeal to her growing female fan base. Corio’s curatorial

interventions will be examined as a preface to the analytic question, why did comedy render the

sexually-charged environment of striptease and bawdy sketches less objectionable to female

audiences.

The New Gotham theater, introduced in chapter 2 as exemplary of the “scratch” houses

where Corio refused to perform, was also a theatre where a paucity of comic content was

dominated by striptease. The New Gotham was described by Irving Zeidman as the “nudest”

burly house, a location where women entered nude without elaborate costumes and paraded

across stage instead of stripteasing through structured choreography. Zeidman reported that

unlike other venues the audience did not laugh or vocalize approval; the men watched the female

dancers in “somnolent” silence. The same qualities were observed by literary critic Edmund

Wilson when he reported on burlesque at the Olympic Theatre for The New Republic in 1926.

Wilson depicted burlesque at the Olympic as “primitive” because the venue had few resources

and almost no theatrical elements. He described the three phlegmatic comedians who performed

interstitial acts of “sidewalk conversation” as dreary performers who delivered their lines with the

“utmost solemnity” from behind a “heavy and cretinous mask.” Dancers paraded back and forth

on the double runway in front of working-class men in shirt sleeves. Most disturbing to Wilson

was the lack of audience response - particularly when compared to the infectious peals of “easy

thunder” that ricochetted off the walls of the Minsky’s original theater, the National Winter

Garden. “What strikes you first... is the outward indifference of the spectators. They sit in silence
140

and quite without smiling and with no overt sign of admiration toward the glittering and thick-

lashed seductresses.”29 He noted that the dancer’s smile was not returned even as she exposed her

breasts and the men were reluctant to engage in minimal participation, failing to grab at pretzels

and lemons dangled from fishing lines. The limpid and cold audience pulse led Wilson to

conclude that the men came “to the theatre, you realize, to make their dreams made objective,

and they sit there each alone with his dream.” 30

In the burlesque theaters of Corio’s early career, shows which lacked effective comedians

were houses where male desire was the most potent. In scratch houses, men masturbated under

coats and newspapers. Written accounts of masturbation in burlesque theatres are rare - few

writers could describe in print an act that was perceived as an unspeakably offensive social

rupture or the sexual pathology, onanism. But certain venues did acquire reputations for

masturbation tolerance; in some locations men were not deterred from doing so by other

audience members or the management. In H. M. Alexander’s 1938 book Strip Tease, the author

notes that the most common slang phrase in burlesque was “jerks,” a term for the audience which

was taken from a colloquialism for masturbation. David Dressler described the act in both

explicit and elliptical terms in his 1937 study of burlesque theatres, and in the documentary Pretty

Things Sherry Britton stated frankly that male masturbation occurred in some theaters where she

performed.

The middle-class venues where TWB performed did not tolerate genital contact; distance

from burlesque circuits equated to a comfortable distance from venues where semi-public

masturbation might occur. But the geographic and spatial relocation of the TWB company does

29 Wilson, "Burlesque Shows," 280.


30 Ibid.
141

not entirely account for the neutering effect of comedy on audience desire. Why did the venues

without effective comics become havens for humorless, laugh-less, stag audiences focused

exclusively on parading bodies? What in the function of humor renders the female dancer-

performer less compliant with the ‘dreams-made-objective” - the static target of audience desire -

identified by Wilson. These questions will be addressed at the end of this section following an

examination of how comic elements were implemented in TWB in the bodies of the comedians

and dancers. Comic moments were gendered in TWB; men performed the humorous moments

and women were supernumeraries without powers of improvisation. Corio opened the doors of

burlesque to female audiences but the roles of women as comedians were not expanded in the

brand, a curatorial decision with key implications for the convergence of comedy and erotic

stimulants on the stage.

This Was Burlesque offered audiences a continually-changing roster of stock burlesque

comedy; as with other aspects of the brand, Corio subtly curated her interpretation of burlesque

performance. Comic elements were added, deleted and excluded to maintain a consistent,

gender-based division of labor within the show: men were the primary comedians, Corio and two

designated chorus members were the only female performers with humorous parts. The most

notable addition to the composition of humor in TWB was the presence of Patrick Bagwell,

billed in the program as “something for the girls” or the “all-American stripper.” Patrick’s feisty

striptease with aspects of both humor and magic was a significant departure from the stock

burlesque template. Male comedians had performed funny stripteases which mocked the dancers’

conventions and choreography through coconut-shell bras, grass skirts, stringy blonde wigs and

poorly-applied lipstick. But the male stripteaser was a novelty which acknowledged that women

could admire the physical attributes and sinewy movements of a dancer. Patrick validated a
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heterosexual female perspective and brought an ocular equity to burlesque. Patrick gave

heterosexual women the opportunity to experience the visual pleasure of observing a semi-nude

body in performance. Women weren’t attending TWB simply out of curiosity over a type of

cultural expression they were excluded from, they were individuals with their own desires.

Bagwell told one reporter that the novelty of his work had provoked extreme responses from

some women. He claimed that one woman bit him on the backside and another dug his nails into

his chest so deeply that she drew blood. Bagwell added, “when I worked in Las Vegas and Miami

Beach, they threw room keys to me but I never took them up.” 31 Without standards for decorum

between audience members and the male dancer, female spectators made assumptions about the

object-ness and sexual practices of a male stripteaser which mirrored the social framing of

female stripteasers - that the dancer was available for both public and private erotic

performances.

Patrick was added to the TWB roster in 1976 and he remained with the show on tour and

through the Broadway revival in 1981.32 Corio experimented with a stripper named Bernardo,

who appeared at the Tower Theater in Houston in 1979, but this could have been a pseudonym

for Bagwell, who a Texas native.33 The theatre critic who reviewed TWB in Houston also noted

the extremity of the female response: “Although Bernardo seemed awfully campy, the women in

the audience whistled and screamed with enthusiasm. The man sitting behind me threatened to

31 Earl Wilson, "Strips for Ladies," New York Post, July 1, 1981.
32Rebecca Franklin, "Burlesque Queen Ann Corio a Shy Catholic from New England," Birmingham News
July 5, 1981.

Bagwell’s surname name appears in programs before 1981 but during the Broadway run and for the
33

HBO taping he was billed simply as “Patrick.”


143

take his wife home if she didn’t stop screaming for Bernardo to gyrate near her.”34 The male

stripteaser generated a wave of publicity for TWB but Corio was not the only producer who had

stumbled upon the appeal of muscular, male dancers. The Chippendale dancers were formed in

1979 by Somen “Steve” Banerjee, a Bengali immigrant who created the dancers as an alternate

to female-mud wrestling nights at his nightclub, Destiny II, in Los Angeles. The organization was

marred by controversy in the mid-1980s when lawsuits alleged discrimination against African-

American performers and male audience members and the management faced criminal

charges.35 (The Chippendales organization endured management changes and still tour the

United States and Europe from a home base in Las Vegas). The Chippendales inspired copycat

troupes including the Peter Adonis Traveling Fantasy Show, which replicated the formula

developed by Banerjee and his partners. Banerjee believed that women would respond more

positively to male stripteasers if the dancers appeared first in a group and then performed solos

in character types. Ladies Night Out, a book produced by the Adonis company documents some of

the archetypal characters, (perhaps appropriated from the Chippendales): Rhett Butler, Zorro,

the Cop, the American Gigolo, and “Island Fantasy” - a white man wearing a straw hat, neck

bandana and white pants who personified fantasies of sexual tourism extended to female

consumers.

Male erotic dance for women was a burgeoning entertainment niche in the mid-1970s,

but male striptease did not arise to service exclusively heterosexual desires. Male go-go dancing

34Art Tomaszewski, "Comedy, Pulchritude: Ann Corio Brings Bawdy 'Burlesque' to Houston," Upfront
America circa 1979. Collection of Carole Nelson.
35In 1993, Banerjee was charged with conspiracy to kill three business associates (a choreographer and
former dancers who had defected to the Adonis dance troupe), racketeering and arson. The charges were
expanded to include the contract murder of another former Chippendale employee. Banerjee committed
suicide in his cell before sentencing to ensure his estate was awarded to his family and not seized; his
widow sold the company and its franchises.
144

was popular in the gay clubs which became less secretive after the 1969 Stonewall riots in New

York City. Photographic and testimonial relics from these venues is hard to procure but one venue

provides evidence that the queer incarnation of male striptease predated its absorption into

heterosexual-aimed performances. In 1974 the Gaiety Theatre opened in Times Square in a

second floor venue over the Howard Johnson’s restaurant. At the Gaiety, men stripped fully nude

and made appearances with erect penises in live acts performed between and during explicit gay-

themed movies. The club was notorious for open sexual activity (including self-stimulation, live

sex acts and male prostitution). Although the club attracted a cache of celebrities, including John

Waters, Shirley MacLaine and Andy Warhol, it was best known as a site for sexual tourism

frequented by closeted businessmen from other cities. The club endured until 2005 when the

building was demolished. Unlike the magic-infused performance by Patrick Bagwell, there is no

evidence that the male dancers of the Chippendales and the Gaiety employed humor in their

performances. Other than the carefully scripted contact detailed in the narrative introduction,

Bagwell did not cultivate audience interaction. He told the New York Post: “Some male stripers will

bump in ladies faces and get them to stuff dollar bills in their jockstraps. I’ve worked six years to

develop a clean comedy act.” For Bagwell, the import of his performance was light comedy not

an overture to sexual excitement.

The sexual acuity of female consumers was also hailed in TWB skits featuring Corio.

Corio foregrounded the desires of sexually active women in comic scenes such as “Julius

Sneezer” and “Here Comes da Judge” by enlarging the female role in these scenes. “Here Comes

da Judge” as performed by Pigmeat Markham and Sammy Davis Jr. foregrounded the lascivious,

slang-talking judge who peppers female witnesses with sexual propositions. In the TWB version,

the judge (played by Morey Amsterdam) questions and releases a company dancer before calling
145

in Corio, who appears as the widow Westfall, a woman charged with the murder of her husband.

Corio appears wearing a black basque and sleeved coat with an open front; she is covered in

rhinestone accessories - wrist cuffs, necklace and drop earrings - and her reddish hair is covered

with a lace mantilla topped with a bordello feather. Corio pleads guilty to the charges but begs

the judge to hear her story. She touches a bright pink handkerchief to her lip and tells her “sad,

sad story” grinding her hips around in a circle to punctuate the words. The exchange between

the judge and Corio is layered sexual innuendo.

Instead of playing the naive receptacle of the judge’s advances, Corio’s smirks and banter

with the judge indicate that she understands all of his double meanings. “What’s your

nationality” Amsterdam asks Corio. “Well I’m half Indian and half Scotch,” she replies.

Amsterdam looks to the audience when he quips, “That’s the way I like ‘em, wild and tight.” The

joke relies on stereotypes of native American savagery and Scottish frugality but in the humor is

an allowance for women with libertine sexual initiatives. Corio continues with her testimony: “I

killed my husband he was such a mean, mean man. He would get drunk every night, come home

and abuse me and then beat me and beat me and beat me.” The judge responds, “That man

should be hung.” Corio leaps out of her chair and crosses to the judge’s bench to deliver the

punchline: “Oh Judgy, he was!” The darker, domestic abuse elements of the joke point to the

prerogative men had to force sexual congress with their wives (a facet of American legal history

that will be addressed in the next chapter). The punchline points to an alternate truth - women

have a power of judgement and ranking when comparing the physical attributes of men; Corio’s

closing line informs the audience that she/Westfall has enough sexual experience to compare the

size of her husband’s penis to past lovers. Corio/Westfall’s sexual presence is also in defiance of

the dead husband’s violent acts, her capacity for pleasure has not been eradicated by spousal
146

abuse. Additionally, the character deploys her sexual attractiveness to provoke sympathy from the

judge, she manipulates him with the same jocular bawdiness that the judge controls in other

versions of the scene.

Corio may not have been well reviewed as a legitimate actress, but she was an

accomplished comic performer who knew when to remain within her roles and when to prompt

audience laughter with a slight wink or smile. Corio was not the only female cast member who

embodied this ironic knowingness. In each cast one member of the chorus had the designated

role of comedienne. The comic chorine would chew bubble gum, dance out of step and botch

her transitions. The dancer was meant to convey the hastily-rehearsed quality of stock burlesque

shows. Several critics noted that the funny chorine was an indication that TWB was a satire about

burlesque, not a reproduction of burlesque. While the degree to which irony was deployed in

stock burly houses is difficult to gauge, it was certainly an ingredient of all burly performances.

Burlesque producers were resourceful wits who understood the limitations of their form. The

comic chorine was very likely not an Ann Corio invention. A bumbling, fumbling chorine was

included in Sherry Britton’s Best of Burlesque in 1963, the show that probably served as the

inspiration for TWB.

Britton’s show also included a comic striptease - a woman who struggled out of her zipper

and clumsily performed the act. The Variety reviewer wrote: “Penny Powers does her divestiture

with a grain of humor. She’s kidding the art, audience and frequently herself and she works it in

a manner that indicates it’s not to be taken seriously.” 36 Corio never allowed comic energy to

cross over into the performances of feature dancers. TWB feature stripteasers always performed

36 "Burlesque Review," Variety, October 2, 1963.


147

their work earnestly in a way that highlighted the unique skills of their act. The circumscribed

comic roles that Corio enforced were consistent with the lines of business in stock burlesque.

The term “talking woman” arose as stock burlesque eclipsed the book shows of the

Columbia-circuit variety which had multiple female performers including the romantic ingenue,

the prima donna singer and the funny soubrette. In stock burlesque, theaters stopped employing

an actress and the dancers took over the sketch roles. The talking woman was a chorus member

or novitiate strip teaser who participated in sketches. The archetypal characters of the talking

woman were the shrewish wife, nubile native woman, blushing newlywed or attractive woman-

on-the-street. Talking women worked within the script-less repertoire of burlesque scenes (recall

Gypsy’s shorthand script for “Pickle Persuader”), but the talking woman was not empowered to

improvise within the scene - that art was the domain of the comedians. Talking women who

attempted to upstage the comedians would be cut from future scenes, “punished” through

vitriolic ad-libbing or sarcastic introductions to their dance performances. Feature dancers Joan

Arline and April March reported that they greatly enjoyed performing in comic scenes but once

they were promoted to the rank of feature dancer, theatre managers did not allow them to

participate in sketches.37 The feature dancer was not to be seen as an approachable, ordinary

human body; their participation in comic scenes eroded the rarified qualities that dancers sought

to project during their stripteases. Gypsy Rose Lee was one of the few feature stripteasers to

incorporate comedy into her acts. She did this in a few signature numbers and her comedy was

verbal patter which demonstrated her intellect, not physical humor which could have linked her

to the grotesque and dysfunctional potentials of the human body.

“Legends Lunch” public conversation with Joan Arline and April March at the Great Burlesque Expo,
37

Cambridge MA April 23, 2010.


148

Corio had opportunities to expand the comic roles for women in her show; funny female

dancers and comedians were part of the entertainment landscape in both 1940s burlesque and

the nightclubs of the 1960s. Lucille Rich performed in a musical dancing duo with her husband

Henry for nearly four decades, starting on the burlesque circuits before the Second World War.38

Norma Jean and Art Watts were another husband-wife team; the Watts worked burlesque

theatres and carnival shows from the great depression into the 1970s. Norma Jean was the foil to

Art’s patter, feeding him prompts for improvisation. 39 TWB featured solo male comics but the

roster never included female stand-up comediennes, consistent with the template of stock

burlesque. A few soubrettes sang bawdy songs, but female monologists were unheard of on the

stock burlesque stage. In the intervening decades women such as Belle Barthes and Rusty Warren

succeeded on the nightclub circuits with comic critiques from a female perspective. In the early

1960s, Rusty Warren drew female audiences by the bus load to her musical comedy

performances in nightclubs like the Club Alamo in Detroit, Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago and in the

Playboy clubs. Women became “Knockers Up Club Members,” a reference to Warren’s signature

song. Warren played the piano and commanded women in a march through the nightclub with

their “knockers” (breasts) held high. Warren deployed innuendo in her songs and piano-backed

patter, but she was also frank about sexual opportunities and choices, her repertoire included a

song about the newly-legalized birth control pill. It was not for lack of opportunity or inspiration

that Corio carefully limited the comic role of women. Returning to questions about the neutering

38Rich documented her hardscrabble touring life, which began on burlesque circuits in the great
depression and led to world tours with the USO. Lucille Rich, No Hells or Damn Allowed (Bloomington, IN:
Xlibris Corporation, 2001).
39 Briggeman, Burlesque: A Living History, 109-12.
149

effect of comedy and the influence of comedy on audience perceptions of the dancers’s body -

why were feature dancers prohibited from embodying physical humor in TWB?

Humor did not appear simultaneously in the bodies of dancers in TWB because Corio

wanted her female audiences to emulate the sexual self-confidence of the stripteasers. Women

were less likely to identify with the female performers if the dancers were exaggerated, grotesque

figures. Laughter can be deployed to mock and dehumanize a subject; humor had the potential

to disrupt the empathetic and somatic connection to the female stripteasers that Corio felt was a

motivating factor driving female attendance. Corio understood that women were attracted to the

confidence and sexual intelligence of erotic dancers. “Most women are frustrated stripteasers,

they do like to be exhibitionists” she told a reporter, commenting on body-revealing

contemporary fashion.40 Posing and grooming were, in the commercial sphere of products and

advertisements targeted at women, elements of feminine self-confidence that were manifest in the

erotic dancer. By focusing on the skills of the dancers, Corio encouraged women to emulate their

confidence and choreography without feeling clownish.

This strategy is supported by contemporary studies which reveal gendered divisions in the

production of laughter. According to Robert Provine, a developmental neuroscientist who

digested a decade of laughter research into the book Laugher, a Scientific Investigation, “males are the

leading jokesters, and females are the leading laughers and consumers of humor.”41 Provine

reports that anthropological and scientific studies indicate that while women will laugh at other

women, they do so at a significantly lower rate than laughter in response to men. As a business

Smith, "It's Ladies' Day at the Burleyque." a similar quote appears in a press release from Charles J.
40

Cohen for This Was Burlesque, December 5, 1978 in the file Clippings - Ann Corio, Billy Rose Theatre
Collection, New York Public Library.
41 Provine, Laughter, a Scientific Investigation, 29.
150

entrepreneur, it is possible that Corio did not want to disrupt the standards of her genre or the

cultural predilections observed through decades in burlesque entertainment.42 But what of the

dimorphism between erotic male-oriented spaces and mixed-gender theatrical burlesque

seemingly achieved through laugher? Corio’s decision to limit the role of women as comedians

had industry precedent, but the gendered nature of laughter does not entirely explain why venues

with skilled comedians were less likely to be havens for male fantasies. Men were harder to incite

to laugher, but based on all accounts they did laugh heartily at theaters like the Old Howard, the

National Winter Garden and the Irving Palace Theatre in the 1930s and 1940s. An important

clue is embedded in Wilson’s observation that the men at the Olympic (and at the New Gotham,

as noted by Zeidman) were engrossed in their own inwardly-directed fantasies; the audience did

not mirror the dancer’s smiles.

In scratch venues the male audience attended to watch women parade, not to enjoy social

interaction through laughter. The scientist, Provine, and the philosopher, Henri Bergson, concur

that laughter is fundamentally social. Provine’s first experiments to stimulate and document

laughter in a laboratory failed because subjects could not be aroused to laughter in a structured

setting. Provine lists the paid-to-laugh-and-clap audience shills of the Roman empire during

Nero’s tenure and the claques of eighteenth century France as evidence that social laughter can

be instigated. Radio shows were performed before live studio audiences and the laugh track was

added to television shows in 1950 as surrogates for the social prompts that occurred in a live

42 Provine connects this evidence to his own thesis that laughter is an evolutionary trait that pre-dates (and
serves as a cognitive preface to) language. He argues that the lack of female comedians could be due to
genetic coding which renders women the subservient laughers to male comedy. While Provine’s
confidence in scientific methods is admirable, he prioritizes a few studies with a small cohort of test
subjects over the “anecdotal”data gathering of the humanities, which he defines as the “philosopher’s
disease.” Provine’s dismissal of experiential observation blinds him to the rise of female comedians and
the possibility that a shifting social mores could recondition genetic coding within realms of cultural
production.
151

theatre.43 Edmund Wilson believed that the chorus girls at the National Winter Garden who took

“a certain jolly interest in the show and sometimes betray their roles by laughing inappropriately

at the jokes” were breaking character and disrupting the composition of the scene.44 But the

chorus girls (and Corio with her in-scene smirks and giggles) were cueing the audience to laugh. If

women are the preeminent laugh-generators, then the women in the burlesque cast were first

responders encouraging the male audience members to join in the social event. For the female

audiences for TWB, Corio and her bumbling chorine cued women spectators to laugh at the

male comics and at the satire of poorly-executed erotic dance; women weren’t prompted to laugh

derisively at other women. Group laughter ensured that the responses to the burlesque show were

social -- not private, intimate moments filled with the exclusive desires of the spectator.

Laughter has a cognitive as well as a social dynamic that may prevent the audience

member from forming a mental “dream made objective.” The physiological effect of laughter on

the brain disrupts an audience member’s ability to fix their sexual impulses on a target, to

imagine in the performer a scheme for erotic fulfillment. Research by John D. Pettigrew

demonstrates that ocular and hemispheric rivalry is destabilized by laughter. Conducting studies

on binocular rivalry as a method to examine consciousness, Pettigrew found that laughter

produced a “mixed percept.” Instead of processing visual information by alternating between the

left and right eyes (as portals to the brain hemispheres which govern different perceptive

functions) laughter caused a synthesis in binocularity. For the individual spectator, visual

processing toggles between the eyes and hemispheres; laughter alters the cognitive state, both

during the laugh and for several moments afterwards. The presence of humor in TWB and the

43Provine takes a special interest in Charlie Douglas, the man who developed a laugh track machine that
could be played like an instrument, creating different amplitudes and pitches of audience laughter.
44 Wilson, "Burlesque Shows," 278.
152

audience’s laughter encouraged the spectators to view stripteasers from more than just one

perceptive frame. Alternating comic sketches and stripteases facilitated a cognitive equilibrium, a

hemispheric balance that resisted the objectification of the dancer. The performing bodies could

not be stabilized - made a still object - if the brain had recently been jostled by laughter. Laughter

imposes a synthetic pluralism that disrupts the binocularity of spectatorship. 45

Humor neutered the erotic potential of dancers and the converse is also possible: that sex

neuters the potency of humorous material. Drama critic Walter Kerr argued that theatrical sex

and humor were incompatible because of the collective, public nature of theatre. In a prickly

review of Oh! Calcutta!, Kerr presented his theory as to why the comic moments fell impotent in

Kenneth Tynan’s play, a compilation of erotic scenes. “The people onstage are not engaged in

being amusing... or imaginative. They are engaged in being naked. It is an exclusive

occupation.” 46 For Kerr, the full nudity of both the men and women in the cast negated their

dramatic and comic potential. The presence of simulated sex, present in several scenes of Oh!

Calcutta! and performed by fully nude bodies, obliterated the jokes written into the sketches

because “sex is a total act;” no other action or activity can be engaged in during sex. “Thinking

ruins it. Any companion, any intrusion, ruins it.” Kerr postulated that sex became private

because of this ‘autonomous” quality and felt that Oh! Calcutta! failed because sex on stage

“without disguise of form or reduction to metaphor”was the intrusion of an “exclusive” act into

the “open and total confrontation” that is theatre. Corio curated comedy into each edition of

TWB so that the dancers would be framed - on either side of the act - by laughter which

disrupted solipsistic fantasies about the performer; the consciousness of the spectator was

45J. D. Pettigrew, "Laughter Abolishes Binocular Rivalry," Clinical and Experimental Optomology 88, no. 1
(2005).
46 Walter Kerr, "Not Funny, Just Naked," New York Times June 29, 1969.
153

rendered social and pluralistic - not intimate and singular. In this way comedy served as a

conceptual barrier that distinguished burlesque from the sex industry. This ontological threshold

was supported by the material boundaries Corio enforced at the bodies of the dancers, in the box

office and on stage.

No Professionals

This Was Burlesque was a safe space for women to encounter bawdy bodies and humor

because Corio enforced boundaries which helped disconnect female performers from the specter

of prostitution. The policies of the TWB company encouraged audience members to imagine the

stripteaser as a pleasure-seeking libertine, a woman with both sexual desires and a moral compass

who preferred moderation to wanton excess. The stripper-libertine was a member of the lower

class but she had a moral constitution consistent with middle-class wives. This assured audience

members that they could emulate the stripper without vitiating themselves. Before turning to the

boundaries that secured a performative and metaphoric space for women to exhibit their sexual

persona, it is necessary to briefly review the entrenched association between actresses and

prostitution that was contested in the TWB brand.

Women did not appear on the public English-speaking stage until 1661, during the reign

of Charles II, in England. Before the Restoration, female roles were played by men and women

were forbidden to appear in stage roles. The intimate relationships that developed between many

of the first English actresses and the male members of Charles’ court sparked some the earliest

associations between actresses and prostitution. The actress-mistresses were engaged in a dual

work for hire - selling their bodies on stage as entertainment for an audience and receiving

financial support from the men who received their sexual labors. As Kristen Pullen summarizes in

her episodic study, Actresses and Whores: On Stage and In Society “In the public imagination at least, if
154

a woman presented herself onstage, then she would present herself off stage, sexually, as well.” 47

Pullen notes that the word “whore” was an insult that inferred the woman was sexually

promiscuous - not a paid prostitute. But the labeling of actresses as whores in the Restoration was

foundational to an association which endured for centuries. Lydia Thompson’s performances

with the British Blondes in 1868 intensified the association between burlesque performers and

wanton excess. As both Pullen and Robert Allen note, the Blondes were a direct confrontation to

the cult of true womanhood - ideals of feminine social comportment circulating in the mid-

nineteenth century. Pointed public attacks on the Blondes by actress Olive Logan pitted female

performers against one another. For Logan, the Blondes represented the type of vice-stained

cultural production - indicated by their stockinged legs and sexual presence - that sullied the work

of professional actresses such as herself; the British Blondes were exemplary of women who sold

their bodies instead of artistic craftsmanship.

When not the site of a cultural war, the connection between burlesque and prostitution

was incubated by spatial proximities. Prostitutes circulated in English-speaking theatres, searching

for patrons, from the Restoration to the late-nineteenth century. Some historic theaters had tiers

or boxes that were sites for assignations. In both England and America, theaters were often

located in the same neighborhoods and on the same streets as brothels. In Actresses as Working

Women, Tracy Davis presents considerable evidence of the geographic overlap between “the

tavern, the pleasure gardens and theatre.” The connection between prostitution and the stage

was created by the broad assumptions of social reformers about the moral character of “ballet

girls” and actresses. Davis notes that actresses had no motivation to engage in both careers

simultaneously; any actress found engaged in prostitution would have been dismissed from her

47Kristen Pullen, Actresses and Whores: On Stage and in Society (New York: Cambridge University Press 2005),
24.
155

job.48 Still the aura of prostitution continued to cling to actresses and dancers. When Fortune

magazine profiled burlesque in 1935, it queried an unnamed producer about the moral character

of his female employees. The producer’s response, “Some virgins, no professionals.”49 The

catchphrase was used to defend the industry through a comment about the chorus girls’ and

stripteasers’ sexual status: some were still sexual novices but no dancer worked “professionally”

earning money as a prostitute. When David Dressler mapped the close proximity of theatres and

brothels in New York City circa 1937, he found no direct connection between burlesque

attendance and brothel patronage, concluding that in the burlesque industry, “prostitution is

practically non-existent. Certainly it is the exception, and as such find itself outside the pale of

the social group.” 50

The long-enduring connection between female performers and prostitution was fueled by

both historical moments and an existential anxiety provoked by live female performance.

Actresses and prostitutes can counterfeit their emotions and reward the paying customer with

emotional or physical release. The prostitute and actress both perform pleasure for an audience

(of one or many individuals) suggesting that love and attraction can be a work for hire. The same

emotions that are deployed in moral instruction to encourage conformity (via fear of

punishment, humiliation or physical pain) can be used to incite desires framed as anti-social and

amoral. The emotional expressions and empathy that are ostensibly the foundation of

heterosexual, marital partnerships (and the attendant economic and domestic benefits) can be

feigned. The ability of performers to counterfeit their expressions arose suspicion and doubt

48Tracy C. Davis, Actresses as Working Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian Cultures (New York: Routledge
1991), 78-81.
49 quoted in Dressler, "Burlesque as a Cultural Phenomenon", 141.
50 Ibid.
156

about the authenticity of women’s emotional displays, whether the performance was on a public

stage or in a private domain. The colloquial description of prostitution as the “oldest profession”

is contingent on the assumption that the first type or work a woman was paid for was sexual labor

(or at least, access to her body). This colloquialism elides any other primary skills or aptitudes by

women - it suggests that women are first and foremost sexual performers and producers. This

work was legitimate only within the bounds of marriage. Women who engaged in sexual activity

outside of marriage were, within the dictates of the Catholic religion that Corio ascribed to,

morally debased. Whether the woman engaged in sexual activity for her own libertine pleasures

or if she received financial compensation for it (as a prostitute) the unmarried woman who

engaged in sex was a social and religious deviant. In the philosophical precepts of Christianity, a

woman’s soul was tainted with her body; she was eligible for redemption, but there is no Faustian

contract - a partitioning of the incorporated body and soul.51 A woman is presumed to sell her

soul with her body, to engage in sexual commerce is to give access to the character of the person

through her genitalia. Because women in both spheres of labor - wife and prostitute - received

some financial remuneration in exchange for their labor, women were spiritually debased by the

sexual act unless her person was subsumed under the protectorship of her husband.

The primacy of sexual labor undergirded the primary categories of social incorporation

that were available to women during Corio’s lifetime: married, unmarried or prostitute. For the

purposes of analysis in this chapter these broad categories will be used to organize the analysis of

Corio’s brand strategy to distance stripteasers from prostitution. These are inherently reductive

generalizations that gloss over a spectrum of conditions. Prostitution can be an elective or

51 Sabine Doering wrote about female Faust figures, primarily in German literature, noting a blind spot in
literary criticism to female characters with Faustian potential. No comparable work has been identified for
American literature. See Helen Chambers, “Die Schwestern des Doktor Faust (book review)” Modern
Language Review October 1, 2003.
157

violently coerced form of employment. There is a vast gulf of material experiences standing

between professional sex workers who regard their labor as a kind of healing shamanism and

women trafficked, abused and imprisoned into sexual slavery. Marriage is a legal and religious

status; it does not indicate a quality of life or fidelity to the ideals of the institution. These

categories are deployed in order to form a space for the many conditions that do not fall into

these dominant categories. The unmarried woman will be referred to as a libertine - a woman

who is not bound by religious or legal vows to a man. The term is not intended to invoke the

pejorative connotations of the word (an individual who pursues their desires to the point of self-

destruction or harm to others) but as a means to recognize the interstitial space occupied by

women who are divorced, widowed, celibate, common-law spouses, abandoned by former

partners, serial monogamists and other sundry varieties of companionship not recognized by the

Christian religious tradition and Anglican common law.

While the categories are broad, the legal precedent for these divisions is the common law

tradition of coverture, or marital unity. The principle of coverture, defined in William

Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, (a foundational document for British and

American common law), stated that the “legal existence of the woman is suspended during

marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.” 52 The two

individuals in a marriage became one person - the husband. Coverture prevented women from

owning property, retaining wages, negotiating contracts and testifying against a husband (since

quoted in Norma Basch, "Invisible Women: The Legal Fiction of Marital Unity in Ninteenth-Century
52

America," Feminist Studies 5, no. 2 (1979): 350.


158

one could not testify against themselves).53 While the application of this principle was varied -

monied women could negotiate antenuptial contracts and trusts - Norma Basch argues that

marital unity was a legal fiction, “a metaphor creating specific legal results.” The women’s

movement of the mid-nineteenth century took up the cause of women’s property rights, equating

uncompensated services to slavery. Between the 1830s and 1870s most state legislatures passed

property and wage reform.54 But Bash contends that the efforts had little bearing on the tradition

of coverture because “in their decisions, judges invariable cited the common law first, and then

examined the extent to which the statues abrogated it.” 55 Even after women attained the right to

own property in the mid-nineteenth century the principle of coverture cast a long, legal shadow

over twentieth-century definitions of marriage and women’s rights in common law, serving as an

obstacle to divorce, separation, credit, and the prosecution of rape.

The prostitute, libertine and wife are invoked in the Venn diagram below to examine the

social categories ascribed to women’s labor. Under coverture, the wife only performed labor

within marriage. In this model, prostitutes were women who performed one of the labors of

marriage - sexual pleasure - outside of a covenant. Since unmarried women were governed by

their fathers under coverture, the unmarried, wage earning woman was a liminal creature,

waiting for incorporation into a legitimate male property-body. Women could not use their

bodies as a site for commercial enterprise.

53The common law practice of forbidding wives to testify against husbands underlies the climax of the
quasi-burlesque movie Ball of Fire (1941). The nebbish professor Bertram Potts, played by Carey Grant,
comes to the rescue of Sugarpuss O’Shea, who is being held captive by her gangster-boyfriend until she
agrees to marry him, so that she cannot testify against his crimes.

Hendrik Hartog, "Lawyering, Husbands' Rights and 'the Unwritten Law' in Nineteenth-Century
54

America," Journal of American History 84, no. 1 (1997): 94.


55 Basch, "Invisible Women: The Legal Fiction of Marital Unity in Ninteenth-Century America," 357.
159

Coverture was a legal philosophy, designed to stabilize property transactions and

inheritance when England was predominantly a feudal

Prostitute Libertine country. In practice, many women labored outside the

home and marriages. The tension between the common


ld r Mis
tres
Go igge s law tradition of coverture and de facto status of laboring
D

women is represented in the diagram at left; the libertine


Wife
and prostitute both represent women who entered into

employment to sustain themselves; the prostitute is a professional sex worker, the libertine may

engage with erotic work in the employment of her own body, as a business, in the public domain.

The prostitute is paid for sexual services, the libertine is paid for her attractiveness or the

theatrical simulation of erotica. Wives may be self-sustaining professionals (such as Corio, who

worked through all three of her marriages) or women who exchange domestic labor in a financial

partnership. The categories of wife, libertine and prostitute are not absolute or mutually

exclusive; the spheres represent social judgements about a woman’s character based on her

sexual, legal and marital status. The spaces where the spheres overlap point to other potentialities

of sexual practice. The gold digger represents narratives about women who prioritize financial

wealth over emotional connections in a partnership (this archetype will be addressed further in

chapter 5). The mistress hints at a distinct sphere for women who prioritize an emotional, sexual

or financial connection over pre-existing covenants or monogamy.

The stripteaser belongs to the sphere of the libertine. A woman who allows others to pay

to observe her body; a woman who may be single or a wife, sexually active or celibate and who

may or may not be available for post-theatrical sexual commerce. These spheres will be used to

illustrate how Corio identified thresholds which helped her audiences sever the association
160

between actress and prostitute by positioning the stripper in a liminal space between the primary

categories of social incorporation. Corio enforced thresholds at the bodies of her dancers, in the

box office and on stage which mimicked the protections granted to propertied middle-class

women and wives. Corio defined what was not for sale in the theatre (sexual services) through

boundaries which indicated that the stripteaser controlled her own, autonomous bodily property.

Corio enforced a threshold at the bodies of her dancers in order to distinguish her show

from other forms of erotic labor. The bodies of the TWB stripteasers were never fully nude or

topless.56 The libertine stripteaser performs partially nude to perform the function of theatrical

simulation - desire is recognized and simulated, but not necessarily stimulated and serviced.

When this policy is compared to other spheres of the diagram, prostitutes reveal all of their body

as contracted for the purpose of sexual (and possibly emotional) satisfaction by the patron. The

wife does not appear nude in public because her body is dedicated to a monogamous,

reproductive purpose (and in the shadow of coverture, her husband’s property). Under the

Catholic-Christian theology invoked in these divisions, the function of spousal nudity is

reproduction and sexual release for the legitimate husband. It is important to note that the

maternal-reproductive organs -- the vagina for birthing and the the nipples which feed an infant

-- are the locations on the body that are specifically regulated by community laws. G-strings hide

the vagina and pasties cover the nipples.

The stripeaser’s partial nudity corresponds to the liminal space of the libertine - a sphere

between but apart from the wife and prostitute.The censorship of fertile portals on the female

body disguised the visual reminders of reproductive potential and also hid the parts of the body

that were allegedly shameful. The word pudendum (favored by Dressler and other burlesque

56The one exception to Corio’s anti-toplessness mandate - recordings of the show for HBO - will be
addressed in the next chapter.
161

commentators who blushed to print a medical term for female organs) refers to the vagina, but

the word also implies that the organ is a shameful thing. The screens provided by the g-string and

pasties obscured full viewership of the reproductive reminders, a device that reinforced the

necessity of hiding the shameful anatomy. It could be argued that in the first half of the twentieth

century, g-strings and pasties enabled the heterosexual male spectator to view the striptease

dancer as a sexual fantasy without reproductive consequences. But half of this prohibitive screen

was lifted with the advent of topless bars, a development which seemingly did nothing to remind

male spectators of the maternal function of breasts.57

Live topless dancing emerged concurrently with the run of This Was Burlesque at the

Casino East. Bare breasts had appeared on nightclub and legitimate stages (in still poses so as not

to violate local indecency laws) and in underground and un-policed venues. Fully topless dancing

appeared in 1965 following the introduction of the topless bathing suit in haute couture and a

Supreme Court decision regarding the adult film A Stranger Knocks; the court ruled that the First

Amendment protected freedom of conduct and expression as well as verbal speech. The Condor

Club and Off-Broadway club in San Francisco were the first to test for legal tolerance of

regularly-advertised topless dancing. Carol Doda began dancing topless at the Condor in 1964,

launching a wave of similarly nude clubs along the West Coast and an attendant tide of court

cases. When Playboy covered the burgeoning California scene in 1966, it reported that forty

nudity-related cases were pending in the Los Angeles municipal courts.58 In 1968 the California

57It is also possible that cultural attitudes had shifted away from the perception of breasts as part of the
reproductive anatomy. Breastfeeding was in decline in the 1960s as infant formula was advocated by
health care professionals. Breast augmentation technologies were increasingly available during the
mid-1960s, enabling women to treat their breasts as a component of their physical attractiveness instead
of a reproductive utility. A separate study would be needed to consider how the concurrent shifts in
reproductive, family and cosmetic medicine affected spectatorship of the female breast.
58 "Topless: What's What with the West Coast's Wonderous Bare Market," Playboy, September 1966, 190.
162

Supreme court ruled In re Giannini that “nude dancing was ‘potentially a form of communication

protected against state intrusion by the guarantees of the First Amendment.’”59 Because Federal

obscenity laws gave much latitude to local authorities to regulate based on community standards

of decency and public conduct, the prohibition of (or allowance for) toplessness varied from state

to state and county to county. Despite the moderate stripteases performed in Corio’s show, her

dancers were arrested on rare occasions for violating local decency laws.60 Corio dancers Tami

Roche and Lilly Charisse were arrested with the company business manager at the Coliseum

Summer Theatre in Colonie, NY in August 1973. A local law had been enacted in May “to keep

topless bars out of the community.” Although Corio had a protocol to inquire “before opening if

there are any local statues that might be violated,” in Colonie her pre-show research was

inadequate.61

! Topless bars offered sexual tourism within domestic boarders; in urban areas clubs were

situated near downtown convention centers and hotels or became cornerstones of “red-light”

vice districts. In urban geographies, the performing venues most proximate to brothels changed

from burlesque houses to topless clubs. The urban renewal efforts of the 1960s did not eradicate

erotic dance venues, the interventions merely forced the clubs to relocate. When Scollay Square

in Boston was obliterated, the strip clubs migrated to lower Washington Street, a district that

gained the nickname “the combat zone” because of vice-related crimes. In New York City the

strip clubs disappeared on Third Avenue as bohemian culture gentrified the neighborhood. The

strip venues, erotic book stores and explicit movie theatres were simply transplanted to Times

59David Hudson, "Nude Dancing," First Amendment Center, http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/


speech/adultent/topic.aspx?topic=nude_dancing.
60Corio’s dancers were arrested in Portland ME and Albany, NY. See Greg Haymes, "Starlite Once Drew
Showbiz's Biggest Acts," Times Union, August 28, 2006.
61 "Local Cops Bust Act in Ann Corio Show," Variety, August 22, 1973.
163

Square.

Corio distanced her brand from these contemporary offshoots of burlesque by limiting

nudity in This Was Burlesque, an intervention she invariably mentioned to reporters who previewed

her shows or profiled Corio in the entertainment and lifestyle pages of regional newspapers. This

Was Burlesque featured at least one, and as many as three, feature stripteasers who were listed in

the programs as “ecdysiast,” “exotic” or “special attraction.” Corio’s dancers did unique

striptease routines but they never disrobed beyond pasties and a g-string. In the early incarnations

of the show, the chorus and some features wore nylon-net “union” suits covering most of their

body. Corio aligned her stripteaser aesthetic with the standards of television and wide-release

film. Patrick’s striptease ended with the implication that he was nude underneath his satin cape

but his genitals were never seen.

At the body threshold, Corio controlled how much of the performer’s body could be seen.

But the dancer’s performing body was also an entity that could potentially be touched. Corio

regulated audience-performer contact by placing a threshold at the box office - she ensured that

the commercial interaction between audience and performer was strictly theatrical and public.

Because the commercial transaction and the product were exclusively public, the erotic elements

of the performances were open to the community. Unlike the private sexual performances of

prostitution and marriage, the stripteases in TWB were subject to the tolerance or censure of

community standards. By locating the point of sale at the box office, Corio distinguished her

product from other erotic products which allowed customers to purchase social access to the

performers or contact with their bodies. Other than the ticket to the show, the only products that

could be purchased from the TWB company were traditional souvenirs such as the cast albums

and large-format programs.


164

While This Was Burlesque was touring, other adult entertainments offered more than just

admission to the venue. Women working in the libertine sphere of nightclubs were available for

retail social contact - patrons could purchase casual social interaction with the dancers after their

stage performances. Boston’s combat zone included clubs such as the Teddy Bare Lounge and the

Two O’Clock club, venues where dancers were expected to mingle with the men between

performances. Dancers, who referred to these venues as “mixing joints,” were paid a commission

on the drinks they sold to customers (although the management did not always promptly

distribute commissions).62 Top-billed feature dancers who were booked into clubs on a limited

engagement were not expected to mix with the audience or stipulated terms in their contracts

against mixing. But a regular house employee could double her weekly salary through drink

commissions. In the 1960s and 1970s feature dancers received between $500 and $1000 a week.

A local employee made approximately $225, minus a 10% fee paid back to the house and

costume expenditures.63 Drink commissions could add an additional $300-$400 a week to a

dancer’s salary.64

Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Clubs loom large in popular imagination because the venues were

so widespread. The first Chicago Playboy Club opened in 1960, the network expanded to more

than forty American and international venues (the last U.S. venue closed in 1988). At Hefner’s

insistence the clubs’ atmosphere was more “show business than saloon.” Performers such as

Barbara Streisand and Ray Charles performed at the well-appointed venues which cost a

minimum $25 membership to attend. Patrons were not allowed to touch or mingle with the

62 Opal Dockery, "My Commission at the Two O'clock Club," in The X-Rated Grandma (2008).
63Stephen Zito, "This Is Burlesque," Washington Post, March 27, 1977.
64 Telephone interview with Marinka, May 11, 2009.
165

waitresses who were costumed in strapless satin corsets with fluffy tails and a matching headpiece

of two rabbit ears which matched the company logo. The forty-four page bunny manual forbid

employees from dating customers, giving out their private information or meeting a significant

other within two blocks of the venue. But this rule was suspended for Hefner’s top-tier of

customers, “No. 1 Keyholders;” employees could enter the club as their social companions. The

policy recognized a distinct sphere available to attractive women who prioritized access to rich

men.65 A bunny “mother” served as enforcer and informer for the upper management and the

company hired a private security firm to make sure the dancers did not accept money for other

services. These rules helped protect the clubs from closure by local authorities.

Corio enforced the box office threshold by prohibiting casual dating between dancers and

audience members and instituting a strict dress code for the performers while on tour. Dancers

were not to appear in casual wear while circulating through the towns in which the company

toured (Corio felt jeans weren’t adequately professional). By regulating performer comportment,

Corio sought to discourage audience members from pursuing other commerce with her dancers.

The erotic persona was to be performed in the theatre, not in the street. Because the dancer’s

private person was not available offstage, the audience members were conditioned to focus

exclusively on-stage. On-stage audience interaction was carefully prescribed. Dancers never

engaged with audience members beyond gestures and lyrics that were part of a number. In

“Powder My Back”, the chorines brandished powder puffs on sticks but only after an admonition

65Tracy Davis writes of gifts to actresses in Victorian England, “With a commercial exchange in the form
of lavish gifts or a regular stipend... the situation resembles matrimony in all but its impermanence and
lack of legal endorsement - hence the social judgement of prostitution.” Davis aligns the gift-for-presence
exchange with marriage in order to highlight the fluid boundaries between marriage, prostitution and
other exchanges of equity-for-labor; the distinctions were moral, not functional. Davis, Actresses as Working
Women: Their Social Identity in Victorian Cultures, 80.
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from Corio to follow her Italian mamma’s advice: burlesque was o.k. if “they looka but not

toucha.” 66

Corio relied on both her company rules and the live band in the orchestra pit to enforce a

physical distance between the performer and the audience. In the mid 1950s, burlesque operators

seeking to cut expenses began eliminating the house band; dancers stripped to recorded music

instead of live percussion and horns. This altered burlesque dance by eliminating improvisation

between the dancer and the traditional five-piece band, an aspect which many dancers enjoyed

because it enlivened their routines.67 The loss of the band also allowed the audience to approach

the stage or runway and facilitated the direct contact and cash tipping which became a standard

exchange between dancer and patron in topless clubs. In Corio’s productions, the music and

proscenium formed a Wagnerian mystic abyss; the dancer on stage belonged to an unattainable

romantic-mythic realm, her body was not available for personal, physical access or potentially

sexual commerce. The unperturbed threshold between audience and performer was a moral

boundary with a long precedent. Jim Curley, the former mayor of Boston and oft-cited fan of

Ann Corio, developed a performance code for Boston in 1915 which specified: “No women

performers to mingle with the audience, either in the aisles or boxes, except in ledgerdemain and

similar acts.” 68

The entertainment sector that allowed the most contact with performers during the run of

TWB was striptease “cooch” shows which were part of traveling fairs and carnivals.

Performances on the fair circuit illustrate both the broad range of erotic performances available

‘This Was Burlesque” videocassette (1977) dir. Marty Callner, producer Michael Brandman, archive of
66

Carole Nelson.
67Music in Burlesque - an Interview with Charles De Milt, (video recording) 1979, Theatre on Film and Tape
(NCOW 40), New York Public Library.
68 Lang, "Interred in Concrete: The Censorship of Boston's Old Howard Theatre", 123.
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to consumers and the geographic dispersion of nude dance. As a counterpoint to the “straw hat”

tents where ladies auxiliaries flocked to see Ann Corio, all-male audiences packed the trailer-

caravan “cooch shows” that were part of traveling fairs which temporarily took up residence in

small towns across the East Coast and Midwest. The carnivals catered to rural populations, more

agrarian and more remote than the post-war suburbs that Corio built her tours around. The

carnivals visited a town for three to five days, tore down and relocated to the next destination.

Fairs had stock car racing, motorcycle and highwire stunts, livestock competitions, midways with

food, games and small gambling, side shows and mainstage country and pop concerts. Girl revues

and “Little Egypts” were part of fairs from their inception in the early 1900s. Circus and fair

historian A. W. Stencell wrote, “all the early carnival companies that sprung up after the Chicago

fair [Columbian Exposition] carried Oriental Theatres, Turkish Villages, etc, featuring hoochie-

coochie dancers.” 69 The racism embedded in “exotic” dance infused the fair circuit as well.

Charles Fish, who documented the New England fairs of his childhood recalled that some girlie

shows were white, some integrated. “If all black, whether they featured strippers or vaudeville

acts, they were known around the carnival as “jig shows.” 70 By 1920 more than 200 carnival

companies traversed the country on rail cars, providing outdoor entertainment in town squares,

farm fields and adjoining traveling circuses. 71 Reid Lefevre who operated the King Reid Shows

which wintered in Manchester, VT, brought a temporary carnival to at least 160 towns in New

England, Eastern Canada, Pennsylvania and Maryland between 1937-1960.72

69 A. W. Stencell, Girl Show: Into the Canvas World of the Bump and Grind (Toronto, ON: ECW Press 1999), 8.
70Charles Fish, Blue Ribbons and Burlesque: A Book of County Fairs (Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press,
1998), 251.
71 Stencell, Girl Show: Into the Canvas World of the Bump and Grind, 12.
72 Fish, Blue Ribbons and Burlesque: A Book of County Fairs, 173.
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In the early-twentieth century, burlesque and vaudevillian performers worked the fairs

during the summer season when some theatres shut down because of heat and poor ventilation.

After the closure of New York City burly houses and the contraction of the circuits in the early

years of the Second World War, burlesque performers filled the gaps in their work schedule by

performing with traveling carnivals. Sally Rand, Faith Bacon and Gypsy Rose Lee headlined fair

shows in the mid-1940s. Through the Second World War, the revues were full-scale productions

with live bands, a chorus of eight to twelve dancers, four to five feature dancers and some mixed

comedy and vaudeville acts. Elaborate premises for the shows included water tank acts, fine-art

tableaux vivants and miniature ice rinks. Customers were enticed into the shows by the “bally”

an advertising pitch that was performed outside the tent or on a stage that folded off of a mobile

trailer. In the “bally” women danced and shimmied while a carnie “talker” called out to the

passers by. Stencell reports that some carnival companies used the bally as a bait for “grift,” male

customers were drawn into tents by cooching dancers, only to be bilked out of their cash through

card games.

As brightly-lit thrill rides started to eclipse the live entertainments in the late 1950s the

carnival strip shows moved to the back of the carnival and the production elements became less

elaborate. The fair shows split into two kinds of erotic display - the more fully staged girl shows

and the “cooch” shows at the back of the midway. While Stencill’s book includes photographs of

canvas tent fronts painted in vibrant, Vargas-style pin-ups, there were minimal sets and the bally

costumes for low-budget cooch shows were lightly-embellished underwear and panel skirts. 73 The

vaudeville acts fell out by the 1970s and fair shows took on the same qualities as topless dance.

For $2 men were admitted to see a series of women strip to a single, 45 rpm pop records. Women

73 Briggeman, Burlesque: A Living History, 320-21.


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were not welcome; the bally catchphrase for the shows was “No Ladies. No Babies.”As is often

the case with informal dictates the rule was not totalitarian. Charles Fish recalled seeing a woman

he knew at a strip show yelling “take it off.”

Fair shows in the 1970s bordered the sphere of prostitution because the shows were

transient and the commercial transactions were often unregulated - akin to a black market. In the

summers of 1973-75, Susan Meislas toured New England documenting the girlie shows that were

part of touring carnival sideshows. She befriended several dancers and stripped onstage once in

order to have a full understanding of the experience she was photographing. Meislas tape-

recorded more than fifty hours hours of interviews, selections of which appear next to the images

in Carnival Strippers. Meislas’s photos document in graphic detail the gritty, frank world of

women who spent their summers stripping in the cooch shows of carnivals and fairs. Some were

transient seasonal dancers, others were professionals who stayed employed on the fair circuit

during the down months for nightclubs. Dancers were paid $15-$20 a night for stripping fully

nude, the choreography usually entailed spreading - the dancer opened her legs to give full view

of her vulva. Although dancers were not required to do so, many raised extra tips by performing

woman-on-woman erotic acts, allowing men to stroke their breasts or genitals, or encouraging the

audience members to perform fellatio on them during their act.

This was possible because the dancers were in close proximity to the audience. Carnival

trucks had a stage but no seating so men could circulate as close to the dancers as they desired.

Such actions closed the shows in Rutland, VT in 1973. The same manager reopened his show

the next year, claiming popular opinion encouraged him to open. Stripping and genital contact

were variable by location but the police often tolerated the cooch shows because they were paid,

off-duty, as security for the performances. The off-duty officers guarded both the money collected
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and ostensibly, the dancers. In Meislas’s book the women describe being occasionally pinched,

pushed, hit or pulled into the audience. The testimonies gathered by Meislas suggest that few

dancers performed prostitution tricks, unless they were interested in the man and the cash was

added incentive. Meislas’ work indicates that even in spheres of sex work that approached the

markers of prostitution - wherein cash is exchanged for intimate contact - the boundaries are

fluid and far from absolute.

The stage was the third Corio brand threshold which distinguished her libertine

stripteasers from illegal sexual commerce. In a time when burlesque theater operators

increasingly booked movies instead of trained dancers, Corio’s show was performed live. The

liveness of Corio’s burlesque show allowed the performer to demonstrate her indelible persona,

exhibit her self-pleasure with her skills, acknowledge the audience’s desire and return their gaze.

Film offered a one-directional spectatorship, the recorded performer looks into the camera, not at

the live observer. A dancer must use different techniques on film to display the “awarishness” a

live stripteaser can project into a live audience. The term “awarishness” was used by Lydia

Thompson in a speech about the qualities of the “new” women who were contesting the ideals of

piety, purity and domesticity championed by Victorian notions of true womanhood.74

Thompson’s awarishness of her sexual potency was cause for alarm among cultural

commentators in the 1860s.

Implicit in Thompson’s awarishness of her then-egregious displays of sexuality was the

ability of the performer to locate her own persona and consent in the negotiation of erotic

arousal. Striptease dancers could refuse to work in venues where the male audiences

74Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture, 18. Maria-Elena Buszek also employed the
“awarishness” of Lydia Thompson in her analysis of pin-up art, but her work is specific to the mechanics
of audience-image interaction with mass-produced still images, not live performance.
171

masturbated; a performer in a burlesque movie had no power to refuse the booking. The ability

of the stripteaser to refuse or accept bookings based on the audience-performer relationship in a

house indicated that she was not an object for sale - akin to prostitution. The libertine occupied a

different realm in which the admiration and applause of the audience was key to her valuation. A

live striptease performer positioned herself as an unattainable receptacle for admiration. The

liveness of Corio’s shows preserved the awarishness of striptease dancers when the economies of

production and distribution had tipped toward film.

As audiences for variety burlesque waned in the late 1940s and early 1950s, theatres

which formerly offered stock burlesque on a grind basis (running shows all day long with

interstitial movies) began playing striptease shorts between feature dancers. Some venues

eliminated dancers and offered only striptease movies. The burlesque “grind” schedule became

the etymological root of the grindhouse movie theatre. Robert Allen’s final chapter explores the

emergence of short, looping “peep” films in the late nineteenth century, including a trapeze

striptease filmed by Thomas Edison. “Peeps” or “loops” were sold to arcades and home collectors

and not shown theatrically. By the mid-1940s, feature-length burlesque movies were being

produced by independent studios which specialized in sex-hygiene exploitation films. Classic

exploitation films were “justified on the grounds of an educational imperative” and were

“distributed on a states’ rights basis, or were ‘roadshowed’ by distributors who drove from town to

town ferrying both prints and promotional materials.’75 Theatre operators tried to ensure that the

movies were screened to exclusively adult audiences by showing the movies at midnight.

Burlesque features were either compilations of striptease dancers (performing in front of the

same curtain) or canned burlesque shows with or without comic routines. Midnite Frolics was

75Eric Schaefer, "The Obscene Seen: Spectacle and Transgression in Postwar Burlesque Films," Cinema
Journal 36, no. 2 (1997): 42-45.
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released in 1948 and remained in release for fourteen years under five different titles.76 Irving

Klaw, the photographer who made Bettie Page a pinup-bondage icon, featured Page in Strip-0-

Rama (1953) before releasing two color burlesque films Varietease (1954) and Teaserama (1955).

Burlesque films were displaced on the roadshow circuit at the end of the 1950s with the

introduction of “nudie-cuties” -- movies which featured bare women lounging in different

scenarios -- and pseudo-documentary “mondo” films which featured sensationalized subjects and

unclothed women.

Ann Corio created a niche market that was distinct from topless bars, carnival fairs, and

nudie-cutie films - zones of erotic entertainment that remained, largely, the domain of men.

Corio defined this market by attracting women through acts that acknowledged female

spectatorship (Patrick the stripper) and performing in spaces that were considered respectable

enough for middle-class women to attend. She made burlesque appealing to women because the

erotic atmosphere was neutralized by humor. Humor neutered the sexual intensity of live nudity

by balancing stripteases, which focused spectator attention myopically on a single body, with

comic acts which restored a collective, social focus through shared laughter. With her niche

market clearly defined, Corio encouraged women to emulate stripteasers by distinguishing

between erotic dance and prostitution through her brand positioning. Hankinson and Cowking

describe brand positioning as the holistic effect of the brand, “the overall impression created in

the mind of the consumer.”77 Corio enforced thresholds at the bodies of the dancers, at the point

of sale and in the live event to demonstrate that stripteasers controlled multiple boundaries which

marked their bodies as unavailable for sexual contact.

76 Schaefer, 46.
77 Hankinson and Cowking, "What Do You Really Mean by a Brand," 44.
173

As the next chapter will investigate, Corio’s brand also offered added value over other

adult entertainments; her brand offered the intangible asset of sexual education to her female

consumers. This service was part of an economy of intangible values shared by women. When

the domestic and creative work of women is economically devalued (be it child rearing or

choreography) the esteem and respect of other women become powerful currencies. How one

person values another can be as potent as the price of admission.

As Pierre Bourdieu argued in Distinction, A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, aesthetic

judgements are not innocuous. Relative taste valuations are not founded on objective measures of

beauty or quality, rather, individuals make value assessments in order to conform to their habitus

- their cultural, social and familial identity locations. Value judgements and the esteem of others

create a parallel currency that is less measurable, but perhaps as equally influential as monetary

exchanges. The hourly wage or weekly pay rate of stripteasers is one barometer for their power,

but how is influence measured? Ann Corio wasn’t paid as well as legitimate actresses or film stars,

she didn’t receive critical acclaim for her stage work, but she had the respect of a wide spectrum

of women. As the last chapter will demonstrate, Corio used the trust of her audiences to instruct

women in sexual agency, a commercial education that was facilitated by legal changes which gave

women more defined rights over their bodies as autonomous property and greater freedoms to

discuss their sexual capacities and desires.


174

Chapter 5

Merrier Marriages: Striptease and Sex Education

July 25, 1979 Broadway Theatre, Pitman NJ

The audience meanders into the theatre making their way past the conspicuous television

cameras and thick power cords strung along the side aisles, which are powering the chunky

apparatuses. The cameras look incongruous under the ornate plaster scroll work which covers the

balcony and boxes of the 1926, French-revival-style theatre. The venue is ideal for producer

Michael Brandman to film a burlesque show: the space has a vintage charm and the city has

provided free publicity in the form of a failed campaign to ban the show. This is the second Ann

Corio show that producer Brandman and his director, Marty Callner, have filmed for Home Box

Office, the nation’s first pay-television network which uses domestic satellite transmission to reach

sixteen million households.1 Callner has worked to improve the quality of the video capture of a

live burlesque show; when he filmed This Was Burlesque at the Academy of Music in

Northhampton, MA, (1977) the chorus routines looked fuzzy and the comedians melted into the

deep stage.2 For the Pitman show, re-titled Here It Is, Burlesque Callner has inserted bold-colored

drops which force the performers into the foreground and improve the visual focus. Corio’s

legendary burlesque costumer, Rex Harrington, has been replaced. For this show the chorus girls’

1"History of Cable Television ", National Cable and Telecommunications Association, http://
www.ncta.com/About/About/HistoryofCableTelevision.aspx. Access date: March 8, 2010.
2 The 1977 recording of This Was Burlesque was not released publicly; a copy was obtained from the
collection of Carole Nelson. The video does not indicate what year it was recorded; the location is
identified in footage of the outside of the theatre and from a close-up on a program, both of which
appear in the introduction to the video. The recording date for This Was Burlesque is derived from a 1977
program for the show at the Academy of Music in Northampton, MA (collection of Carole Nelson). The
theatre program contains the same scenes and performers, in the same order, as they appear in the video.
The Vestron Video release of Here it Is, Burlesque is marked “copyright 1979.” Carole Nelson’s collection
contains copies of professional-quality videos from as late as 1988 (also recorded by HBO) which have not
been transferred to contemporary media formats.
175

costumes were created by the production designer, Wolf R. Kochman, and the choreographer,

Barry Ashton. There are fewer sequins and more sharply contrasting lines on the costumes as the

chorus bounces into the audience singing the opening number: “Would you like a bite of my big

red shiny apple.” Although Corio is billed as the production supervisor, Callner has convinced

Corio and Iannucci that the feature dancers should perform topless, without pasties. Iannucci

and Corio were reluctant, but the opportunity to have the show broadcast a second time is worth

the compromise. The topless dancers and risque reputation of burlesque complement the

reputation HBO is building as a source for adult programming. Callner has already filmed some

of the first uncensored stand-up comedy shows to be broadcast on television, including

performances by George Carlin, Jay Leno and Andy Kaufman.3

Corio enters after the band’s overture, wearing a wrap lined with thick pink marabou

feathers. Her decolletage is covered in a shimmery, almost greasy film of light glitter. She speaks

into a microphone obscured by a pink rose taped to the handle. Corio teases the audience, “We

do get a little bit naughty, but if we didn’t you wouldn’t be here tonight,” repeating the same line

she used in the 1962 TWB cast album. She continues, “Well, we’re not going to disappoint you,

you’re all going home with culture.” Her tone is chipper, but wry; she indicates the irony of her

theatrical “culture” though a slightly lilting tone.

Following a classic burlesque sketch performed by Morey Amsterdam and straight man

Dexter Maitland, the first feature striptease is introduced. The performance is a departure from

3 The following year HBO broadcast Burlesque USA (1980) a revue show starring Tempest Storm.
Brandman and Callner do not list their early burlesque work on their current resumes but both became
notable adapters of live performance for television. Brandman produced filmed versions of Broadway
shows for American Playhouse on PBS, including Into the Woods, House of Blue Leaves, and Sunday in the Park
With George. Callner is an award-winning director of music videos, rock concerts and televised music
events; his oeuvre includes the video “Turn Back Time” which features a barely-clothed Cher performing
for sailors on the deck of a battleship.
176

both the traditional parade-and-strip which Corio performs and technical-skill acts (such as fire

dancing and tassel twirling) performed by Corio’s other feature dancers. The striptease has a

narrative and features a woman fluidly undressing from street clothes. The dancer enters from

stage left, wearing a grey suit, white blouse with a high ruffle, large-frame eye glasses and shiny lip

gloss. As she walks towards a metal office desk, a stern voice is heard throughout the theatre:

“Miss St. James, I need forty copies of that contract by tomorrow morning and you will be

working late tonight” Miss St. James rolls her eyes, purses her lips and pulls a pencil from her

hairbun as she takes her seat in front of a manual typewriter. A female voice-over speak-sings the

first phrases of the song, “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This.” She breaks a long

fingernail on a typewriter. “Damn,” she curses as she licks her finger with a provocative smile.

Miss St. James pushes the typewriter off the desk and begins her striptease. The first

gestures are reminiscent of an attractive woman de-masking in a film adaptation of a Raymond

Chandler story. She removes the bubble glasses, swivels in the office chair and unknots her long

hair with her back to the audience. In the parade section of the striptease she gracefully and

gently removes the generic grey suit jacket, walking out to the runway to undo the zipper on her

pencil skirt. Her hips swivel as the pulls the skirt off with her buttocks to the audience, revealing

garters and g-string. Off comes the blouse, which provides a long tease thanks to the row of

orderly buttons. The band plays “Ain’t Misbehavin’” as she pulls the shirt across her body,

responding to it like a lover’s touch. The dancer sits at the desk again to remove her stockings -

neatly removing her shoe, rolling the stocking to the music, and pulling it languidly off her toe.

Her high heel is replaced on her foot and she repeats the action on her other leg. As the garter

belt comes off, the music picks up tempo and the dancer begins a series of leg wraps around the

swivel chair to “Hey Big Spender.” The dance culminates on top of the desk. St. James takes off
177

her bra (there are no pasties underneath), twirls her bra like lasso and vibrates her buttocks to the

horn treble in “Big Spender”. She unclasps her outer panty one side at a time, revealing a smaller

g-string underneath. As she spins off the desk, the male voice over returns: “Miss St. James will

you please come in and take a letter.” The dancer smiles out to audience, bends over with a

posterior wiggle and picks up her glasses; she bends again to pick up a steno pad and walks off

stage with a final twirl, the secretarial pad brandished over her head.

The character Miss St. James has stripped of her own initiative, casting off the drab

uniform to reveal a sexually-confident woman underneath. But what is the “better life” implied

by the opening voice over? What will this gesture accomplish? Is St. James going to seduce her

boss, distract him from the forty contracts to be typed, or to provoke him into firing her? The

strip clearly references sexual tension in the workplace, but this is not a situation of sexual

harassment. The stern, neutral male voice has not implied that nudity is desired or expected. The

narrative striptease does not offer answers; it has presented a assertive woman in a professional

context as a model for the audience to judge, desire or imitate. Although Corio and Iannucci

have made concessions to HBO in order to reach millions of home subscribers, the St. James

strip is in keeping with the core objectives of This Was Burlesque: to make women comfortable in

burlesque performances and to provide them with striptease dancers to imitate in their own,

private worlds. HBO facilitates these goals, cable subscribers - male and female - don’t need to

purchase theatre tickets to This Was Burlesque, the burly show is transmitted directly into the

home.

**************
178

The 1977 and 1979 HBO broadcasts of Corio’s show mark the migration of the brand

into emerging media (cable television) and unprecedented distribution of the genre.4 Corio’s

adaptation of her live theatre standards to the now-common toplessness of strip clubs was a

break from an established brand narrative (not to offend East Cupcake, OH), but the concession

allowed Corio to reach larger audiences and serve as a promotional tool for the still-touring show.

Furthermore, the toplessness did not detract from a core objective of the brand - to offer a form

of sexual education to American women. This chapter will explore the function of burlesque as a

proletarian sexual pedagogy. The section Sex Ed and the Burly Q will summarize the censorship of

sexual manuals and information under the Comstock Law and present examples of how

burlesque humor offered an education in reproduction and desire.

In This Was Burlesque and the album How to Strip for Your Husband (1962), Corio extended

this sexual education to women. She modeled herself as a role model for sexual companionship

within marriage and positioned her stripteasers as icons for women to emulate - not wanton

women to be dismissed and disdained. The rehabilitation of the stripteaser archetype was

facilitated by a synergy between the Corio brand and legal reforms in the 1960s and 1970s. But

the agents behind these legal reforms - organized, politically-oriented feminists - were often

antagonistic to the representations of gender and race in striptease. Section two, Burning Bras and

Women’s Bathrooms, will review the tensions between self-identifying feminists and the Corio brand.

Corio provided a different agenda and benefits than the women’s groups who were working

toward gender equity and protection in legal arenas. Although seemingly antagonistic, section

three, Sex After Comstock, will argue that feminist reform and Corio’s brand were complementary

4 Recall from chapter 3 that the Hays Code suppressed the employment of burlesque artists and
distribution of burlesque movies. The burly films that were produced were excluded from major-chain
theaters and only exhibited in low-profile venues, in cities and towns where the authorities were tolerant of
the content.
179

forces in the rehabilitation of burlesque. Sex After Comstock will consider the sexual education

opportunities in the 1960s and 1970s as a multiverse. As defined in chapter one, the multiverse

refers to temporal moments without coherent order which contain a plurality of experiences and

individuated perceptions. The three perspectives on female sexuality considered in section three

are the Corio brand, organized feminist legal reform and the legitimate theatre of Broadway.

The forms of sexual education in these vectors will be examined through the themes of women

in the workplace, sexual expression and marriage.

Sex Ed in the BurlyQ

The equity of access that the Corio brand offered, by opening twentieth-century

burlesque performances to women, lead to an educational equity. This Was Burlesque provided

female consumers with a form of sexual education that was primarily available to men in the

mostly-stag atmospheres of the burlesque circuits through the Second World War. Burlesque

dance and humor were illustrated lessons about desire and reproduction when materials which

explicitly named and described these human functions were suppressed by law. The discussion of

burlesque content as sexual education will be prefaced by a review of the legal mechanisms - the

Comstock postal law and the Hicklin obscenity standard - that limited the circulation of printed

materials about reproduction and procreation. The restrictions enforced by these laws created a

need - and a commercial opportunity - for operators of live burlesque to offer an alternate form

of instruction to male audiences.

The Hicklin standard was derived from a 1868 decision by the English courts, which was

subsequently referenced by American jurists and emerged as the common law metric in the

United States. The Hicklin standard allowed for any portion of the work under consideration - a

single line or image - to be evaluated as to its tendency to “to deprave and corrupt those whose
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minds are open to such immoral influences, and into whose hands a publication of this sort may

fall." 5 A work could be suppressed and distributors subject to criminal punishment if the work

could be determined to corrupt the most vulnerable, potential consumer (the putative consumers

most frequently invoked were children). The Hicklin standard provided legal basis for the 1873

Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of

Immoral Use, which was better known as the Comstock act, after its non-congressional

proponent and the most notorious enforcer of the legislation, Anthony Comstock.6 Comstock

and the moral-policing organization he founded, the New York Society for the Suppression of

Vice, lobbied legislators to pass the act. Comstock was given powers to enforce the act when he

was named a special agent and postal inspector for the U. S. Post Office. Comstock held

restrictive views on sexual content and conduct; he equated birth control with murder and sought

to criminalize premarital sex and adultery. Comstock seized materials which offered textual or

visual information about any aspect of sexuality. In an article about women-led campaigns to

distribute educational pamphlets about reproduction, Leigh Ann Wheeler summarizes the scope

of Comstock’s censorship: “From the 1870s to the 1910s... Comstock suppressed an array of

sexual material, from medical texts to postcard depictions of nude women.” 7

Two cases which concerned rape and sexual education illuminate the restrictions of the

Hicklin standard and the Comstock law. Moses Harman, a progressive journalist who was highly

critical of all forms of religion and government, used his journal Lucifer, the Light Bearer to

advocate for the liberation of women from sexual slavery through the abolition of marriage;

5 Regina v. Hicklin (1868), 3 Queens Bench 360, 362


6 March 3, 1873, ch. 258, § 2, 17 Stat. 599
7Leigh Ann Wheeler, "Rescuing Sex from Prudery and Prurience: American Women's Use of Sex Education as an
Antidote to Obscenity 1925-1032," Journal of Women's History 12, no. 3 (2000): 174.
181

under his editorial leadership Lucifer contained advertisements and articles about modern

“sexology.” Harman was arrested in February of 1887 and charged with distributing obscenity

through the mail in the form of articles published in Lucifer. The articles deemed obscene

addressed the unacknowledged human tendencies toward marital infidelity, contraception, and

forms of sexual abuse. One article on sexual abuse, by Dr. W. G. Markland, confronted the

permissibility of forced sexual congress within marriage - which was acceptable under existing

state laws - and asked if such actions constituted rape. Under the Comstock law, Markland’s

description of a case in which a wife received fatal injuries from forced sex after childbirth was

deemed legally obscene. Harman was re-arrested in 1890 and later convicted to one year of hard

labor.8

The Comstock law and Hicklin standard were also invoked in the case of Mary Ware

Dennett, author of “The Sex Side of Life” a pamphlet written in 1915 during her tenure as chair

of the National Birth Control League. Dennett authored the pamphlet with her sons in mind,

wanting to provide a factual account of reproduction. The issue of female sexual pleasure was

central to the censure of Dennett’s work, which was declared obscene by the U. S. Postmaster

General in 1923. The pamphlet endorsed the notion that sexual activity could be mutually

pleasurable, a concept rejected by Dennett’s critics. Dennett’s indictment was endorsed by Dr.

Howard Kelly, a professor of medicine who wrote “‘many women are and remain utterly

indifferent and their participation is but a matter of complaisance’” and district court judge

Warren Burroughs, who was dismayed to see the term vagina in print.9

8 William Lemore West, "The Moses Harman Story," Kansas Historical Quarterly 37, no. 1 (1971).
9quoted inWheeler, "Rescuing Sex from Prudery and Prurience: American Women's Use of Sex
Education as an Antidote to Obscenity 1925-1032," 180-81.
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The reluctance of the predominantly-male medical community to endorse any form of

materials which conflicted with the Comstock law created a dearth of scientifically-vetted

information. In the 1920s, Catheryne Cooke Gillman and her associates in the Women’s

Cooperative Alliance (WCA) advocated for free-circulating pamphlets about reproduction

because they believed that sound and sober information would dilute the appeal of commercial

entertainments with erotic content - particularly burlesque theatre and pre-Hays code movies.

WCA members contended that if children did not learn about sexuality from vetted sources, they

would turn to scurrilous and corrupt commercial products. Leigh Ann Wheeler writes in

“Rescuing Sex from Prudery and Prurience,”“Gilman and the W.C.A. mapped out a new

concept of the obscene by differentiating between sexually explicit materials designed to educate

and those created to titillate.” 10 But Gilman’s initiative conflicted with the Comstock postal law.

Although Gilman did not agree with Dennett on her confrontational strategies for postal-

law reform, both women labored to change the obscenity standards to allow for the distribution

of materials about intercourse and reproduction. Dennett’s initial conviction was appealed to the

second circuit and in 1930 Judge Augustus Hand overturned the conviction with a departure

from the Hicklin standard, advocating for a work to be evaluated for its intended audience, not

the most vulnerable reader. 11 Dennett’s acquittal in 1930 and the 1933 case - United States v. One

Book Called Ulysses changed the obscenity metric endorsed by the supreme court. In the obscenity

trials which followed the seizure of James Joyce’s book by U. S. customs, the court determined

that the work be considered as a whole, with an assessment as to whether the work would appeal

to “prurient interests” of an average reader in the community - but not the most vulnerable

10Leigh Ann Wheeler, "Rescuing Sex from Prudery and Prurience: American Women's Use of Sex
Education as an Antidote to Obscenity 1925-1032," Journal of Women's History 12.3(2000): 174.
11 United States v. Dennett (1930), 39 F.2d 564, 568.
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consumer, as under Hicklin. Ulysses was the relevant standard for obscenity for most of Corio’s

early career, until it was replaced in 1957 by Roth vs. the United States (1957) and then Memoirs vs.

Massachusetts (1966), both of which further defined the community standards rubric.

When Ann Corio began dancing in burlesque, the social discourse surrounding female

sexuality and sexual education was a highly-contentious legal matter. Corio’s persistent habit of

hewing to legal conventions - for both the stage and postal distribution - could have been

informed by the public controversies and convictions of women who advocated for the

circulation of materials about human sexuality. Burlesque artists were adept at working within

the parameters of the law, but still alluding to sexual content. Gestures, inflections and facial

expressions exploited the subjectivity of audience reception. Steve Mills attested to the

importance of innuendo in conveying meaning without violating obscenity standards:

It’s what they think, what the audience thinks. As far as I’m concerned, if you can say

something and convey something with a “whoo” or an eye or a muscle, and people laugh

at that, you didn’t say nothin’. It’s what they think about it. But you know how to make ‘em

think that way.12

Burlesque humor and choreography were deployed with innuendo and suggestion as a

means of communicating facts and opinions about sexual conduct, in ephemeral live

performances, when these materials were illegal to circulate in print. Burlesque jokes were rife

with gags about conception - during wedding night encounters, via contact with lascivious

doctors, and from extra-marital assignations. Comedian Art Watts’ best known patter offered a

description of intercourse and contraception veiled under references to major cigarette brands

and their slogans: “One Kool morning, Miss Pall Mall took a stroll down Chesterfield lane in

12 Sandberg and Mills, "An Interview with Steve Mills," 341.


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Salem where she met Philip Morris... He slipped his King Size L&M in her old Zip Top Box...

Now after nine months, if she doesn’t look like a Camel, baby it’s got to be a Lucky Strike. But

she’s not worried - she made him use a filter tip.” 13

The archive of TWB comedian Harry Conley, which was retained by Corio after his

death while in her employment, provides a cache of evidence about the sexual information in

burlesque humor. “Honeymoon Hotel,” a script which exists in multiple variations, makes fun of

the social pressure (and biological inevitability) to have children. A couple has just arrived in their

honeymoon suite when they are visited by a parade of visitors selling child-related products. The

salesmen pitch, “your happiness will never be complete until you have children and that’s why

I’m here.” The sketch satirized the pressure to procreate quickly and participate in a nuclear-

family based domestic stability; the economic demands of reproduction halt romantic, newlywed

coitus. A handbook of jokes in the Conley archive documents the type of blue humor that was

never endorsed by Corio but which provided gags about bodily functions and sexual activities.

The gags include references to female menstruation, “What is next to the best thing in the world?

Kotex;” masturbation and nocturnal erections, “Did you ever dream you were a policeman?

Wake up with the club in your hand;” conception, “What is a baby? Nine month’s interest on a

small deposit;” and contraception, “What did the Kotex say to the condrum (sic)? If you break we

both loose our jobs.” This is the type of material that Corio was omitting when she promised her

audience that the show got a “little bit naughty” but would still not offend East Cupcake, Ohio.

The blue jokes in Conley’s archive illustrate how crass the depiction of women could be

in burlesque humor. Some lines reduce women to their heterosexual, pleasure-generating (but not

receiving) functions: “Why are women’s legs like manure? Because they have to be spread before

13Briggeman, Burlesque: A Living History, 110; Stencell, Girl Show: Into the Canvas World of the Bump and Grind,
155.
185

they do any good.” In the logic of this joke, women are as useless as bovine excrement until they

perform a passive sexual service.

The low-value assessment of women as sexual partners was in keeping with the

transactional nature of male-female relationships in burlesque humor; men and women negotiate

over sexual access and responsibility for the social (and reproductive) contracts implied by sexual

congress. The husband or lover is often depicted as performing the critical labor - either

insemination or financial support for a wife or lover. The transactional nature of heterosexual

relationships in burlesque provoked a sharp critique from Jill Dolan. In an early essay in which

she reviewed burlesque scripts from the Chuck Callahan collection at the Hampden-Booth

Theatre Library, Dolan dismissed burlesque humor as single-minded and misogynistic (despite its

democratic appeal) because the genre was “reduced to simple sexuality on its way to striptease.” 14

But Dolan misses some of the texture of burlesque humor when she interprets these

scenes as depicting sexuality as favorably facile; sexuality was not “simple” for the men who

patronized burlesque through two world wars and the Great Depression. The reduction of

marriage and romance to economic factors disturbs Dolan, yet this was the material reality for

working class-audiences who did not always enjoy job stability. The human impulse for sexual

gratification was tempered and truncated by fears of the inability to provide for a family.

Englishman Edward Gorer, who wrote essays about burlesque in New York City in the 1935-36

season, during the Great Depression, reported that he saw in the audience for burlesque in the

Bowery neighborhood of New York City “tired and lonely men,” a population of immigrants

14Jill Dolan, "What No Beans? Images of Women and Sexuality in Burlesque Comedy," Journal of Popular
Culture 18, no. 3 (1984): 39. Dolan’s remedy for the simplicity and offending patriarchal attitudes of
burlesque humor is an academic analysis via the psychoanalytic frames popular at the time. In the
intervening years Dolan developed her own, unique “utopian” schematic for the analysis of popular
culture and the same texts might fare differently under her later scholarship.
186

who inhabited a “quarter virtually without women.” The laboring men who rented rooms in

boarding houses for fifty-five cents “are too poor to marry... It is only at the burlesque theatre...

that women can be seen.” 15 Dolan notes that the skits “imply anxiety over male responsibility and

men’s ability to maintain and exercise their power,” but she infers that male hierarchical power is

ultimately restored through laughter and the male audience was mollified of their inadequacies

through the bumbling, inept comics.16 It is also possible that the male audiences were reassured

through the connection to the comic figures, who like the audience, did not meet middle-class

ideals of masculinity. The men of the burlesque stage are inept clowns infantilized by their

desires - they are no better than the nagging wives and witless beauties.

This is not to suggest that the low socio-economic conditions of male burlesque audiences

created an empathy with women that diluted the misogyny in the comic routines. Gorer was

alarmed at both the “sad and solitary pleasure” generated by “hot strip tease,” and the lack of

warmth and compassion between men and women in marriages of all economic classes. He

hypothesized that the deification of American women was resented by the opposite sex. The

indices of gender hostility identified by Gorer were the American male tendency to withdraw to

exclusively-male societies where they “openly-voiced resentment of women” through slang terms

and reduction “to their biological functions.” 17

The sketches of stock burlesque were antagonistic lessons in wooing and seduction, but it

is questionable whether the content was efficiently misogynistic as Dolan claims; if the content

was so patently anti-female, it could not have been so successfully incorporated into Corio’s

15 Gorer, Hot Strip Tease, 51-52.


16 Dolan, "What No Beans? Images of Women and Sexuality in Burlesque Comedy," 46.
17 Gorer, Hot Strip Tease, 54 and 60-61.
187

brand formula. Burlesque humor could be crass, but this was an appeal to the logos of working-

class culture; the logic of the day laborer was not the same as the cultural logic of the educated

elites who dismissed burlesque in legitimate newspapers. The economic dependence of women in

burlesque was not necessarily a favorable or desirable condition for the individuals who lived with

these conditions; the frustration and hostility of burlesque relationships reflected social lives for

which there was no access to a domestic utopia. Working-class men could share in the

commiseration that they did not profit from their gender and race in ways depicted in the

mainstream media and elite culture. When offered to female audiences, the dystopian male-

female relationships in burlesque humor echoed their own discontent in these same

arrangements.

Corio’s brand offered more than a critique of mid-century marriages, her brand products

offered adaptive strategies for improving sexual interactions through show skits and stripteases as

well as the LP How to Strip for Your Husband and the book, This Was Burlesque. The burlesque sexual

education that had been the domain of male audiences was extended to women in This Was

Burlesque; Corio added value to the brand by also providing women instruction on how to

implement this education in their relationships. In the LP How to Strip for Your Husband and in the

book, This Was Burlesque, Corio offered instruction on how to imitate the stripteaser’s

choreography and attitudes in order to reignite the romance in a marriage. Corio facilitated the

emulation of stripteasers by aligning the labor of erotic dance with domestic labor; she depicted

skillful and seductive undressing as an art form that could benefit both men and women.

The album How To Strip for Your Husband (Music to Make Marriage Merrier) was released in

1962 concurrently with the TWB cast album, and a sequel More How To Strip for Your Husband was
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issued in 1963.18 All Corio-brand albums were arranged and conducted by Sonny Lester, an

A&R representative for Roulette who crafted a short-lived niche in instructional dance albums for

married wives - following the success of the first How to Strip Lester also recorded two How To

Belly Dance for Your Husband albums featuring a “Little Egypt.” The album cover illustration for

Corio’s first LP was a curvaceous woman in a strapless, low-backed green dress dangling an

opera glove from her still-gloved right hand - at the start of a striptease for the handsome,

chiseled-chin, white husband who sits on the bed in the background. The songs range in tempo

and bluesy-ness, including lilting waltzes like the two Irving Berlin songs, “A Pretty Girl is Like a

Melody” and “Easter Parade,” and brassy horn-driven songs such as “Bumps and Grinds” and

“Shivas Regal” [sic].19 The album is strictly musical - Corio is not heard on How to Strip (unlike

the TWB cast album, which features her remarks as emcee). Corio’s presence in the work is

through the liner notes, which presume the female reader is invested in improving her marital

conditions.

The concept for the album was not original to Corio and may well have been circulating

for decades. A. W. Stencell’s Girl Show includes a picture of a shabby carnival show front

identified as a J.C. Wheer show from the 1940s; the banner reads, “How to Undress for Your

Husband.” But Corio converted the male-oriented carnival conceit into a take-home product for

the female audiences she was recruiting. The liner notes open with a diagnosis of the sexual

temperature in the marriage. With the man out of the house, Corio has an honest “talk...

18The serial numbers of the albums are sequential in the Roulette discography and the back of each
album sleeve contains an advertisement for the other product. See David Edwards and Mike Callahan,
"Roulette Album Discography, Part 1," http://www.bsnpubs.com/roulette/roulettea.html.
19The album gives the impression that it was recorded, hastily, in one session - in the song “Raid” the
drum loses the beat, the other instruments begin to fall off tempo and a voice (possibly Lester’s) can be
heard telling the band to “pick it up!”
189

woman-to-woman.” Corio inquires about the husband’s last good night kiss: “Was it hot... or...

not so hot. If you answer to that question is room temperature... SOMETHING is wrong... YOU

need help! And I’m just the girl to see that you get it. I’ve been keeping men up nights for twenty

years.”20 The notes provide more instruction on proper attitude and replicating theatrical

elements than actual choreography, but Corio reassures her reader, “There’s nothing that I do

that you can’t... with a little professional help.” Corio positioned herself as a new form of

burlesque professional - not an erotic distraction from marriage, but a counselor who will share

her skills with women for the betterment of their relationships.

Like Rusty Warren, whose stories and songs lamented the deadening effects of time,

housework and children on marital sex, Corio preached that women should enjoy sex and hinted

that many already did, or were seeking to restore the romance of pre-marital wooing. Corio

advises that the woman consider how she looks at the end of the night, and reflect on her

presentation:“Was your complexion peaches and cream... or bleaches and cold-cream?” The

album told women that sex could be more than coerced labor in marriage, burdensome or

anxiety-producing. She assures women that if she is well composed and her nightgown “was a

black chiffon cloud right out of an ad in Vogue” and the husband still doesn’t take notice, “There

is nothing wrong with him... or YOU either that this album won’t cure... provided of course, you

know how to use it.” Corio has subtly shifted the depiction of women in burlesque routines from

a shrewish, unappealing wife who bears fault for failing to remain young and attractive to a

mutual burden shared by both partners. This extends to the suggestions for choreography, Corio

advises the instructee not remove all her clothes, so as to encourage the partner’s imagination,

“What a man can conjure up, no woman could ever imagine!” and to leave something for the

20 Corio’s liner notes for Sonny Lester, How to Strip for Your Husband (New York City: Roulette, 1962).
190

husband to undo - a hard to reach snap or zipper.21 Above all, in the liner notes to both albums,

Corio stresses a deliberately slow manner of undressing, that makes the husband “simmer.”

“Remember,” she advises, “the time it takes to roll down a silk stocking can spell the difference

between mink and mink-dyed muskrat!”

With the joke, Corio has acknowledged the transactional negotiations in a marriage and

reinforced the notion that good sexual services may be rewarded with minks or a “second

honeymoon.” But the objects are secondary to the mutually-satisfying sex, the alluded-to reason

that the woman should turn off the hi-fi before approaching her husband. She counsels in liner

notes to both albums, “play it smart and turn the record player off ” so the scratchy sound doesn’t

disturb the romantic liaison. The priority in following Corio’s instructions is the revival of the

passion from early marriage. In the notes, Corio does not fault either party in a marriage; both

men and women can become complacent. Her remedy, in the album notes, is to approach

marriage as an institution that requires maintenance.

By encouraging women to emulate striptease dancers in the private sphere, Corio merged

the dancer iconography (which was disassociated from prostitution, in the brand, through humor

and the brand narratives identified in the previous chapter) with the bodies of wives - women

who could express their sexuality in the legitimated forum of marriage. Corio also mapped a

pathway to erotic partnership by identifying, in her pictorial history book and live performances

of the show, dancers whom women should admire and emulate. Corio reinforced the

differentiation between theatrical stripteasers and topless dancing by disparaging contemporary

dancers in the print press and lionizing those that aligned to her aesthetic. In her book, Corio is

“appalled” at strippers who work in “nightclubs and call themselves ‘exotics.’”

21Liner notes for Sonny Lester, More How to Strip For Your Husband, Vol 2, LP (New York City: Roulette,
1963).
191

This Was Burlesque, the book, identified those dancers Corio believed women should

imitate and disparaged dancers who allegedly brought down the burlesque industry through

egregious displays of the female body. From tabloids to legitimate newspapers, Corio attacked the

“vulgarity” of modern stripers. “There are too many strippers today who go too far with nudity

and vulgar gestures... the initially respectable performers must join the pack and lose their sense

of pride or perish.” 22 The tabloid article notes that this campaign earned Corio the ire of

contemporary performers who felt she was disparaging modern burlesque for her own benefit.

But it highlights an important division between professional dancers and the recreational novices

that Corio was cultivating. Erotic dancers performing in clubs were under increasing pressure to

conform to the standards of toplessness and dancing which involved spreading the legs and

genital flashing. Corio’s nostalgia for past styles of dance and costuming served her recreational

audience, but the performance standards of the early-twentieth century were not competitive for

contemporary dancers who continued to perform in male-oriented venues.

The invocation of dancers with specialized skills encouraged Corio’s audience members

to identify with a previous generation of stripteasers, providing an additional screens of distance -

time and nostalgia - between the recreational, married stripteaser and the contemporary

professional dancer. In a section of the book This Was Burlesque titled “The Great Girls” she lauds

the dancers with technical specialities. Fan dancer Sally Rand, who filled in for Corio in TWB in

Chicago and New York City while she was recovering from surgery, was cited as an exemplary

burlesque performer, as were tassel-twirlers Carrie Finnell and Sally Keith. Corio also celebrates

Zorita’s snake performances, Tirza’s wine bath (a device she designed herself with her training as

a licensed plumber), Rosita Royce who danced with doves on her arms and shoulders and Yvette

22Jennie Lee, "Smut Killed It Before... Can Corio Keep Burly Breathing?," Confidential Flash, January 26,
1968. Bambi Vawn Papers, T-Mss 1995-019, Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York Public Library.
192

Dare who trained her parrots to fly off with her clothing. 23 Corio highlights the unique skills

cultivated by feature dancers, with very few descriptions of choreography, save her depiction of

Peaches Strange, Georgia Sothern and Margie Hart. She writes of Strange, the “Queen of

Quiver” for her “wonderful stomach and hip control... a subtle vibration built up in her body,”

and of Sothern,“Georgia... one hand cascading her long read hair over her face, the other

outstretched to keep her balance as her hips blurred back and forth at a fantastic tempo. It was

exhilarating.” Corio says that Margie Hart was daring, but with “flashes so brief that they didn’t

really reveal everything, but that suggested all.” 24

Corio presented this roster of dancers as emblematic of the respectable history of

burlesque dance, but in fact, her version of history was more a matter of taste than fact. Margie

Hart and Rose la Rose flashed audiences; dancers gyrated over bottles in stag houses and

simulated intercourse through half-man, half-woman costume routines. Burlesque dance was

persistently revelatory and suggestive (the stockinged legs of Lydia Thompson’s troupe were

scandalously revealing in the 1860s). Corio drew taste lines and declared the difference a historic

devolution of her genre. By endorsing some gestures and choreographic decorum - such as not

flashing the vulva or suggesting intercourse through props, Corio defined an aesthetic that was

designed to appeal to the recreational, “home” dancer. Women could explore and develop a

sexual self confidence without feeling as if they were participating in a commercial exhibition of

their bodies. Sexuality was proffered as a gift within the relationship, not necessarily a point of

barter or sale; the transaction was limited to a non-cash, felicitous exchange between husband

23 Corio and DiMona, This Was Burlesque, 90-96.


24In Pretty Things, the Liz Goldwyn documentary, Zorita claims that Hart did more than suggest nudity
while flashing. According to Zorita, Hart flashed her “knish.” Hart had a reputation for flashing and it is
curious that Corio includes her on a list of dancers she admires. It is possible that Corio never witnessed
Hart flashing or that she excluded this information as a way of appealing to her more modest consumers.
193

and wife. The invocation of the nostalgic past helped assure her consumers that they were not

crossing over into a form of public performance that would erode their status within their habitus

of marriage and middle-class moral comportment.

The striptease dancers that Corio celebrated in her book were, as noted, primarily

performers with special skills. But in the show that toured across America, the feature dancers

and choral numbers continued to evoke racialized identities. Women were encouraged to

discover a path to sexual gratification in marriage by inhabiting fantasies rooted in racial

impersonation. Burlesque comedians began retreating from the broad racial caricatures

developed during an era of urban-centric immigration, but the striptease repertoire was still rife

with a post-card collection of non-white women. “Little Egypt” belly dance routines continued to

circulate as did sketches and dances involving harem women and Native American maidens.

TWB company feature dancers were often women of light-skinned color (there is no

record that Corio ever employed an African American dancer) or the routines involved

sensationalized racial impersonations. Tami Roche, one of Corio’s longest-running feature

dancers was born Amtullah Khan in Pakistan; although Roche had a classic skill set (she could

twirl four tassels at once by placing them on both her breasts and buttocks), her non-white

identity was accented in the program notes. In 1974 Corio was touring with a feature dancer

named Princess Tanyeka, who performed a fire limbo. The program stated, “Fire is dangerous,

you have to use something supernatural to use it,” meaning “exotic” faith made the dancer

unique. The fetishizing of non-Christian faiths was perpetuated by another dancer who appeared

in the 1977 HBO broadcast of TWB. Luna was billed as “the goddess of fire and love” and

identified as “a Haitian voodoo dancer who practices and believes in the occult, witchcraft, black

magic and spiritualism.” Luna was a white dancer who performed with fire effects and stripped
194

to writhe over open flames (while athletically holding a plank position).25 Occasional TWB

feature dancer Satan’s Angel commissioned a feathered Native American headdress in 1968

(before she performed with Corio’s company); although her costume was a reference to a Bob

Mackie creation for the singer Cher, rather than a knowing iteration of a century-old burlesque

trope, such costumes perpetuated erotic fantasies about receptive non-white maidens on stage. As

late as 1981, This Was Burlesque still included the much-recycled “Persian Nights” number along

side the French-themed favorite, “Les Girls.” The inclusion of “Les Girls” serves as a reminder

that there were white, European models for women to emulate. French-themed routines were

popular in burlesque and variety from the era of Minksy and Ziegfeld, who both imitated the

images, themes and costumes of the Parisian cabarets.

Even when the eroticized subjects were from European culture, the archetypes belonged

to a system in which women were depicted as exotic commodities to be collected and consumed.

The resilience of the “Persian Nights” harem sketches reiterated on the stage the notion that

North African familial structures were deviant because the society allowed for multiple wives.

These sketches and stripteases reinforced the notion that wives were male property, under the

authority of their husbands. Harem women of American media were often willingly subservient,

as was the case with the NBC television show, I Dream of Jeannie, which ran from 1965-1970,

starring Barbara Eden as a 2000-year-old genie who calls her astronaut-keeper, “master.”

Within this circumscribed sphere of eroticized role models, women who patronized the

Corio brand were encouraged to discover their path to sexual gratification by inhabiting a

fantasy. While it is necessary to critique the dehumanizing tendencies of historic entertainments,

25A TWB program stated that Luna invoked the supernatural powers of voodoo to tolerate fire, but
decapitating chickens and drinking blood were barred in the United States. This Was Burlesque, Academy of
Music Program February 7-13, 1977. Collection of Carole Nelson.
195

such a critique does not capture the appeal of these “exotic” stripteasers to Corio’s substantive

female fan-base. The harem sketches presented subservient women in service of their masters -

what in this structure appealed to women who were seeking an expanded sexual education and

portal to increased sexual initiative? The historic record leaves a relic of the reductive tropes, but

not the imagination, esteem and eros that women could have embellished onto the sexual

symbols.

Imagination is a component of the creation of eros; female audiences for Corio’s shows

were encouraged to creatively figure themselves into a role (or stereotype) invented by their own

culture. The role might not have been fair, true or accurate but the structure of the fantasy

allowed women to imagine themselves as persons who were sexually curious, and uninhibited by

conventional roles because of their “savage” nature. This imaginative game structure

perpetuated the conditions and logic which legitimated colonialism; the fantasy affirmed that

non-white people needed to be (politically and sexually) occupied and rescued from paganism,

polygamy and communal living and that the global economy would thrive best on the western,

white model. But the struggle for sexual equity was slow and constrained in the images of

womanhood circulating in popular culture; the path to a “new” erotic female self-esteem was

crafted through an impersonation of a racial “other.” As noted in the discussion of Tondalayo in

chapter three, the stereotypes which purportedly reinforce a patriarchal, militarized hierarchy can

be transformed into felicitous interactions with a culture; intervention creates conditions for

hybridity and the opportunity to share common needs such as food, drink and desire.

Burning Bras and Women’s Bathrooms

The felicitous education in self-esteem and eros offered by the Ann Corio brand is

ineluctable from feminist critiques of erotic content which arose contemporaneously with the
196

long-running show. While Corio was providing women with instruction on how to incite

mutually-pleasurable sex in their relationships, national and local women’s groups worked to

identify the features of sexual violence and change the laws which permitted these crimes. This

section will present the ideological disparities between feminist initiatives in the 1960s and 1970s

and Corio’s brand as a preface to examining how these seemingly antagonistic forces worked in

tandem, in a temporal multiverse, to reform gender comportment in America.

The feminist legal reform movement of the 1960s-1980s will be referred to herein as de

jure feminism - de jure from the latin “according to law” - indicating that feminist groups worked

cooperatively to reform the legal code as it pertained to the rights of women. The terms first and

second wave feminism will not be employed because these phrases were coined retroactively and

are predicated on the notion that the first great movement, which began in the 1850s and

reformed women’s voting and property rights, petered out after suffrage and was inactive until

women’s rights concerns were reactivated by the civil rights movement and protests against the

Vietnam war. As the previous section documented, de jure feminism was still active in mid-century

America. While membership-holding political organizations did recede after suffrage, Mary Ware

Dennett, Margaret Sanger and their colleagues worked through the median decades of the

twentieth century on obscenity reform, contraception counseling, contraceptive product

development and the establishment of family planning clinics; each of these initiatives came into

conflict with existing federal and state laws.

The revival of women’s membership groups with a political agenda in the 1960s

overlapped with Corio’s recruitment of women into burlesque. The National Organization of

Women (NOW) was founded in 1966. One of the first initiatives was to challenge the year-old

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to review the inequities in employment advertising


197

(The EEOC was created in 1965 the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; until 1972 the

EEOC’s powers were restricted to education, conciliation and counseling). In 1967 the NOW

National Board wrote guidelines for the establishment of regional chapters and a national

conference to serve as the governing body. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, state chapters of

NOW worked in concert with the national governance on a broad agenda. NOW challenged

prohibitions of abortion, fought wage inequity and the exclusion of women from public

institutions, promoted public child-care assistance, worked for the inclusion of women in

affirmative action programs, pressed for equal access to higher education and athletic programs,

established a task force on domestic violence and worked to pass rape shield laws (which will be

addressed in section three).

NOW was perhaps the most high-profile of the membership-bearing women’s

organizations, but the group’s agenda and methods were not amenable to all women. WEAL

(Women's Equity Action League) formed 1968 as a splinter group from NOW. WEAL members

didn’t endorse abortion reform or protest activism. WEAL focused on de jure economic issues such

as taxation, employment discrimination, education, credit access and pay inequity. With NOW,

WEAL lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment, the Equal Pay Act (1962), Title IV of the

Higher Education Act (1965) and extensions of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 to include sex (in

addition to race, color and national origin). WEAL also filed sex-discrimination cases in states

that violated the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 (the legislation which gave

greater enforcement powers to the EEOC). Although parts of their organizational agendas

differed, NOW and WEAL worked through state chapters to systematically rewrite legislation

pertaining to labor opportunities, sexual conduct and marriage. These themes will be the topics

of analysis in section three.


198

The methods of the de jure feminist groups differed from the often leftist/socialist-inspired

groups such as New York Radical Women (which split into Restockings and WITCH - Women’s

International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell), groups that used theatrical street protests in order

to call attention to the restrictive social roles - the de facto social customs - that limited women’s

free expression and right to equitable work and pay. NYRW made headline news across the

country when the group organized a protest of the Miss America Pageant in 1968; the same

agitators also held a funeral for conventional women’s roles as part of a Vietnam war protest. As

performative events, the protests were efficient at drawing press and inspiring myths. It is possible

that Corio’s “Ladies’ night at the Old Howard” was as mythic-fictive as the bras burned in the

freedom trash can at the Miss America protests.26 Both images were concrete, simple synopses of

uniquely women’s concerns that became iconic among their respective cohorts. In some regards,

Corio and social-protest feminism worked through more parallel tactics than the Corio brand

and de jure feminism. Both Corio and the social activists employed theatrical elements and

scenarios which evoked the complaints and material conditions of women. Corio remained in the

theatre while social-protest feminism sought media exposure in the streets.

Although the tactics and agendas of the feminist organizations differed, there were shared

ideological foundations for both de jure feminism and radical street activism. Simone de Beauvoir’s

Second Sex (first English publication 1953, re-translated 1972) articulated the unjust subjection of

women as the incidental “Other” to men.The book presented a critical analysis of the myths of

femininity - such as motherhood, virginity and motherland which locked women into

26 Multiple participants in the event have testified that bras, girdles and other beauty objects were placed
in a “freedom trash can” but nothing was ignited. The iconic notion of militant, feminist bra burners was
inadvertently sparked by a young female reporter who wanted to link the women’s movement with draft-
card burning and anti-Vietnam protests. See Barbara Mikkelson, "Red Hot Mammas," http://
www.snopes.com/history/american/burnbra.asp., September 27, 2007.
199

unattainable ideals that denied their individuality. College-educated feminists took up the notion

of a preeminent-male subjecthood which confined women to pleasure-giving, passive roles. When

Jill Dolan criticized the reductiveness of women in burlesque with the statement, “The idea of

women as object to be looked at or used but not heard abounds in burlesque comedy,” her

language drew upon the interpolation of existential and psychoanalytic terms into literary,

cinematic and dramatic scholarship.27

In the mid-1970s, as Corio’s brand entered its second decade, feminist scholarship

embraced the notion that a woman’s autonomy could be redacted - or eliminated - by

spectatorship which framed the viewed subject under terms which reinforced patriarchal power.

Laura Mulvey’s landmark essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (published in 1975)

adapted Jaques Lacan’s theory of the gaze (in which a subject questioned their autonomy relative

to how they were perceived by others) into a critique of the male gaze of film directors. Following

Mulvey, many feminist scholars took up gaze theory as a tool by which to dissemble and critique

those expressions of sexuality which seemingly endorsed male power to the exclusion of female

potentialities. Dolan herself expanded the range of gaze theory in theatre studies by highlighting

the exclusion of homosexual identities and desires from scholarly writing which assumed the

universality of heterosexual spectatorship. British citizen Laura Mulvey criticized male directors

framing women as objects for male spectators in cinema, but the notion of a delineating male

gaze which rendered women subjects into sexual objects had already appeared in an American

definition of pornography.

When pornography became the target of feminist activism in the mid-1970s, the

definitions of pornography and exploitation crafted by gender-equity agitators were broad

27 Dolan, "What No Beans? Images of Women and Sexuality in Burlesque Comedy," 45.
200

enough to encompass burlesque dancers - of both the theatrical and men’s clubs strains. In the

essay “Pornography, Oppression and Freedom: A Closer Look,” Helen E. Longino concurred

with the definition provided by President Lyndon Johnson’s 1970 Commission on Obscenity and

Pornography, that the “distinguishing characteristic [was] ‘the degrading and demeaning

portrayal of the role and status of the human female... as a mere sexual object to be exploited

and manipulated sexually.’”28 Since burlesque performances could meet this definition, without

concurrent consideration of any dissenting postures or delineating factors such as audience

composition, theatrical crafts or performer skills, the genre was readily absorbed into feminist

critiques of pornography. Despite the absence of burlesque-specific comments in in the

influential anthology, Take Back the Night, (a compilation of articles positioned against

pornography and violence against women), regionally-organized marches targeted striptease

clubs.29

The anti-pornography movement had persuasive representatives - such as Linda

Boreman who appeared under the pseudonym Linda Lovelace in the 1972 pornographic film

Deep Throat. But anti-pornography feminists could be deaf to positive testimonies from erotic

entertainers (including pro-sex advocates such as Margo St. James, Nina Hartley and Annie

Sprinkle). Instead, within the critical discourses of anti-pornography and anti-exploitation, erotic

laborers were depicted as women who needed to be rescued through consciousness-raising

interventions. Becki Ross’s Burlesque West is the first history of burlesque to “offer a departure

from the misguided, salvationist rhetoric of some feminists.” 30 Ross’ introduction includes

28 Laura Lederer eds., Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography (New York: William Morrow 1980), 42.
29Becki L. Ross, Burlesque West: Showgirls, Sex and Sin in Postwar Vancouver (Toronto, ON: University of
Toronto Press 2009), 18.
30 Ibid., 19.
201

remarkable evidence of this ideological solipsism. Ross quotes at length from the biography of

retired dancer Lindalee Tracey, who was interviewed for the 1981 documentary, Not a Love Story:

A Film About Pornography. In her biography, Tracey lambasts the feminist film maker as a“middle-

class tourist” for misrepresenting her as a “porno queen,” with no mention of her dance studio,

performance art, or poetry. “Then at the end, I’m a snappy, happy, born-again feminist

penitent... the film takes credit for my supposed conversion, as if I had no intellectual context

before.” 31 In Tracey’s assessment, the filmmakers rendered her as one-dimensionally as the male

gaze they sought to dissemble.

Gaze theory was an important method for identifying culturally-determined customs

which limited the professional opportunities and movement of women, but the unidirectional

movement of gaze concepts (moving from spectator to subject) is myopic to the cooperative

construction of femininity and female eros that Corio emphasized in her brand. This thesis does

not negate the male gaze - the reliable stability of the male gaze is incorporated into advertising

campaigns which exploit the gendered tendencies of consumers. Branding - the concept used in

this study to encapsulate Corio’s products - functions reliably because consumers can be

identified as a demographic and incited, through gendered advertising, to purchase products that

meet their real or perceived needs.32 Corio’s brand does not negate the male gaze; instead her

products provided instruction for women on how to adapt their traditional roles to the new

opportunities created by the Civil Rights movement and employment outside of the home. Like

the binocularity of humor - which can simultaneously invoke a stereotype and contest it - in

31 Lindalee Tracey quoted in Ibid.


32Advertising journals have often endorsed - and not contested - aesthetics and strategies which rely on
gender essentialism. See Pamela L. Alreck, "Commentary: A New Formula for Gendering Products and
Brands " Journal of Product and Brand Management 3, no. 1 (1994); P. L. Alreck R. B. Settle, "Marketing to
Male Fantasies," Marketing Communications 12, no. 4 (1987).
202

Corio’s burlesque, the male gaze was binocular with a female gaze. Women received an

education on how to manipulate the male gaze and partner their own initiatives to it.

The comparison of Corio’s brand and de jure feminism also illustrates that the female gaze

was multifaceted. Corio appealed to women who sought progressivism through a different pace

and system of organization. De jure feminists were deliberately combative - strategically

challenging laws through cases of injustice to women. This assault on patriarchal power required

state by state organizations and strategies in order to align the law with the ideals of democracy.

Corio’s brand approach was adaptive and ameliorative; women were not encouraged to cast off

their established gender comportment. By touring to small towns and suburbs, Corio was a

pollinator -- not an organizer -- depositing How To Strip LPs, programs and her history book.

There is no record of a fan club or mailing list of loyal ticket buyers. Her pace of change was as

lilting as the waltzes she stripped to; she did not push for substantive changes to the public body

of law, just private reforms to the sexual bodies of American wives. The brand message offered a

complex paradox - Corio encouraged women to cast off the restricting double standards of

gendered sexual expression, but to do so within established conventions of femininity.

Corio’s persona was always at the core of her brand and she indicated her resistance to

radicalism in public interviews. In an interview conducted in SWANK, Corio provided an

extremely rare quote in which she spoke about her stage persona as distinct from her private

person: “They [women] are not jealous of me. I have never let Ann Corio put evil thoughts in

the minds of their menfolk. Women understand and appreciate it. I don’t want their men and

I’ve never let Ann Corio want them. She is nice, Ann is, but very innocent.” 33 The statement

indicates that Corio understood that a non-threatening, not-sexually-competitive persona was a

33 Martin Collyer, "This Was Burlesque " Swank, September 1962, 60.
203

key element in her appeal to women (she was a “conventional” woman, not a brazen radical), but

she was also willing - in interviews or through expressive gestures on stage - to indicate to these

women that she was masking her intelligence for her own advantage.

As a guest on the Sally Jesse Raphael television show in 1989, Corio stated “I never do

anything that would put a woman down. I build her up. I put her on a pedestal.” Corio’s

assertion that the idolatry of women was celebratory - not confining -- and this elation was

shared by both men and women. In Corio’s conceit, women cooperated on the aesthetics of self-

fashioning, they styled themselves not just for the attention of men but also for the valuable

esteem of other women. When Corio performed for other women she offered a forum for

women to engage in a conversation (and imitation) of the methods they used in order to feel

attractive and imbued with self-esteem. This esteem was invested in a social appreciation of

beauty - a male and female gaze - and in Corio’s brand women were educated on how to

manipulate these tendencies, not confront them.

As part of her non-confrontational persona, Corio was demure when discussing her

leadership of TWB. Despite serving as the figurehead of her brand, Corio deferred to the social

conventions of male leadership. Corio was a co-owner, with her husband Michael Iannucci, and

she was the creative curator of the enterprise but she selectively called attention to her role in

indirect ways. Corio’s one-and-a-half page biography, printed in the souvenir programs sold at

TWB described her as an “astute business woman” with “earnings in annuities, blue chip stocks

and real estate.” But this credit was always the last paragraph of the biography, concluding

anecdotes about her beginnings in burlesque, film career and fame at the Old Howard. When

interviewed about her leadership role, Corio cast her self as a reluctant director, claiming that she

became the show’s director, “kicking and screaming in protest” when the high-profile director
204

first approached to stage TWB pitched a “elaborate production (nudes on horses).” Corio

reported that, “I had to let him go because burlesque historically has never been sponsored by the

wealthy of the community, and because he had missed a vital point about our medium:

burlesque, if it’s to be burlesque, must be utterly, artfully simple.” 34 In Corio’s version of the

brand development, she reluctantly takes a traditional male role only because the cultural

authority consulted isn’t sympathetic to the history of burlesque. Rather than boldly and proudly

assuming the role of playwright and producer - as done by theatrical entrepreneurs like Mae

West - Corio assumed leadership in order to preserve authenticity and only after a qualified male

director cannot be found.

Far from being a progress-minded radical, Corio celebrated - and did little to destabilize -

prevailing beauty standards. In addition to her non-threatening persona which appealed to

women of her own generation, other elements of the brand foregrounded Corio’s role as an

arbiter of style. Corio played to women’s engagement with fashion - deeply embedded in style

magazines and national advertising campaigns for clothing - through her multiple costume

changes in TWB. In some shows she had more than twelve outfits, most often in shades of pink

with marabou and sequin embellishments. On the 1966 tour, Corio never wore the same gown

twice on stage and appeared in a total of twenty-one costumes. For a time, Corio was a business

partner with one of her costume designers, Martier-Raymond (also called House of Martier) a

designer who had stores in Beverley Hills and Palm Beach; she called attention to this affiliation

in her program biographies. Corio used publicity opportunities such as an interview with The

Boston Herald to signal her conformity to middle-class comportment, even as she modeled

exaggerated fashions and stressed individuality (and some resistance to sartorial trends) with the

34 Ann Corio, "Burlesque and Me," Swank, September 1962, 65.


205

comment “I design my own clothes... because I hate to look like other women. They are such

cattle about fashion. Flat-chested designs are not good for busty women.” 35

Corio was not the only burlesque performer who noted that women were intrigued by

stripteaser fashion. When profiled in a story about a 1967 Exotic Dancer’s League meeting at the

Mayfair Theatre in New York City, dancer Bambi Vawn (who held a degree in textile design and

fashion technology from Pace University) noted the appeal of striptease to female audiences. She

said of her stripteases, “You have to do it in a way to please the wives, accompanying their

husbands in the audience... it’s the DANCING you have to emphasize. You should have a nice

wardrobe - these are the things women admire. I would say that women are even more interested

in exotique [sic] dancing than men.”36 Vawn and Corio embraced the rather essentializing notion

that women were innately engaged by fashion.

While gaze theory unpacked the constricting power of an erotic scope, it did not always

acknowledge that some women took pleasure in self-exhibition and erotic self-esteem may be

stimulated by being witnessed, and appreciated, by others. Corio’s products appealed to women

who were not prepared to throw their beauty devices in a symbolic trash can, or were uncertain

about what feminine sartorial expression would look like without such products. By offering

striptease to women, Corio brand narratives indicated that expressions of beauty and eros were

cooperative female actions, subtly rejecting the in-vogue feminist message that the aesthetics of

attractiveness were male-constructed. This suggested a nuanced female agency - men were not

exclusively to blame for women’s complicity in standards that were often restrictive and idealized.

35 Dorothy Diaz, "Ann Corio 'Adores' Her Clothes," Boston Herald, August 5, 1966.

Tony Gild, “Strippers,” National Insider, Dec. 24 , 1967, 10. Bambi Vawn Papers (T-Mss 1995-019), Billy
36

Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library.


206

Men and women shared responsibility for the social construction of erotic stimuli and the

commercial products which served sexual desires.

In press interviews, Corio reinforced traditional gender roles within the structures of

marriage and domestic labor. She embraced opportunities to make statements which

demonstrated that her life as a stripteaser was not incompatible with marriage. Corio informed

reporters that dancers - most particularly herself - could be maternal and domestic and that work

as a dancer did not negate a woman’s capacity to perform conventional marital labor. She

repeatedly mentioned her love of cooking and her favorite traditional Italian recipes - lasagna

and chicken cacciatore, “I’m never happier,” Corio claimed, “than when I’m wheeling a basket

through the supermarket.” 37 Nor did Corio allow her profession to interfere with her domestic

responsibilities, or so she claimed to the Poughkeepsie Journal, which reported: “This is a

burlesque queen who takes her husband’s underwear to wash at at local laundromats while on the

road.”

But as with other discourses in the Corio brand, the famed stripteaser dropped a kernel of

dissent into her apparent compliance with gendered labor: “Housekeeping and cooking are two

of her favorite occupations, when she is home. She admits she’s glad she’s not home much.” 38

Corio could simultaneously present herself as a non-threatening everywoman, sympathetic to the

unrewarded labors of domestic work, and provide clues that her lifestyle offered an escape from

the mundane repetitions of housekeeping. Corio voiced small expressions of variance from the

traditional role of domestic caretaker; she was a wife who preferred modeling expressions of

37 Smith, "It's Ladies' Day at the Burleyque," 140.


38 Carol Trapani, "This Stripper's a Lady," Poughkeepsie Journal, July 4, 1982.
207

confident sexuality to laundering her husband’s underwear, but she could also migrate freely

between domestic responsibilities and erotic performance.

This brand narrative ran contrary to allegations from de jure feminists that erotic work was

a destructive, exploitive labor which rendered the employee ill-fit for successful personal and

social relationships. This assumption was articulated in Rachel Shteir’s Striptease, a monograph

which bears the influence of censorious feminism. Shteir concludes the chapter section, “The

Private Lives of Strippers” with the pronouncement: “In general, striptease and domesticity

mixed poorly,” a claim that draws upon the unsuccessful marriages of Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally

Rand and Lili St. Cyr who she claims “ended up alone.”39 Relying on tabloid newspapers and

anecdotes from stripteaser biographies, Shteir presents the women as inadequate in monogamous

relationships, an ironic pronouncement given her tendency in other works to celebrate Gypsy

Rose Lee for challenging the restrictive parameters of female domesticity. By contrast, Corio’s

brand narratives identified herself and other stripteasers as women who capably transformed

their erotic entertainment personas into domestic identities.This thread in the brand narrative

was not fictive; many dancers had husbands and families while working in burlesque, but these

experiences were not represented in certain censorious strains of de jure feminism, which located

erotic work as a locus for pathogenic male desires.40

39 Shteir, Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show, 144.


40 In the book This Was Burlesque, Corio proudly boasts that Margie Hart is the most “proper alumna” of
burlesque because she became a housewife in Bel Air and enjoyed her retirement. Corio’s rival Sherry
Britton re-married and then graduated suma cum laude, with a pre-law degree. Lillian Kiernan Brown’s
burlesque experiences prefaced her marriage and long career in the armed services as a reporter. There is
also circumstantial evidence that a few home makers danced occasionally for extra money. (See Liz
Goldwyn and Stephen Zito). Becki Ross’s Burlesque West documents that a portion of dancers supported
children, either touring with them or leaving them in the guardianship of relatives to whom they sent their
earnings.
208

Corio’s career opportunities were indelibly marked by her early fame, but the notion that

participation in the industry forever damaged the dancer and rendered her incapable of a

healthy marriage, or domestic duties was classist. It assumed that a low-income woman was

maculate and incapable of absorption into middle class values for having engaged in labor in

which her value was tied to either her body or her attractiveness. The correlation between

permanent personal disability and erotic labor is perilously close to the logic which underpins

coverture: that the female body, as male property, is permanently damaged when it is molested by

another man. Corio’s pride in her labor - repeated in program biographies and throughout the

book This Was Burlesque - confronted the bourgeois aspects of feminism that made theatrical

women the enemy of gender equity. Rather than being appreciated as laboring women whose

work was devalued by classism and sexism, dancers were faulted for participating in an industry

which profited from the male gaze, pandered to “lowest’ male desires and reinforced cultural

paradigms that restricted women’s autonomy.

Striptease dancers worked in an industry which eroticized their bodies and monetized

their attractiveness, but for performers and audiences this could be a salutogenic experience.41 In

the illegitimate, non-literary, piratical sphere of burlesque, women performed expressions of

assertive, self-possessed female sexuality - demonstrating cooperatively, “woman to woman,” that

sex could be pleasurable. Corio did not identify as a feminist; she worked in an industry identified

by de jure feminism as emblematic of the patriarchal male gaze. Her brand aesthetic adhered to

41 The term salutogenic is used by Peter Suedfeld in“Relations to Societal Trauma: Distress and/or
Eustress.” Suedfeld contends that psychiatric and psychological literature has disproportionately focused
on the pathological effects of unusual events and environments. The pathogenic view, Suedfeld argues,
necessitates professional intervention and sustains the psychiatric and legal industries by providing large
cohorts of permanently-impaired subjects. Suedfeld points to the theories of Aaron Antonovsky who
claimed that stress could be “salutogenic” – health enhancing -- and Hans Selye who proposed that
stressful situations could make for a good reaction, or eustress. See Peter Suedfeld, "Reactions to
Societal Trauma: Distress and/or Eustress," Political Psychology 18, no. 4 (1997).
209

local and federal laws, never challenging these proscriptions. But Ann Corio was an accidental

radical, providing a cultural component to the policy reforms which sought to define women’s

sexual autonomy. Corio and her female-friendly strip teasers modeled positive, erotic self-esteem

when a woman’s sexual agency and autonomy were still restricted by laws rooted in couverture

and patriarchal power and many women didn’t have the legal and economic resources to assert

their sexual independence.

Sex After Comstock

This Was Burlesque was sustained for three decades, serving as the cultural companion to

policy reforms in birth control, rape and marriage which unfolded state by state starting in the

1960s. Despite apparent antagonisms, de jure feminism introduced a form of sexual education

complementary to the Corio brand. The legal reforms coordinated by groups such as the

National Organization for Women and the Women's Equity Action League identified “malicious

sex” in which intercourse was forced upon women, or sex was an economic burden. But de jure

feminist policy form was corrective and critical, often lacking a method for illustrating equitable

female pleasures. As the last section of this chapter will explore, de jure feminism and the Corio

brand were synergistic change agents, enlarging women’s opportunities on three fronts: the

workplace, sexual expressions, and marriage. To avoid framing de jure feminism and the Corio

brand as a facile binary, a third perspective in the erotic multiverse will be introduced - the

depiction of erotic performers in legitimate Broadway musicals. Broadway musicals persistently

reinforced the status quo of gendered comportment and moral judgements against burlesque

women. The Broadway musicals How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Sweet Charity,

Cabaret and Oh! Calcutta! document the varied commercial options for erotic theatre and

representations of sexuality in the 1960s.


210

The evaluation of women’s labor was addressed by both de jure feminism and Ann Corio,

although in this regard they were more divergent than complementary because of the

aforementioned disdain for erotic dance nurtured in the women’s rights movement. The

campaigns to make employment opportunities and education gender-equitable did not

encompass erotic dance. Burlesque venues could be hazardous places to work and women

experienced wage extortion at the hands of their managers and club owners but they were

exploited through contract and wage inequity, not the male gaze. According to Corio, it was

cultural elites who devalued her work - in musicals such as Gypsy - not her adoring audiences.

Taglines in her biography rejected the negative assessment of erotic dance contained in Gypsy and

her stripteasers were more complex than the cartoonish depiction of a nightclub worker in How

to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

In 1963 John F. Kennedy created the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women,

helmed by Eleanor Roosevelt, in order to examine the circumstances of labor, social security,

taxation and education. Based on the recommendations of the commission, in 1963 congress

passed the Equal Pay Act which mandated that equal wages be paid to employees, regardless of

sex, where skill, effort and merit were equal. (The act had exemptions for seniority-based systems,

skill hierarchies, commission-linked wages and executive-tier positions). The following year the

Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbid employment discrimination on the basis of race and sex and

created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The term “sex” was added in a very

late draft of the legislation to the other categories of race, color, religion and national origin. The

National Women’s Party, which first introduced the Equal Rights Amendment shortly after

suffrage had worked through the intervening years to make sex a protected category of civil
211

rights and succeeded by influencing Virginia Democrat Howard W. Smith to add the term to the

civil rights bill.42

The passage of federal acts did not spontaneously spark equitable pay and opportunities.

The work of NOW and WEAL in the late 1970s involved bringing suits against companies,

universities and the government to press for enforcement of the laws. In 1977, WEAL sued the

U.S. Department of Heath, Education and Welfare to eliminate a backlog of 3,000

discrimination complaints. WEAL also worked to end sex-segregated employment ads, fought

discriminatory policies in credit agencies and monitored educational institutions receiving federal

funds for equitable labor practices. NOW continued its advocacy on both the labor front and in

the realms of sex law reform.

While de jure feminism created greater transparency and equity in minimum-wage jobs,

rectified taxation laws that disadvantaged women and initiated women’s studies programs in

universities, labor law is the one realm that has the most tangential relationship to the sexual

education in the Corio brand because erotic work was not recognized as legitimate or desirable

labor by feminist reformers. Stripteasers and burlesque performers often struggled to form and

join labor organizations because the parent structures didn’t want to sponsor labor-minded erotic

dancers. Jennie Lee founded the Exotic Dancers’ League of America in 1955 and helmed the

organization until her retirement. Corio and her company belonged to the American Guild of

Variety Artists, but her qualifications to serve as a local president were challenged, unethically, by

other members of the organization. 43

42The National Women’s Party, which formed in 1916 and remained an active lobbying organization until
199, also contests the notion of first and second wave feminism. The NWP worked throughout the
twentieth century on suffrage, the Equal Rights Amendment and international women’s issues.
43 See chapter 4, footnote 27.
212

When Ann Corio began dancing in 1924, burlesque was an unregulated theatrical

industry and performers had no recourse to contesting unfair labor practices. A review of the

deleterious working conditions is merited because Corio’s depiction of her genre is persistently

favorable. Her defense of burlesque as employment is mitigated by the extractive working

conditions testified to by other dancers. The portrait of labor abuses in burlesque is also valuable

because women were exploited by their managers and the club owners - men with control over

their contracts, pay and material conditions - not their audiences.

Accounts of labor conditions in burlesque illustrate the despotic management styles that

dancers endured. Performers were contractually obliged to perform between four to seven shows

a day (depending on the whims of the producer) in addition to unpaid rehearsals for the next

production. They were required to pay for their own costumes, make up and hair dye. These

occupational items were prescribed by the management which often selected the vendors allowed

to sell theatrical items backstage to performers or withheld salaries for costume expenses.44 For an

eighty-hour work week, a novice chorine may have earned $12-$30, although IOU slips were

commonly substituted for hard cash.45 Georgia Sothern was induced, under duress, to sign a

contract with the Minksy’s that was in knowing violation of an existing contract.46 Tassel-twirler

Sally Keith was contractually bound to surrender twenty-five percent of her earnings, for life, to

her manager Jack Parr.47 Dancer pay was extorted in non-contractual ways as well. In the 1940s,

Lillian Kiernan Brown found herself held captive to a nightclub in Chicago. She was not allowed

44Bernard Sobel reported of early-twentieth century burlesque that $8 of a $15 weekly paycheck could be
withheld for costume costs. Sobel, Burleycue: An Underground History of Burlesque Days, 95.
45Shteir, Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show, 158.
46 Georgia Sothern, Georgia: My Life in Burlesque (New York: Signet, 1972), 192-96.
47Brown, Banned in Boston: Memoirs of a Stripper, 74.
213

to leave between shows, the majority of her salary was withheld, and when she attempted to

leave, the bartender advised her that she would be cut or killed if she attempted to escape.48

These examples of burlesque as an injurious industry are a valuable alternative to the

glamorized reputation put forth by self-promoting artists, but the accounts do not suggest that

dancers were necessarily and uniformly exploited by these working conditions. For many dancers,

the hard work of burlesque prepared them for long careers. The thesis that burlesque was an

indelibly exploitive industry is vested in a correlation between poverty and disability. The

burlesque dancer is contained and classified by her victimhood instead of criminality; it affirms a

women-as-victim paradigm and obliterates the agency and complicity of the women who

participated in the industry. The exploitation is an effective lens, but a filter that discovers

exploitation wherever it is sought. There is also a danger of reading the experiences of all

burlesque dancers through this lens – as exploited subjects rather than women who made

difficult, but informed professional decisions. This is not to suggest that economics did not factor

into a woman’s decision to enter burlesque; women entered burlesque because it was, for some,

more appealing than their limited employment options.

According to Morton Minksy, many of the Minsky dancers were girls from poor

Pennsylvania mining communities – a region with poverty comparable to the dust-bowl refugees.

In the midst of the Great Depression, when the burlesque circuits thrived, unemployment meant

hunger and homelessness for many women; dancing in a chorus was a viable alternative. When

economic recovery stalled in 1937 - the year burlesque theatres were shuttered in New York City

- unemployment and vagrancy spiked to 1932 levels. Andrea Friedman states that during the

1937 hearings, burlesque performers and employees wrote testimonial letters that their salaries

48Ibid., 257.
214

were honest pay. Women wrote of supporting children and unemployed fathers; contrary to the

claims of anti-vice campaigners, burlesque was apparently sustaining (not debilitating) indigent

families. When these dancers lost their jobs, they were rendered invisible - a subclass of the

unemployed men.

Corio began defending her profession as legitimate labor for poor women early in her

career. Speaking to a reporter about the reputation of her industry - which was an

unsurmountable obstacle when she tried to adopt a child - she stated:

I’m not ashamed of my work in burlesque.... it’s just that I know there are many much

finer things on the stage - things I wasn’t trained for. You see every one of us can only fit

into the kind of work we are trained for and when I started at fifteen I just needed a job,

that was all there was to it.49

In Corio’s logic, she entered into an industry which required little training but still

allowed her to earn a high-paying wage without compromising her Catholic values. As a child

from a large family, whose father died when she was eight, Corio was fortunate to remain in

school until age fifteen -- which was the age, in 1924, that children could be emancipated and

allowed to work full time. (Corio expressed that she would have like to attend Smith College if

she could have continued her education.) For Corio, being paid for her attractiveness was a more

profitable option than the other jobs available to her; one that offered greater opportunities for

travel and economic advancement.

Many dancers from the stock burlesque era wrote that they were attracted to burlesque

because it offered better pay than secretarial and factory work; they saw entering the industry as a

smart financial decision. The job included opportunities for travel and social contact with a wide

Margaret Ford, "Why I Want to Adopt a Baby by Ann Corio as Told to Margaret Ford," Boston Herald,
49

April 21, 1940.


215

range of people. Red Foxx wrote of the strippers he worked with “I’d be lying if I said the

average stripper is really just like the girl next door. If she was, she’d stay next door and not go

into the take it off trade” 50 For women who developed large breasts and/or rounded hips, their

bodies were eroticized no matter how they clothed themselves. Large-breasted women were not

welcomed into into administrative, medical or other white-collar environments because they were

born with bodies that were classified as sexual; their figures were considered too distracting to the

(more vital) male employees. Jennie Lee, the “Bazoom” girl, Tempest Storm and dancers

interviewed in Susan Mieslas’ Carnival Strippers found in burlesque a professional environment

where the attention they received, unsolicited, in public venues was converted into a monetized

resource. Their career choices were restricted by the bodies they were born into; no amount of

education was going to change their zaftig figures. Burlesque provided a career where their

physicality was not a detriment to success.

In the This Was Burlesque brand Corio’s onstage persona and off-stage personal life

(happily married and entrepreneurially partnered with a younger man) served as evidence that a

burlesque career did not contaminate the subject’s moral person or disable their autonomy. As a

person who appeared on stage, perennially healthy and content, Corio represented a cohort of

women who entered burlesque because it was a favorable alternative to other employment

options, or their physical stature disqualified them from certain professions. Corio’s persistent

popularity and professional and personal success were symbolic of dancers for whom life in the

burlesque theatre did not lead to a dissolute and desperate existence.

These salutogenic elements of burlesque were not represented in mainstream Broadway

fare. A key catchphrase that Corio repeated in order to prompt audiences to reevaluate the labor

50 Redd Foxx, "Burlesque: The Best Friend a Comic Ever Had," Swank, September 1962, 64.
216

of erotic dance was a statement in her performer biography, printed in the standard program:

“She was the Queen of Burlesque, though she never had a gimmick, never used a prop, never did

a ‘bump’ or ‘grind.’” 51 The term gimmick was a reference to the song “Gotta Have Gimmick”

from the musical Gypsy (1959). As discussed in chapter 3, the song was constructed in rehearsals

for the show and drew upon established routines by burlesque performers. The burlesque

performers who inspired the song did not receive attribution or intellectual property; those rights

were awarded to the men who casually dismissed unique routines and stage personas with the

term “gimmick” - a term which originated in devices designed to unfairly control gambling

devices. The word implied a kind of fraud or deceit, suggesting that performers were deceiving

their customers and extracting monies they were not entitled to by goading men into emptying

their wallets for women of little talent. The word does not appear in the memoirs of Gypsy Rose

Lee, on which the musical was based. But the pejorative connotations of the lyric aligned with

the tone of the musical, which characterized burlesque as a seedy industry -- the final option for a

young woman manipulated by her fame-hungry Mother, Rose.

By insisting that she never had a gimmick, Corio supported the statements she made to

the press that quality erotic dance was sourced in presence and imagination, not fraud. Corio

consistently employed dancers with unique technical skills (fire performance, belly dancing,

sleight of hand) that could not be easily replicated through costumes and choreography. This

helped protect her live show product from imitators, but it also positioned unique erotic dance as

an exhibition of skill. Corio was not above using the term or songs from the musical when an

51This Was Burlesque program from Playhouse on the Mall, Paramus Aug. 22-27, 1972, collection of the
author. The biography was standard content for TWB programs.
217

invocation of Gypsy could be used as a shorthand introduce an audience to burlesque.52 Corio

more consistently resisted the term “gimmick,” because it conjured up associations with

prostitution and gold-digging chorines - female performers who had a strictly mercenary,

financial objective.

The Venn diagram in chapter 4 includes subsections for the gold digger and mistress -

zones where a woman’s role encompasses the exchange of sexual gifts for money or emotional

attachment. The gold digger stereotype has a long provenance in burlesque; images of

burlesquers in The Police Gazette from the Lydia Thompson-era show chorines picking the pockets

of the men who try to cavort with them. Bernard Sobel, writing in 1930 described the term “leg-

pulling” as an antecedent to “gold-digger” and wrote a short chapter on the grafts devised by

chorines to extract money from stage-door admirers. But Sobel is also sympathetic to the women

who had half their paycheck withheld in costume expenses: “Of course people as poor as this...

were entitled to gifts from gentlemen who cared to bask in their beauty; especially right and old

gentlemen who endow stage beauties for the pleasure of their society only.” 53 In the pre-feminist

era, Sobel found it perfectly acceptable that women could solicit monies from men who were

bored with their business, liked performers or thought it was advantageous to be seen with

attractive women.

When the gold-digger stereotype resurfaced on Broadway in the 1961 musical (and 1967

movie) How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the conniving and witty chorine had

morphed into a witless woman whose only option for earning money was to trade on her

52This was the case in the 1979 HBO broadcast. Corio states, “You’ve gotta have a gimmick as the song
says” when introducing April Maitland (daughter of company straight man Dexter Maitland) as the
mechanical doll -- a pop-and-lock robotic striptease performed to electronica and strobe lights.
53 Sobel, Burleycue: An Underground History of Burlesque Days, 93.
218

attractiveness. A comparison between the stripping legal secretary, Miss St. James (described at

the opening of this chapter) and the nightclub-hostess turned secretary in How to Succeed in

Business Without Really Trying (H2S) maps the distance between the representations of eroticized-

women-as-office-workers in the TWB brand and successful Broadway fare. H2S is the story of J.

Pierpont Finch, a window washer who rises quickly at the World-Wide Wicket Corporation

(WWWC) by following the instructions in a handbook on corporate business. Finch’s meteoric

rise is assisted by his love interest, the secretary Rosemary Pilkington, an intelligent woman who

barely has the nerve to approach Finch for a date, but who is eager to be a conventional wife,

expressed in her song “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm.” One of the obstacles to Finch’s

career mobility is Hedy LaRue, a former nightclub cigarette girl who is hired at WWWC at the

behest of company president, J. B. Biggley (who is either having an illicit affair with LaRue or is

soliciting her sexual affections through the promise of white-collar employment). LaRue

functions as a classic gold-digger; she will sell access to her body if it advances her opportunities

to extract money from men. By the end of the musical she has moved up the corporate ladder, as

quickly as Peirpont, marrying the chairman of the board and passing over Biggley as her sugar-

daddy benefactor.

LaRue is the immediate object of attention, swarmed by the men of the office when she

arrives at work wearing a form-fitting, bright-blue dress embellished with transparent lace on the

bust and an enormous hat of matching blue flowers. As she is escorted to her job (walking with a

hip-wriggling strut formed by her tight pencil skirt) the personnel manager, Burt Bratt, chastises

the lascivious male executives with the song “A Secretary is Not a Toy.” Although it is clear

through the choreography and dramatic irony that attractive assistants are very much regarded as

amusements and corporate loopholes allow for transgressing the company policy. The company
219

permits the male office workers to ogle LaRue and spectatorship of her body is shared in the

organization.

In contrast, TWB brand stripteaser Miss St. James is not swarmed by men in the narrative

context of the strip - she sits alone, doing her work after hours like a diligent employee. St. James

disguises her sexuality, under layers of professional comportment, in order to be seen as a valued

worker by her boss; the unmasking of her attractiveness happens after hours, in the time she

would be freed from the sartorial demands of professional life. St. James inhabits a world where a

woman’s attractiveness must be sublimated to the office uniform - to do otherwise would invite

the kind of attentions showered upon LaRue. Unlike the stripteasing secretary of TWB, who

works late and is competent enough to be expected to complete an order for legal contracts,

LaRue has no skills as an administrative assistant. When she is assigned to Finch, he administers a

transcription test - which she fails spectacularly.

LaRue quickly complains that her position in the stenographic pool of WWWC is a “big

fat nothing.” Rather than offering a respite from her nightclub job where men stared at her and

made advances, “It’s no different here in big business. At least at the Copa when I got pinched, I

got tipped. Around here a girl can’t even pick up a pencil with confidence.” 54 LaRue’s reference

to sexual advances prompted by the mere act of bending over recalls St. James’ final gesture - she

confidently bends over to pick up her glasses and then a steno pad. The dual references to the

exposure of a woman’s buttocks by bending at the waist signal an experience shared by women

(harassment when their eyes are diverted downward). But the narrative context of the gestures

differs. LaRue admits to receiving financial recompense for slight access to her body in the

54 David Swift, director. How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (United Artists Pictures: 1976).
220

nightclubs (whereas her person is devalued in the office because she expected to endure

unapproved touching for free).

There is no clear financial incentive for St. James to strip in the narrative structure of the

scene. Undressing in private spaces, with no acknowledgement of an audience was a common

conceit in striptease; women undressed for bed, to get into and out of the bath and in changing

costumes. But St. James is not engaged in quotidian undressing routines; she is violating the

standards of professional behavior. The performer has the incentive to perform for the audience

and the spectators watching on HBO, but the spectator-voyeurs are not acknowledged. St. James

dances on the runway but makes little eye contact with the audience; her gaze is introverted,

focused on self-discovery. In the conceit of the scene she undresses to free herself from the

confines of office labor and professional comportment.

St. James is not a visionary, progressive figure - there is still the implication from the strip

that she departs the scene in order to negotiate a new relationship with her boss, one that involves

her sexual person. In the era before sexual harassment lawsuits and awareness training in

corporate cultures, sexual overtures towards women were permissible in professional situations.

St. James doesn’t prefigure the legal strategies which confronted sexual harassment and she has

traces of the gold-digger trope, but she is a character in which a woman’s sexual confidence and

comfort with her body do not negate her intellectual potential - unlike Hedy LaRue who has no

skills beyond her ability to seduce rich men. In the TWB brand, Corio and her company worked

to gently dispense with the notion that “smart” women do not identify with their sexuality or

display it in a public forum.

Corio’s brand and de jure feminism were divergent on the topic of erotic dance as labor,

but these female-gaze agents were more cooperative in the reformation of women’s bodies into
221

autonomous property that could be controlled and defended by the subject, not by the state. The

de jure shift from women as protectorates of husbands and/or a patriarchal state to more

independent, self-determining subjects took two forms that intersected with the Corio brand:

contraception and sex law reform.

The Ann Corio brand subtly acknowledged that women were purchasing and using

contraceptive devices before state prohibitions were superseded by the 1965 Supreme Court

decision, Griswold v. Connecticut, which legitimated the sale of contraceptive devices. In order to

appreciate how Corio covertly acknowledged that women were the primary consumers of birth

control, the coded language must be recovered from the history of contraceptive devices.

Multiple studies by Andrea Tone document the types and distribution of contraceptive

devices before the hormone pill. Through advertising, Tone charts the sale of contraceptive

products back to America’s gilded age. In the 1930s, when Corio was an established star, women

practiced “marriage hygiene.” Although the Comstock law continued to suppress the sale and

distribution of contraceptive devices, women used pessaries (pastes which blocked the cervix),

condoms, diaphragms (which had to be fitted by a physician) and dubious douches - the

consumers for which were “almost exclusively female.” The Comstock law was strengthened by

state laws, which were passed to reinforce the legislation. Following the Comstock law, twenty four

states passed anti-contraceptive laws and in another twenty two states, anti-obscenity laws which

were used to suppress contraceptive products.55

A 1930 a trademark infringement case brought by the makers of Trojan condoms forced

the federal court to decide if the industry was entitled to trademark protection. The court ruled

that if the product had purposes other than contraception, it could be advertised and sold for

Carol Flora Brooks, "The Early History of Anti-Contraceptive Laws in Massachusetts and
55

Connecticut," American Quarterly 18, no. 1 (1966): 3-4.


222

those uses.56 The ruling created a loophole and Tone asserts that women “deconstructing the

advertising text” understood the advertising term “feminine hygiene” as a code for contraception.

A 1936 ruling permitted physicians to distribute contraceptive devices and information; the

following year the American Medical Association reversed its ban on contraceptive counseling

but the organization did not endorse research into new methods. As a consequence of the non-

participation by the medical industry, off-label uses of contraception were a profitable, but

dangerously unregulated industry. In 1938, the industry’s annual sales exceeded $250 million.57

During the AMA ban and in its aftermath, only women who could afford private doctors

(or who had accesses to one of Planned Parenthood’s clinics) received medically-vetted

contraceptive devices from their physicians. For the majority of women who could not afford a

private doctor, mail-order companies, department stores and door-to-door saleswomen (dressed

as nurses) serviced their needs for contraception. Advertisements and sales pitches were designed

to trigger fears about the pernicious effects of sexual abstinence on marriage and the female

psyche. Lysol disinfectant was the leading douche in America following a series of advertisements

featuring women physicians who recommended the douches. The female physicians of the

advertisements shared “their birth control expertise ‘woman to woman.’” 58 When Corio used the

phrase “woman to woman” at the opening of the liner notes for How To Strip for Your Husband, she

was invoking a secretive culture wherein women collaboratively shared their strategies for

regulating reproduction and sustaining sexual pleasure within marriage.59

56Andrea Tone, "Contraceptive Consumers: Gender and the Political Economy of Birth Control in the
1930s," Journal of Social History 29, no. 3 (1996): 491.
57 Ibid.: 495.
58 Ibid.: 496.
59The phrase might have served as a covert joke for some women, an ironic glance at the phony
physicians who sold women unregulated, ineffective birth control.
223

As previously noted, the last stage of burlesque costuming was pasties and a g-string -

screens placed over the parts of a woman’s body biologically tied to reproduction. The costume

enabled a visual fantasy which divided sexual impulses from procreation (or, acknowledged that

viewers were capable of disconnecting desire from consequence). When the stripper emerged in

the early 1920s, contraception was illicit, unregulated, difficult to procure and notoriously

ineffective. By the mid-1960s, medical innovations and policy changes instigated by women’s

rights activists made reliable, medically-vetted contraception more widely available to American

women. In 1957, the FDA approved the use of Enovid, a combination of synthetic hormones for

severe menstrual disorders. By 1959 half a million women are using the drug for its off-label

effect, prevention of ovulation; one year later the FDA approved the drug for use as

contraception. Within two years of its approval as birth control, 1.2 million women were using

pill contraception; by 1965, five million women were consumers despite concerns that

dangerously high levels of estrogen caused heart attack, stroke, and clots.60

Despite the commercial success of hormone-pill contraception, the distribution of advice

and devices was still illegal in many states or these services were limited to married couples.

When Corio conservatively titled her album How to Strip for Your Husband, excluding unmarried

lovers, she again hewed to the median common law which recognized only the married couple’s

right to access birth control. The most restrictive anti-contraception laws were in Connecticut

and Massachusetts - Corio’s home state and the location of the famed Old Howard. The

Connecticut statutes, passed in 1879 to bolster the Comstock Act, were finally challenged in the

Sharon Snider, "The Pill: Thirty Years of Safety Concerns," in FDA Consumer Magazine (US Food and
60

Drug Administration, 1990).


224

United States Supreme Court in 1965.61 In Griswold v. Connecticut the court ruled that the state

laws violated the right of marital privacy (the decision was controversial because the right of

marital privacy was derived from a penumbra of rights formed collectively, although not

explicitly, by constitutional amendments in the Bill of Rights.) 62 Although the Griswold decision

only recognized that the rights of a married couple were abridged, the decision had the effect of

legitimating the distribution of contraceptive devices and counseling.

Corio’s show acknowledged that the drug had entered the sexual ecosystem. In a

schoolroom scene from TWB, recorded in 1979, Jerry Lester recites a series of bawdy limericks to

demonstrate his understanding of the difference between verse and prose; he quips, “Jack and Jill

went up the hill, to fetch a pail of water. But Jill forgot her pill and now they have a daughter.”

The pill was not extant during stock burlesque and the limerick is a moment of improvisation

captured on tape for HBO; Corio claimed to be recreating the classic routines, but the cast

updated references to contraception because the drug enabled women to engage with a core

value in the brand - pleasurable female sex, in this case freed from the anxieties provoked by their

reproductive capacities.

Corio acknowledged that her consumers came of age, sexually, at a time when

contraception was covert and sex could lead to conception. But in recognizing that women were

the primary consumers of contraception she tapped into their impulses to enjoy sex for pleasure.

The libertine stripteasers of TWB, such as the secretary Miss St. James, celebrated the erotic and

beautiful bodies that were confined under the regimen of acceptable social dress. For Corio’s

61 In 1961 the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, helmed by Dr. C. Lee Buxton, medical
director, and Estelle Griswold, executive director, opened four Planned Parenthood clinics in Connecticut
(in direct conflict with state laws) and were arrested.
62The Oyez Project, Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965) available at: (http://oyez.org/cases/
1960-1969/1964/1964_496).
225

audiences, some of whom were raised to disdain revealing clothes and figure-flattering supporting

garments, the libertine stripteaser offered instruction on how to nurture sexual confidence within

their culturally-conditioned sartorial habits; a vital sexual relationship could be sustained in

marriage through methods that did not violate middle-class comportment. Corio stressed the

importance of leaving something on during the strip, so women conditioned to reject overly-

sexual garments could still feel included in the imaginative fantasy which purported to restore

romance.

When Corio encouraged women to take up the hip gyrations and poses of striptease in

their private homes, Corio detached erotic movement from commerce and allowed women to

explore embodied, salutogenic “good sex” through avocational self-discovery. In their homes,

women weren’t subject to the commercial pressures which increasingly mandated toplessness, full

nudity and direct contact with customers. Corio’s brand detached erotic movement from the

negative connotations of commerce (which resonated with the Puritan condemnation of

prostitution and unregulated sexual activity) and merged these gestures with married women. In

the private sphere, women were encouraged to explore new erotic identities and aspects of their

personhood abridged by common law.

While de jure feminists risked arrest to improve access to contraception and the Corio

brand offered instruction on how to exercise their reproduction-liberated sexuality in marriage,

on Broadway sexual libertinism was depicted as a gateway to a desolate purgatory. The shows

with long Broadway runs and deep market penetration as film adaptations were those

productions which conformed to disparaging narratives about stripteasers. The prohibitions on

stripteaser casting in movies, put in place by the Production Code Administration, lost their sting

and efficacy as the courts softened the definitions of obscenity. But burlesque content did not
226

cross over into mass media unless the plot hinged on a stripteaser or nightclub worker who was

fundamentally deficient - a gold digger or lonely tramp, permanently damaged by their

employment in the zones of erotic nightlife. This ethos was most pronounced in the work of Bob

Fosse.

Dance critic Joan Acocella named Fosse as one of the key American choreographers who

bent the American Musical away from “its European operetta influence.” 63 Fosse’s unique

contribution to musical theatre was flavored by the domestic idioms of burlesque dance. Fosse

was born in 1927 to a vaudevillian performer. In the early 1940s Fosse was part of a a tap-

dancing act called the Riff Brothers. He first performed as a live act feature in movie houses and

moved into strip clubs like the Silver Cloud and Cave of the Winds, where he occasionally

worked as an emcee as well. Fosse was not a stripper but he incorporated elements of the

striptease he witnessed into the dances he created for Broadway musicals. Both Acocella and

dance critic Ian Bramley identified pelvic motion as one of the signature elements of Fosse’s

movement. Bramley wrote, “dancers enter leading with their hips. Most of the movement seems

to originate from the groin and the shoulders. Pelvic thrusts and rotations abound.”64 Acocella

and Bramley both also identified Fosse’s use of props as another trademark of his style, but these

critics neglected to make the connection between props and Fosse’s burlesque training. Fans,

balloons, gloves, scarves, panel skirts and themed props were used by burlesque dancers to add

originality to their routines and increase the length of their stage performance through layers.

Bob Fosse and burlesque aesthetics were so synchronous that his work was readily absorbed back

63 Joan Acocella, "Dancing and the Dark," The New Yorker, December 21, 1998.
64Ian Bramley, "It's Showtime, Folks: Ian Bramley Goes in Quest of the Original Bob Fosse," Dance Theatre
Journal 14, no. 4 (1998): 24.
227

into burly. The striptease of “Miss St. James” contained two musical salutes to Fosse: the songs

“Something Better than This” and “Big Spender” are from the musical Sweet Charity.

Fosse was prolific as a stage and film director; his creative endeavors brought elements of

burlesque dance to an expanded demographic but the tone and content of the musicals he

contributed to framed erotic dance in lurid, almost vampiric, gestures. The dark tone of Fosse’s

best-known and longest-running shows characterized burlesque as an extractive industry, one that

drained vitality out of its employees. Fosse’s burlesque influence was first apparent in the

striptease choreography for “Whatever Lola Wants” in Damn Yankees (1955). The burlesque

influence was more pronounced in the musical Sweet Charity (Broadway debut 1966). The number

“Big Spender” takes place in a taxi dance hall where the titular character, Charity, is paid to

dance with men. Fosse’s choreography belies the enthusiasm suggested by the lyrics, “I wanna get

right to the point, I don’t pop my cork for every guy I see.” When these lines are sung, the

dancers stand nearly motionless, looking bored, selectively punctuating the horn riffs with

lackadaisical hand and hip gyrations. Although Charity’s romantic idealism sets her apart from

her catatonic coworkers, Charity’s employment in erotic entertainment is a permanent social

stigma that prompts her fiance, Oscar, to reject her when she finally discloses her occupation.

Oscar is obsessed with Charity’s social contact (and possible frottage) with other men and the

social shame associated with her line of work has tainted Charity’s opportunity for a lasting

relationship with a stable man. The musical conformed to negative assessments of all women

who engaged in even tangential erotic commerce, although the play ends with captions that read,

“She lived... hopefully... ever after” Charity’s rejection leaves the impression that she will not

escape her current employment or loneliness.65

65 Bob Fosse director, Sweet Charity (Universal Pictures, 1969).


228

The movie version of Sweet Charity (1969) wasn’t successful at the box office, but Fosse’s

next movie, Cabaret (1972) and the musical Chicago (Broadway debut 1975) both were hits. Joan

Acocella wrote of Chicago that “the chorus dancers bump and grind in panties and chains.”66 In

both these works, the main female characters, who support themselves as nightclub performers

and vaudevillians, are alluring but dysfunctional in conventional heterosexual relationships. Sally

Bowles of Cabaret is a carefree American living in Berlin. Her relationship with roommate, Brian

Roberts, becomes a love triangle involving a rich German baron. Uncertain which of the men

fathered her pregnancy and convinced that she could never tolerate a domestic life as Brian’s

wife, Sally aborts the baby and returns to her nightclub career. The women of Chicago are

pathologically incapable of domestic stability. Velma Kelly and Roxie Hart murder their

respective husband and lover and callously manipulate the press and courtroom in order to

enlarge their fame.67

Some of Fosse’s compositions - in particular the “Air-otica” routine in All That Jazz and

the “Dream Barre” sequence in Dancin’ (Broadway debut 1978) were such explosively erotic

numbers that Fosse faced criticisms of obscenity. Fosse defended his creative innovations:

66 Acocella, "Dancing and the Dark," 105.


67 Fosse illustrated his burlesque roots more unabashedly in his next two films he directed. Lenny (1974)
and All That Jazz (1979) each have scenes in burlesque houses. In the documentary-styled Lenny, Bruce’s
stripper wife, Honey, is credited with nurturing Bruce’s drug addition and the bleak environments of
burlesque bars and nightclubs incubate Bruce’s self-destructive tendencies. In the semi-autobiographical
film All That Jazz, the character vitiated by their experience in burlesque and licentious theatrical culture is
Fosse’s doppelgänger, Joe Gideon. Gideon’s creative energies are simultaneously fueled and dependent
upon his daily doses of drugs and sex with the female dancers he choreographs. The arousal by strippers
early in the film is a preface to Gideon’s tendency to favor transient sexual encounters instead of
sustained, monogamous relationships.
229

I have been accused of vulgarity in sections of Dancin’. But what some think is vulgar, I

think is Rabelasian, like the burlesque shows I sometimes played in my teens. Sure there’s

some rough stuff, but I was raised in burlesque, so rough is part of me.68

The “rough” and unrefined qualities of burlesque are an affront to middle and upper class

refinement. But the dark critique of erotic commerce, embedded in his work allowed his

perspective to circulate in legitimate entertainments. In 1973 Fosse won the Academy Award for

Cabaret, two Tony awards for Pippin and three Emmy awards for Liza with a Z. Fosse’s singular

achievement marked a new level of acceptance for hip-gyrating choreography in mainstream

American culture. But Joan Acocella argues that Fosse’s was not a pro-sex aesthetic; she contends

that Fosse’s subject was “was sleaze, fraudulence -- the idea of something being passed off as

respectable when it is really cheesy and cheap.” 69 Through gesture Fosse endorsed the valuation

of burlesque dance as a gimmick - a fraudulent con. Fosse’s dark critique of the veneer of

respectability which cloaked irrepressibly-basic human desires also suggested a condemnation of

sexual industries which devalued human agents. The morose and morbidly bored taxi dancers of

Sweet Charity can be read as a critique of a business model which traps women and (extorts money

from men) or a satire on the perceived dangers of erotic dance (the women in “Big Spender” are

disinterested workers not potent harlots). Fosse succeeded in legitimate theatre and film because

his work highlighted a double standard: audiences accepted moralistic judgements about erotic

dancers while voyeuristically engaging with their performing bodes. Fosse’s choreography is dense

with sexually-suggestive gestures but the haze of turpitude rendered his work compatible with

68 quoted in Bramley, "It's Showtime, Folks: Ian Bramley Goes in Quest of the Original Bob Fosse."
69 Acocella, "Dancing and the Dark." 102
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American, Judeo-Christian morality. Fosse’s female dancers are sexually confident, but they are

still marked by a scarlet letter; the women are polluted and ruined property.

The second sexual conduct reform of de jure feminism which intersected with the Corio

brand was the systematic campaign to re-write rape laws. Corio was not progressive about

sexuality outside of marriage; she encouraged women to imitate erotic choreography in the home

because of the real and persistent fears of rape. If Corio did not encourage economically

independent, unmarried women to exert their sexual identities - for bachelorettes to mimic

theatrical libertines -- this reservation is rooted in the pervasiveness of rape laws which located

fault in the victims of sexual violence.

Women who performed their sexual confidence through choreography, fashion,

comportment or circulation in an “improper” public space could be faulted for inciting rape

upon themselves. Corio was cautious about provoking women into self-confident expressions of

sexuality because all women lived under the specter of rape laws which usually exonerated the

perpetrator. This is why women didn’t go near the all-stag environment of the Old Howard, filled

with randy college students and sailors on leave; Corio recruited her female audience by

exhibiting her show in locations where it was acceptable - and safe -- for women to circulate.

In reaching out to married women, Corio promoted a subtle rebellion within the nuances

of marital law, which provided a rape exemption for husbands. By encouraging women to view

their sexuality as an active - not a passive - force, Corio was counseling women to re-negotiate

sexual encounters within marriages they perhaps could not escape. Eustress in the brand - planful

problem solving - was a means for inciting sexual autonomy in profoundly circumscribed

relationships.
231

Marital rape was exempted from prosecution in most states, until a “wave of reform

broke over the states in the 1970s” as part of the rape reforms instigated by women’s groups,

particularly NOW which had a legal task force from its inception and launched, in 1973, a task

force on rape.70 Marital rape was permissible under the residual logic of coverture because a

woman was her husband, or father’s, property. Rape was a kind of property crime. Seventh

Circuit judge Richard Posner explains that in “a society that prizes premarital virginity and

marital chastity, the cardinal harm from rape is the destructions of those goods, and its not

inflicted by marital rape.” 71 Under the rape exemption, women did not have the right to deny

husbands their marital rights to exclusive sexual access; a woman could not withhold her “sexual

and procreative” duties.72 Recall that the publication of an essay critiquing the marital rape

exemption, by Moses Harman, was suppressed as censorship under the Comstock law.

Unmarried women who were raped by strangers, family members and acquaintances

faced substantive obstacles to proving the crime. Both the burden of evidence and the effects for

Freudian psychology on American jurisprudence hindered the successful prosecution of rape.

Some states required a third-party witness to the act; verbal expression of non-consent was not

sufficient, women had to exhibit grave physical harm in order to prove they had resisted to their

ultimate capacity. A victim’s sexual history could be invoked as evidence of their tendency toward

sexual licentiousness, until rape shield laws amended this aspect of jurisprudence. The racial

dynamics of rape were particularly unjust; black men were characterized as sexually

uncontrollable, an ideology which was used to legitimate extreme retributive violence against

70 Posner, Sex and Reason, 389.


71 Ibid.
72 Posner provides seven points of legal rationale for the permissiveness of marital rape, others include the
difficulty of proving lack of consent in a marriage and the rationale that marriage is unlikely to “survive a
criminal prosecution” so rape may be fabricated to give the wife leverage in a divorce.
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African American men. Few rapes reported resulted in convictions because of the unattainable

standards for evidence. “In 1972, 3,562 rapes were reported in Chicago, 833 arrests were made,

twenty three defendants pleaded guilty; and eight were found guilty and sentenced after a trial.

Fewer than one percent of rapes resulted in jail sentences.” 73

In post-Freudian jurisprudence, rape was interpreted as a psychological flaw on the part

of the male perpetrator; men could be exonerated or recommended for psychiatric care. Legal

historians Patricia Donat and John D’Emilio explain of pre-reform statues, “rape was

conceptualized primarily as an act of sex rather than an act of violence.” 74 In the first chapter of

Trauma and Recovery, psychologist Judith Herman faults Sigmund Freud for refuting the abuse he

discovered in the analysis of hysteric women. Although Freud argued in The Aetiology of Hysteria

that hysteria was caused by “one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience” as

Herman reports, Freud recanted this early study because:

If his theory were correct, he would be forced to conclude that what he called ‘perverted

acts against children’ were endemic, not only among the proletariat of Paris, where he

had first studied hysteria, but also among the respectable bourgeois families of Vienna…

This idea was simply unacceptable. It was beyond credibility. 75

Herman argues that Freud’s denial of women’s sexual traumas generated a pervasive paradigm –

the notion that women desired aggressive sexual attention from men. By silencing his female

patients, Freud legitimated silence and denial.

73B.S. Deckard, 1983, quoted in Patricia Donat and John D'Emilio, "A Feminist Redefinition of Rape
and Sexual Assault: Historical Foundations and Change," in The Other Americans; Sexual Variance in the
National Past, ed. Charles O. Jackson (Westport, CT: Praeger 1996), 195.
74 Ibid., 194.
75 Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books 1992), 14.
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In both stock burlesque and TWB, rape jokes and scenarios are extremely rare. Other

than Corio’s appeal to married - not single women - it is difficult to deduce any contextual

references to rape in the brand. Aside from one record of a pun about statutory rape, the subject

is not mentioned. There are two probable reasons for this exclusion. Rape scenarios in TWB

would have reminded women about the risks of sexual expressivity, undermining the other

agendas in the brand. Also, violence on the burlesque stage is always comic - the slap of a pig’s

bladder or stage punch between comedians was delivered without any real threat of harm. The

comic’s rapid rebound assured the audience that the pain was feigned, not real. The violent act of

rape would have violated burlesque conventions in which women were desired (and men were

abused) and the topic was a laugh-killer. The gravity of the topic was an antidote to humor; the

petty frustrations of marriage and romance were innocuous enough to generate laughs, not so

rape.

At at cultural moment when the pill was offering amnesty from the biological

consequences of sex and rape reforms began to protect women from sexual violence, legal

reforms initiated in the 1960s released disgruntled spouses from marriage. When Corio

advocated for women to cultivate sexual companionship in marriages, in the nativity of her

brand, most states required that one partner prove fault in their spouse in order to obtain a

divorce. The difficulty (and social shame) associated with proving infidelity, deception, infertility,

or abuse served as a deterrent to divorce. Men and women couldn’t readily leave relationships

that were lacking in sexual energy, were abusive, or that were emotionally unfulfilling; women

who were economically dependent on their husbands had few options for egress. In 1965, states

began to adopt unilateral, “no-fault” divorce laws. The no-fault reform allowed couples to

separate on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. Divorce increased 116 percent between
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1965 and 1975 with the liberalization of divorce laws.76 After this initial explosion of divorces,

when long-married couples exercised their right to separate and some individuals engaged in

serial marriages, the divorce rate stabilized in the 1990s.

The state-to-state conversion to unilateral divorce had profound effects on domestic

violence rates. Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers found that in unilateral divorce states there

was a “eight-to-sixteen percent decline in female suicide, roughly a thirty percent decline in

domestic violence for both men and women, and a ten percent decline in females murdered by

their partners.”77 Spousal violence was reduced because partners could leave a relationship

without the cooperation of an abusive spouse, and the threat of divorce was a deterrent to

prolonged abuse. When spouses were no longer trapped by the burden of proving fault, the

potential redistribution (or division) of property rights changed the bargaining dynamic within

the household.

For Corio’s audiences who matured and married before unilateral divorce, confinement in

an unhappy relationship was a working-class reality. Prior to unilateral divorce, gaining a legal

separation required travel and sometimes a term of residency (as was the case in Nevada). One of

the more problematic routines in the Corio repertoire was a sketch called “Minnie,” an

76 “Youth Indicators 1993,” U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.
http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=93242 (accessed 8 May 2006). In the 2005 report,
divorce rates are no longer reported, replaced with “family formation” to reflect an expanded definition of
family and parentage: “A family is defined as a group of two or more people (one of whom is the
householder, the person in whose name the housing unit is owned or rented) living together and related by
birth, marriage, or adoption.” See also Justin Wolfers, "Did Unilateral Divorce Laws Raise Divorce Rates?
A Reconiliation and New Results," American Economic Review 96, no. 5 (2006). Wolfers notes that the
relationship between unilateral divorce reform and divorce rates is highly contested in both legal and
sociological literature because of the difficulty in “separating out preexisting trends from the dynamic
effects of a policy shock.” But Wolfers concurs with the Department of Education statistics, derived from
census data, that the divorce rate spiked and then the “rise was reversed.”
77Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, "Bargaining in the Shadow of the Law: Divorce Laws and Family
Distress," The Quarterly Journal of Economics February(2006): 267.
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exaggeration of an antagonistic couple bound in marriage. The “Minnie” sketch is repellent to

modern sensibilities but our revulsion requires investigation. This is the archive of unpleasant

realities voiced in humor.

“Minnie” illustrates the complicated and dystopian marital relationships which lingered

from early-twentieth century burlesque into Corio’s mid-century revival. Corio includes a

description of the routine in the book This Was Burlesque and it was a staple for Harry Conley

while he was in Corio’s employ. In the sketch, Conley played a country rube, costumed in a

garish suit, who berates his wife in a long monologue. Minnie, the wife, never said a word; she

stood “stone-faced” while Conley prowled around and “bawled her out.” The rant was

persistently hostile and cruel -- “You and your... ingrown knees! You walk like you’ve got diaper

rash!”-- spiked with physical threats: “I’ll hit you so damn hard on top of your head I’ll knock

your eyeballs so far down in your stomach you’ll have to take your pants off to see where you’re

going.” 78

Conley was undoubtably abrasive and the rant, on one level, is a misogynistic tirade,

affirming the man’s power in the relationship and evincing his willingness to preserve that power

through physical and verbal abuse. Minnie could be nothing more than the silenced woman - to

be seen, but not heard, as an articulate subject. Robert Allen endorsed this interpretation in

Horrible Prettiness, writing that Minnie’s silence “is admission that she ‘deserves’ the unrelieved

comic calumny.”79 This would be the lone interpretive truth if Conley’s character were

78Corio and DiMona, This Was Burlesque, 167-68. The reader will note the use of “damn” a term
generally disavowed by the company, but it was currency in burly routines, to be used or censored at the
temperament of the audience and local censors
79 Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture, 240.
236

Fig. 16 Harry Conley in “Minnie,” This Was Burlesque.


Collection of Carole Nelson.

sympathetic or heroic, but on the burlesque stage no male or female character was an admirable

protagonist. All comic bodies were imperfect and flawed - their relationships equally distorted

and the normative ideal is never restored. The comic’s disadvantaged position is suggested by the

title of the routine, it’s called “Minnie” after the target of the abuse not the witty abuser. Minnie

achieves a kind of resistance through her silence and eye-rolling dismissal of her husband’s

insults. The verbal assault fails to register, she does not bend to his whims; his tirade does not

provoke action or response. Through Minnie’s silence, ineptitude of the husband is magnified.

His authoritarian male power is impotent over his wife, a comic tension heightened by the tall

cone hat, looming over Conley’s head like an uncircumcised penis. Conley does not provoke
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Minnie’s love, respect, or fear, the approach only yields indifference.80 The sketch is also

cautionary - Conley’s one-liners may be funny to the audience but he has a dysfunctional

marriage, far removed from the ideal of romantic companionship and deficient of any tools to

improve the relationship. The humor may be invisible to contemporary audiences, but for men

and women who experienced failed marriages that could not be dissolved, “Minnie” was a satire

of a couple ossified in their irreconcilable differences.

While Corio was selling dystopian parodies to suburban audiences, the musical that would

become one of the longest-running shows on Broadway offered a vision of life without the

burdens of marriage - a polyamorous utopia where heterosexual desires could be pursued

without shame. When Corio took TWB to Broadway and then on the road producer Leroy

Griffith renamed the Casino East theatre the Gayety and offered burlesque shows. After the

Gayety closed as a burlesque house in 1969 the building reincarnated as the Eden Theatre, the

home of Oh! Calcutta! a collection of erotic skits with literary aspirations. Oh! Calcutta! earns a

place in burlesque history for both reviving the classist terms that divided “legitimate” erotica

from populist art forms and for combining burlesque bawdiness with the politically, stylistically

and sexually progressive theatrical offerings of the off-Broadway avant-garde, which flourished

around the Casino East theatre starting in the 1960s.

Oh! Calcutta! was a compilation of scenes and dances collated by Kenneth Tynan, the

British drama critic and former literary manager for the National Theatre in London. Tynan

marshaled authors as notable as Sam Shepard, John Lennon and Samuel Beckett to submit

80The sketch bears similarities to The Honeymooners, a television show about a blustering bus driver (Jackie
Gleason) who regularly berates his wife. The title of the show alluded to the phase of wooing and
seduction in marriage - the mutual appeal that lead to a long marriage now marked by bickering. Gleason
worked briefly in burlesque before appearing in a successful Broadway show which launched his career;
the inclusion of Conley’s skit in TWB could have been an attempt to connect the burlesque tradition with
the comics who transposed the burlesque repertoire into mass media.
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material.81 In an interview with the New York Times in advance of the opening, Tynan exploited

classist assumptions which connected burlesque with poorly-executed performances when

describing his motivation to stage Oh! Calcutta!:

It seemed to me a pity that eroticism in the theatre should be conflicted to burlesque

houses and the sleazier sort of night club..... All that I hope is that the result will be a few

cuts above burlesque in intelligence and sophistication.82

Tynan defended his work as high-class fantasy and included conspicuous markers of elite culture,

such as a dancer from the Joffrey ballet and record-setting ticket prices for an off-Broadway

venue.

Oh! Calcutta! was boldly distinct from burlesque in both tone and content although the

indebtedness to the American genre and Tynan’s ironic borrowings are apparent.The show

opened with a striptease performed by the entire cast, which disrobed to full nudity. The men and

women shed white bathrobes as they looked intensely at the audience; the gaze of some of the

actors was menacing. The show also contained a sketch in a doctor’s office - a scenario with

sexual overtones that burlesque comedians had mined for generations. In the scene, a young man

enters the laboratory and has sex with an anonymous young woman as a doctor and a nurse look

on lasciviously. The Oh! Calcutta! sketch was a reference to the research of William Masters and

Virginia Johnson, who published Human Sexual Response in 1966. Masters and Johnson brought

quantitative measures such as polygraph machines to sexuality studies, but in the sketch the only

81Beckett’s contribution, the play Breath, was withdrawn from the London and subsequent productions
because Beckett objected to Tynan’s intervention into his stage directions. Tynan dictated that the actors
perform Beckett’s play in the nude. “Special Collections - Samuel Beckett,” University of Delaware
Library, (online exhibition: July 16, 2004), www.lib.udel.edu/ud/spec/exhibits/beckett/drama.htm,
accessed February 10, 2010.
82 Kenneth Tynan, "Pornography? And Is That Bad?," New York Times, June 15, 1969.
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function of the scientific method is the legitimation of casual sex. This rationale is similar to

older burlesque sketches in which the doctor or nurses’ license to touch the private body is an

opportunity for sexual activity. But Oh! Calcutta! also made evident desires only hinted at in

burlesque. The show included male and female genitals on full display and sexual fantasies

involving violence and multiple partners -- although unlike content of TWB, which contained

gay characters and alluded to homoerotic contact, all the scenarios in Oh! Calcutta! were

heterosexual.

Oh! Calcutta! gave Corio a target for her excoriations of modern sexual culture. Corio

reported that when her agent purchased her tickets to see Oh! Calcutta! she ordered him to burn

the tickets: “Although it has been said its blackouts would have been improved under my

direction, the sketches that I have heard described could not in any way have been used in the

most scurrilous house on the old burlesque wheel.” 83 Oh! Calcutta! was persuasive evidence for

Corio’s long-standing contention that the social status of a production affected the acceptance of

erotic stage content. Although Corio disparaged the show (apparently without seeing it) the

producers were replicating the upscale-erotica template that Corio herself introduced to the

Casino East and had marketed so successfully around the country. The initial run of Oh! Calcutta!

played for 1,1314 performances, including a transfer to the Belasco Theatre on Broadway. Four

years after the first run ended the show was revived in 1976 and continued for 5959

performances (ending in 1989). Oh! Calcutta! was the longest running show on Broadway until it

was surpassed by A Chorus Line. Because the show contained full-frontal nudity and imitations of

intercourse and masturbation, it could not follow Corio’s show on tours of suburban theatres so

the singular offering in New York City was a tourist attraction.

83 Richard L Coe, "Promoting Burlesque," Washington Post, October 6, 1970.


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Corio never allowed the specter of violence or extra-marital desires to enter her brand;

the ecosystem of American sexuality was selectively curated in This Was Burlesque. But in

celebrating those women who could identify positive, erotic experiences, before such expressions

were legitimated within the medical and legal systems, Corio positioned her stripteasers as the

rebellious vanguard of the feminists marching for reform. Burlesquers were not welcomed within

the movement, but they fed into the culture the postures, choreography, costumes and attitudes of

female sexual agency. The ready consumption of these by female audiences suggests that even if

the male gaze had a vestigial presence in the stripteaser aesthetic, it did not negate women as

cooperative agents of their own sexual culture.

Rehabilitation - of a physical body, archetype, or polity - requires an excising of diseased

elements. De jure feminism identified flaws in the legal system and removed those which abridged

women’s autonomy. But the revised laws were not a holistic therapy. Feminists of the 1960s and

1970s attempted to craft new role models - but these models didn’t encompass the full range of

potentialities. What did the woman look like who was willing to name a rapist? How did a

working professional flatter her body without pandering to male desires? How were women

supposed to enjoy the cooperative, social aspects of beauty while resisting the male gaze? How

were women supposed to be funny if the female body couldn’t be debased - or if all acts of

humiliation were interpreted as form of violence? This Was Burlesque did not offer resolution to

these issues. Corio’s brand positioned the stripteaser as an autonomous woman with emergent

potential and it offered a form of sexual education and cultural therapy for women who were

faced with unprecedented freedoms but couldn’t embrace the aesthetic regimen of feminist

activism.
241

Working in unrecognized concert with de jure feminism, Corio’s brand rehabilitated the

stripteaser. But did she rehabilitate the reputation of burlesque? The OED locates the origin of

the word rehabilitate in Scottish law “to restore (a person) to former privileges... Formerly also

(Sc): to legitimate (a person of illegitimate birth) (obs).84 As the conclusion will argue, Corio did

not convert burlesque from a bastard genre into a legitimate one, but the enduring potency of

burlesque is sourced in the different systems of valuation that operate in the genre as an

illegitimate, pirate domain.

84“rehabilitate, v1” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press.
24 July, 2010 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/5020141>.
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Conclusion

There’s Always More to Reveal

Ann Corio passed away in 1999, approximately six years after her last public appearance.

Michael Iannucci survived her for another eight years, but never developed another show under

the This Was Burlesque title. Although Corio’s brand died with her, the narratives and aesthetics of

her brand survived in the neo-burlesque movement which began percolating in the urban capitals

New York and Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. The neo-burlesque movement continues to grow

and thrive, interpolating elements of pin-up photography, punk, goth, performance art, circus

arts and any other creative subculture that can be used in the service of an innovative striptease

routine or satyric critique.

Other than the steady trade in used objects and ephemera, Ann Corio’s brand is defunct.

However, the conflict between her pro-burlesque brand and the anti-objectification critiques of de

jure feminism remains unresolved. In blogs, newspapers, documentaries and live shows, some

version of the same question is asked: are women empowered or exploited by participation in

burlesque? This question is inadequate because it rests on notions of legitimate property,

propriety and economy; it assumes that the exchange of money for labor can be quantified on

terms analogous to regulated commerce. Burlesque, which has always been marked by its

illegitimacy, is a site for creative piracy - the appropriation of cultural products and tropes from

dominant culture for the purpose of humorous critique, proletarian sexual education and general

dissent. The exploitation v. empowerment binary cannot encapsulate the intangible assets that

women receive from burlesque as an alternative site for creative and intellectual production. This

conclusion will provide a sketch of the neo-burlesque movement en route to a re-assessment of

the exploitation versus empowerment binary. Suggestions for other metrics to be deployed in the
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analysis of burlesque will be presented in a review of the dissertation chapters. Finally, this

conclusion will consider the possible applications of burlesque history and technique in higher

education.

This is Burlesque

In 2010, burlesque festivals will be held in New Orleans, Dallas, Austin, Denver, Las

Vegas, Chicago, Ft. Lauderdale, Key West, Atlanta, Boston, New York, Seattle, Asheville, St.

Louis, Minneapolis, Albuquerque, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, and Jim Thorpe, PA.

International festivals include Helsinki, Paris, Sydney and Melbourne, Amsterdam, and London.

Festivals include: performances, title-bearing contests, workshops on costuming, choreography,

scene development, entrepreneurship, guest appearances by legends and discussion groups about

pertinent issues such as racial representation in the genre and pantomime as intellectual property.

The movement is connected through web groups, social networking tools and topical magazines.

In most of the cities where the scene is large enough to produce a festival, classes on introductory

burlesque are offered at women-run schools.

The revival is primarily live-performance based but the burlesque community is a rich

mine for documentary film makers and photographers. A film fest in San Francisco will host the

spate of documentaries about classic burlesque and new performers that have been produced in

recent years.1 High-profile movies are also expanding the media reach of the subculture. The

movie Tournee (On Tour), which featured American neo-burlesque stars traipsing through the

countryside of France, earned Mathiew Amalric the award for best director at the 2010 Cannes

Film Festival. The first American major studio feature film about contemporary performance,

1 Documentaries about classic burlesque include Liz Godlywn and Albert Maysles’ Pretty Things and Behind
the Burly Q by Leslie Zemeckis. A Wink and a Smile profiles a burlesque academy in Seattle; Exotic World and
the Burlesque Revival, about the Las Vegas museum, will debut in 2010. Neo-burlesque performers Dirty
Martini, Waxy Moon, and Immodesty Blaize are also the subjects of independent documentaries.
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Burlesque, starring Cher, Christina Aguilera, and Alan Cumming, will open in November. With

increased media coverage, audiences and performers there is no indication that the revival has

reached its apex.

The burlesque scene - which encompasses “classic” recreations of circuit-and-stock era

burlesque and performance-art inspired “neo-burlesque” - bears the marks of the Ann Corio

brand. Some of the similarities are aesthetic. With the exception of nude-tolerant cities such as

New York, performers rarely disrobe beyond pasties and g-strings. Arriving at an airport or hotel,

the burlesquers self-identify themselves through large, bedazelled flowers in their hair. The hair

accessories are an homage to World-War-Two-era men’s magazines which cultivated a subculture

of “tiki” cocktails and fashion, more than Corio’s misbegotten film roles and appearances as

Tondalayo, but the historical inspiration for the tropical flowers - eroticized geopolitical conflict -

is shared. Although a few performers and producers financially sustain themselves through

burlesque, the majority of the community is comprised of avocational performers who are

hobbyists with day jobs and nom de plums which protect their wage-earning identities.

The festival producers and headmistresses of the burlesque academies are predominantly

female, sustaining the matrilineal tradition in burly; women perform for women and recruit them

into their schools. But the scene is not homosocial, men are an increasingly vital part of the

community. Three decades after Patrick the “all-American stripper” was recorded for HBO,

“boylesque” is an integral part of the neo-burlesque movement. Although the queer elements of

Corio’s brand were not addressed in this dissertation, the agenda of the gay rights movement

(which was acknowledged in This Was Burlesque) resonates in the contemporary scene which is

flush with a bevy of queer-oriented performers and acts. The sexual confidence initiatives that

Corio fashioned in her products have taken on new dimensions. The cooperative, female erotic
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content of neo-burlesque provides unique role models and critiques which illustrate that erotica

fashioned for women, by women, diverges aesthetically and commercially from products designed

for male consumers. (The schools and festivals run by women offer an alternative to the still-

predominantly male-run and male-catered strip clubs.)

It is not surprising that thirty years of creative subcultures have altered the format of

nostalgic burlesque. The bodies of burlesque dancers do not need to conform to the airbrushed

and photoshopped gamines of high fashion and advertising. And attractive female bodies are no

longer prohibited from performing comedy. The scene is rich with comic stripteases: the elegant

Nasty Canasta performs a fan dance to a soundtrack of car alarms; Belle Cozette and Evilyn Sin

Claire perform a duet called the “Porcelain Promenade,” a striptease involving two rhinestone

coated toilets and a toilet-paper ribbon dance.

Power Tools

The contemporary movement is fashioned from the artifacts of history and layered with

visual and social textures generated by new media, improved educational and professional

opportunities for women and the methodologies of performance art and rock music. Despite the

innovative accomplishments of the community, reviews of contemporary burlesque consistently

evaluate it by the terms of the previous generation of activist feminism - exploitation and

empowerment. The quotations that follow are not comprehensive, but this sampling is presented

at length to demonstrate how repeatedly the term “empowerment” has appeared in burlesque

reviews in the past year:

Now burlesque is back with festivals and club performances, from Amsterdam to
Alabama. It's seen as a chance for some bawdy fun and, some would say, even a little
empowerment for the performers who are often amateurs with other day jobs.
- “The Big Tease: Burlesque Grows in Popularity,” April 2009, MSNBC. 2

2 "The Big Tease: Burlesque Grows in Popularity," (2009), http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/32570301.


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Just don't bring up the notorious 1995 Vegas trash-fest Showgirls. “Burlesque really couldn't
be further away from that," he [Steve Antin] says. "We are not objectifying women. We
are empowering them. They hold all the cards."
- “Burlesque Director Steve Antin Proves Persuasive,” USA Today, June 30, 2010.3

Performances are unapologetic and empowered. Even if the particular act is performed
for a straight audience and contains relatively straight gender roles, the very act of
heightened sexuality on display for others is rather queer.
- “A Look at Queer Burlesque,” Windy City Media, May 2010.4

I’ll handily admit that I really liked The Rebelles back in the day. They had a very
subversive show, and while it was certainly titillating, it also had some greater point to it.
The whole idea was the use of sexuality as a means of empowerment, and actual talent
seemed far more important to the group than just taking off clothes and wearing pasties.
- “Asheville Burlesque Stuff ” Mountain Xpress Forums, February 5, 2010.5

There are numerous things about burlesque that make it an odd bird of contradiction
and feminism. Burlesque is at once romantic and un-romantic, empowering and
objectifying, and funny and sexy.
- “Burlesque: Meow of a Kitten, Roar of a Feminist,” Gender Across Boarders, March 3,
2010.6

- One of the best things about burlesque is that the women who perform don't fit into a
cookie cutter mold of the "appropriate" body type. Traditional and neo-burlesque
empowers audiences to celebrate the human form in all its facets.
“Traditional and Neo-Burlesque: Portland has both,” examiner.com/portland, June 4, 2010.7

In these quotes, the term empowerment implies a range of virtues and functions. The word

suggests that value is added to personal identity or that opportunities exist to positively express

queer identity and natural, imperfect body types. In half of the quotes, the word is positioned as

3 Susan Wloszczyna, "Burlesque Director Steven Antin Proves Persuasive," USA Today, June 30 2010.
4Sarah Terez Rosenblum, "A Look at Queer Burlesque " Windy City Media Group, http://
www.windycitymediagroup.com/gay/lesbian/news/ARTICLE.php?AID=26699.
5 Steve Shanafelt, "Ashville Burlesque Stuff," Mountain Xpress Forums. http://www.mountainx.com/
forums/viewthread/2942/
6Jessica Mack, "Burlesque: Meow of a Kitten, Roar of a Feminist," in Gender Across Borders - A Global
Feminist Blog (March 3, 2010).
7Deidra Gwyther, "Traditional and Neo-Burlesque: Portland Has Both," http://www.examiner.com/
portland.
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the opposite or differentiator from exploitation and objectification - words that are sourced in the

male gaze critiques and anti-violence initiatives of feminist groups in the 1960s-1980s. It is

essential to acknowledge the importance of the exploitation v. empowerment dialectic as a tool

for enlarging the professional and personal opportunities for women before examining the limits

of this tool and the critical tasks relevant for analysis of historic and contemporary burlesque.

The question of exploitation is integral to gender equality because the term hinges on an

economic valuation of labor. The term, exploitation, indicates that a certain commercial

exchange was not equitable; a fair salary was not paid for the services rendered and any

depreciation costs. But how does one calculate the deficits incurred by a vendor as the result of a

sexual performance? With regards to erotic dance, the term exploitation is invoked to suggest that

the sexual gratification obtained by the (presumably) male spectator is greater than the financial

compensation and the depreciation - often social shame - rewarded to the dancer for his or her

performance. The imbalance of exploitation is often posed against empowerment, a word that

indicates that the remuneration for labor is equitable with other agents in the same field.

Exploitation and its companion, empowerment, rely on quantifiable assessments - how much an

individual was paid and what the attendant costs were -- and value judgements: the relative value

of the work provided within a hierarchical social system and the potential for social mobility.

But non-quantifiable, ephemeral factors are part of the cultural and personal valuation of

a stripteaser’s work. Performance and the reception and enjoyment of that display are ephemeral

currencies. The box office regulates the commercial exchange but the performance is self is not a

stable product. It evaporates. The degree to which it is preserved and stabilized in an audience

member’s memory is contingent upon innumerable factors such as an individual’s identification

with the performers and the relevance of the display to their personal priorities. Libertine sexual
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entertainers benefitted from their fame and the approval of the audience - elements that could be

as transient as relationships with prostituted women or as durable as a marital bond. Fame and

admiration were only as stable as the performer’s ability to generate interest in a stage persona,

his or her capacity for bringing personality to the striptease profession. Charles Fish wrote of his

visits to carnival girlie shows, “Despite the display of breasts, legs and buttocks, it’s the face we

end up reading. It’s the most revealing.” 8 Striptease dancers sold publicity photos, but as Fish’s

quote indicates, the photo was only as valuable as the persona. The evocative face and stage

presence of the dancer is what made a photo collectable. A dancer’s unique stage persona

indicated that she was non-fungible; there was a substantive person that could not be

interchanged with another semi-nude dancer. The novelty and appeal of a dancer’s persona is

central to his or her relative value in the entertainment marketplace, but how is persona

converted into a measurable unit?

The exploitation v. empowerment (E v. E) binary is a powerful and easy-to-use tool; an

interrogator could question if a social practice detracted from or contributed to gender equity. As

a tool used to identify violence against women, unjust labor and property laws and social

practices which limited the free circulation of women, the E v. E paradigm was at the core of

legal reforms in the areas of birth control access, unilateral divorce, rape laws and sexual

harassment. As a mobilizing technique which educated women used to dissemble patriarchal

tendencies, the E v. E tool became instituted in critical thinking and women’s studies courses in

colleges and universities. Unfortunately, when applied to erotic dance, critics utilizing the E v. E

metric often assumed that erotic dance would be undertaken out of duress or that the shame of

commercial exhibition would dissuade any informed woman from engaging in work that unfairly

8 Fish, Blue Ribbons and Burlesque: A Book of County Fairs, 255.


249

exploited resources from her attractiveness. But the social shame that is assumed to be part of

public exhibitions of a female body is rooted in the same legitimate-property-and-economy

worldview and gender nomenclature that subsumed the physical body and labor of women

under male protectorship, branded homosexuality a mental disease, and dismissed most sexual

education as forms of obscenity. The intellectual and social parameters of American sexual

culture have shifted; but in the realm of erotic dance, the critical tools have not adapted to the

new terrain. E v. E was a versatile implement, but that doesn’t mean it is the best tool for all

de/constructive critical work.

Because the E v. E paradigm was developed as part of initiatives which challenged the

inequity of employment wages and property rights of women, as a metric it prizes quantitative,

primarily fiscal advancement. It assumes that women are most empowered by fair wages which

are earned in keeping with middle-and-upper class standards for comportment (e.g., not

removing one’s clothes). But women don’t agree on the terms of empowerment because

aggregate power can be experienced through both material and emotional conditions. Does

empowerment indicate more material goods, more freedom to circulate in pubic places, more

creative control and business ownership or acknowledgment for unpaid labor? And how is

“more” measured - more than our own individual past or in the imagined realities of our

mothers and grandmothers?

Erotic dance is tantalizing as a symbolic shorthand for empowerment or exploitation

because the appearance of a breast, buttock or vagina seems quantifiable - the body elements of

identifiable subjects appeared before audience-witnesses. Unfortunately, empowerment is an

emotion, not an object or a profession. It is a feeling of satisfaction with one’s place in the world;

this may or may not be related to a male spectator, the exhibition of sexual organs or
250

engagement with money. Happiness studies, which lie at the intersection of social psychology and

economics, have indicated that happiness and self-satisfaction do not occur in parallel with

financial wealth.9 Corio’s brand suggested to women that the performance of sexual confidence -

via striptease - could presage the actual feeling; that is was necessary to imagine oneself as

satisfied and confident in order to map the journey to the manifestation of these emotions. The

limits of the E v. E tool are defined by the subjectivity of empowerment; it remains a necessary

paradigm for defining and identifying gender inequities and burlesque studies can assist in these

goals. The history of twentieth-century burlesque, in the career of Ann Corio, illustrates other

metrics - qualitative, non-material currencies - which should be considered (if not measured)

when assessing erotic performances.

Ephemeral Currencies and Pirate Feminism

In Susan Meislas’ Carnival Strippers Deirdre English, former editor of Mother Jones,

presented a challenge: “Whatever happened to the more general feminist critique of the sexual

objectification of women, which did not call for censorship, but for a different way of valuing

women?” 10 Unfortunately, English’s question turns in the next sentence to a non-conciliatory

criticism of “women’s delighted wish to exhibit themselves as objects of desire...” as if the social

aspects of beauty and the impulse to embellish bodies were not endogenous to women’s personal

desires or female culture. The strains of feminism which regard public expressions of sexuality as

patriarchally (and pathologically) exogenic - arising from a constrictive male gaze - occlude the

intangible currencies of female cooperative culture, which include inter-class and intercultural

9ElizabethKolbert, "Everybody Have Fun: What Can Policymakers Learn from Happiness Research,"
The New Yorker, March 22, 2010.
10Deirdre English, "Stripped Bare: Nude Girls and Naked Truths," in Carnival Strippers, ed. Susan Meislas
(New York: Whitney Museum of Art, 2003).
251

exchanges, public domain creative products, persona, the esteem of other women, and sexual

confidence. These valuation systems operate, in burlesque, in tandem with regulated commercial

transactions; there is an economic heteroglossia of monetized labor and vernacular gift and

barter exchanges created by performers, producers, and audience members.

Chapter 2 of this study introduced Ann Corio and the class tensions embedded in

burlesque in the first half of the twentieth century. The ephemeral currency operating in Corio’s

early career was the cultural capitol of the working class - devalued politically, but essential

nourishment in the development of Corio’s career. At the core of Corio’s early stage persona,

and one of the values of her brand, was her contention that the disparaging critical evaluations

of burlesque by elite journalists and censorship by civic authorities in New York City were

unjustly founded on assumptions about the moral and intellectual character of working class

people. Corio’s argument that the low cultural capital of her genre was based on a relative, not

absolute, class-based system of analysis dissented from cultural assumptions which connected

economic wealth to moral superiority, better aesthetics and rarified theatrical talent. Corio’s

celebration of her “lowly” genre indicated that she prized proletarian cultural capitol. By

naming the large cohort of upper-class men who attended burlesque, Corio illustrated that the

ceremonies and rituals of class comportment were designed to disguise the commonality of

human sexual desires. In the comic rhetoric of burlesque, the perspective of the working-class

subject was a logic (and laughter) which tore away the veils of status and habitus. The universal

desires of the men in the audience were revealed through spectatorship of the women revealing

her body on stage. For Corio, the admiration of such a wide range of spectators was evidence

that she was culturally valuable; there were riches - financial, material and intangible - garnered

by being the queen of the “lowest branch of show business.”


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The exclusion of burlesque content from intellectual property protections, detailed in

chapter 3, forced artists to work in the ephemeral currency of un-protected creative work; artists

could monetize their creations in the form of box office admissions but could not claim legal

ownership of them. Burlesque artists found ways to connect their original routines to their

theatrical personas when they couldn’t own the actual products of their intellectual and creative

effort. An artist’s unique skills rendered an act difficult to produce or their unique live adaptation

of a public domain routine created a transient stamp of ownership. Intellectual property was

bolstered by the artists’ (also ephemeral) persona - the theatrical foil to the working, laboring

individual. A strong persona may be integral to a public identity, but it has no quantifiable value;

value is relative to the recognition and admiration by audience members. Although Corio’s stage

persona was often tied to the problematic and racially-derivative caricature, Tondalayo, she

manipulated this persona in a fluctuating marketplace. On stage in TWB, Corio imbued her

persona with a doubleness - she was both representative of her famous past performances and an

embodied critique, through allegory, in the burlesques of White Cargo. After middling success at

monetizing her persona in “legitimate” theatre and low-budget films, Corio re-marketed her

burlesque persona in a new product. TWB had few intellectual property rights but the brand was

defensible because there was only one Ann Corio; she capitalized on American audiences’

confidence in her as a representative of early-twentieth-century burlesque.

Chapter 4 addressed Ann Corio’s appeal to women as consumers and the strategies she

deployed in order to tap women’s growing discretionary spending power. Corio’s brand value

among this demographic was vested in the confidence and trust of her female fans. She

capitalized on the interest women had in her stage persona by performing in spaces that women

were comfortable attending. The ephemeral currencies operating in this aspect of the brand were
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admiration, sexual confidence, and the autonomy of female subjects. Corio facilitated the sale of

feminine self-confidence by differentiating between multiple spheres of sexual commerce in the

brand literature and public interviews. Corio asserted a woman’s right to use her body as a site

for commerce or martial barter, if the selling agent conformed to certain boundaries. The Corio

brand distanced stripteasing from prostitution by enforcing boundaries around the erotic displays

in her shows. The thresholds of erotic commerce - at the box office, on stage and at the

performer were analogous to the protections middle-class women experienced as the property of

their husbands under the long, legal shadow of coverture. Like married women, dancers could

not be touched or solicited for additional social or sexual contact. The boundaries helped

audiences identify the dancer’s body as her own property - not violated, owned by the audience,

or available for illicit sexual commerce. But like confidence and admiration, the rights inherent in

women’s ownership of their physical body were ill-defined and untested when Corio’s brand

debuted in the 1960s. Only the legal challenges of the next thirty years would slowly define the

specific rights women were entitled to as autonomous entities.

Education was the ephemeral currency defined in chapter five. By inviting women to

partake in the information about sexual pleasure and reproduction that was the dominion of all-

male venues, women were given access to a curriculum that was previously suppressed by anti-

obscenity laws. Although the education was purchased with very real currency (via ticket and

album sales), the value of the learning, if the pedagogy was followed, was immeasurable; the

maintenance of marital contentment and sexual companionship was executed in private gestures

and intimate sharing, not cost-based measures. The education provided by Corio’s brand was not

designed to lead to a wage-earning job; the brand informed women was that this learning was

just as useful in the private sphere as it was in realms of erotic commerce.


254

The Ann Corio brand of burlesque offered a different way of valuing women - as erotic

personas, as autonomous subjects who collectively defined social beauty, as creative agents in

domains where they were not (at the time) acknowledged as property owners. Burlesque can be

understood as kind of pirate feminism; piracy being an act in which objects of economic value

are appropriated, redefined and redistributed. Piracy in this case is not meant to imply theft by

force; rather the shifting conditions of property and legitimacy in American common law

demonstrate that notions of private and public property are constantly in flux. Piracy can be a

form of adaptation when property rights are modified and new cultural products are in

development.

In burlesque, elements of popular culture (imbued with the dual perception of both male

and female spectatorship) are repurposed through humor and creative dissembling. The

intellectual property of literary theatre and Broadway shows was appropriated and de-composed

into dissenting critiques which attacked the class pretensions of “high” culture and unrealistic

sexual expectations of middle-class domesticity. The postures and choreography of stag

burlesque were pirated into a methodology for rehearsing sexual confidence. In the Corio brand

the woman’s body - still marked by the vestiges of coverture as the property of a husband - was

delicately positioned as autonomous, an equal agent in marital harmony and sexual gratification.

She encouraged women to cast off the shame associated with self-exhibition, which was not

ostensibly as reform-oriented as the legal initiatives of second-wave feminism, but served as the

cultural companion to the redefinition of the woman’s body as autonomous property. Corio was

a pirate feminist, instructing women on how to identify their agency through both the

performance of material culture and the cultivation of ephemeral currencies.


255

The School of Burlesque

What are the uses of this study of Ann Corio and her brand? How can this study inform

theatre pedagogy? How does the practicing burlesquer or experienced academic utilize this study

in meeting the goals of feminism - to question the limits on women’s social, professional and

domestic roles and design a path toward improved gender equity? Corio’s selective amnesia of

burlesque history has been critiqued in this study, but there are positive aspects of this strategy.

Corio offered amnesia with a dose of amnesty - forgiveness for audiences who laughed at the

racialized tropes of American humor before World War Two. She crafted a theatrical space

where the audiences’ experiences as consumers of outdated, unfashionable humor were not

negated, but in that same space she offered replacement archetypes fashioned from the base

materials of the burlesque repertoire. This technique has applications in academic environments.

Scholars readily diffuse the romantic effects of nostalgia through analytic, retroactive

vision. It is impossible to examine facts and figures from the past without the perspective of

present ideologies and critiques. But we can too-readily fault our cultural and political

predecessors for not possessing the enlightenments of the present moment when performing the

tasks of scholarly analysis. Historical subjects warrant some measure of indemnity. Corio could

be faulted as an inhibitor to late-twentieth-century feminism, a perpetuator of racial and gender

tropes which legitimated the political subjugation of Asian-Pacific women. But the amnesty

practiced by Corio could be extended to her as a subject; we can imagine some indemnity for a

teenage stripteaser who was born before women had the constitutional right to vote and a

woman whose most-successful marriage was her third - long after two painful divorces but before

the enactment of unilateral divorces.


256

Educators can also approach burlesque as a rich topic for curricular material. Burlesque

content can be taught as a richly problematic past with representations of racism, violence

against women and militarized interventions. This was burlesque: our comic tradition is steeped

in bimbos, coons, slapstick comics, cooch dancers and rubes. Be aware and recognize these

patterns; be forgiving to your predecessors but recycle these materials with caution. The corpus is

thick with unsavory depictions of human desires but the dissent embedded in these

representations is valuable. Furthermore, the burlesque repertoire presents the opportunity to

study comedy, a vast segment of performing arts history that is not equitably represented in

course offerings (which predominantly feature the literary texts of tragedy and historical drama).

Through burlesque, students can explore the thorny paradox of comedy - the potential of

gestures and language to critique stereotypes while simultaneously reifying the potency of those

tropes. Theatre classes can also consider the implications, for audiences and performers, of the

binocular vision created by laughter in analysis of the comic paradox. Is our understanding of

the comic subject ossified or bifurcated through laughter? Do we experience sympathy or disdain

by watching comic representations and what is the evidence for these emotive states?

When used in tandem with the theoretical work of the exploitation v. empowerment

binary, burlesque can function as the embodied learning element of critique. Burlesque can serve

as a complimentary way of teaching about an objectifying gaze because both the Corio brand

and the current movement have illustrated the disjuncture between male and female oriented

erotica. The gaze can be taught through wit as well as formal essays. For example, burlesque

author and dancer Jo Weldon recently responded to a query on the social networking tool

formspring. She was asked her opinion about performers who didn’t work to stay “in shape” and

if the movement was just an excuse for unfit women to “feel good about themselves.” Weldon
257

responded with cutting aplomb: “The world is full of places where women are encouraged to feel

bad about themselves if they aren't willing to diet and exercise into the condition the media says

they should be. Feel free to go to those places, and stay in one of them.” Burlesque is a

companion to critical theories which evaluate the archetypes of mass-market television and film,

the visual standards of advertising and the gendered narratives of political discourse. Male gaze

theory can be presented through both primary source texts and performances which prompt

viewers to consider the multiple gazes that can be activated by an erotic show.

Educators can also approach burlesque as a strategy for the genesis of new narrative

archetypes; in devised creative work, humor can dissemble a trite stereotype. Burlesque is a form

of performative critique and a methodology for drafting new role models - female tricksters,

health-activist sex workers and shameless women. The piratical aspects of burlesque offer the

opportunity to identify realms where property is still exclusively managed by men (or another

cohort that is not representative of the consumer demographic). The most obvious domain that

intersects with burlesque is the creative control of American humor - which is still predominantly

authored and performed by men.11 Burlesque studies and the neo-burlesque movement offer

opportunities to query why men are still the predominant laugh makers. Sexuality studies of the

last century illustrate that the codes of permissible conduct for sexual encounters and domestic

relationships are malleable; so why does the American comic consciousness lag behind our

embrace of technology to adapt our reproductive bodies?

The general features of women’s bodies may not change substantially but the cultures and

polities they are born into are in constant flux. Ann Corio’s career demonstrates that burlesque is

11In a recent New Yorker profile of comedian Steve Carell, the author noted that the “bucket brigade”
responsible for developing a several box-office topping comedies is a collaborative cohort composed
exclusively of men. Tad Friend, "First Banana," The New Yorker, July 5, 2010.
258

a genre where the shifting standards of gender comportment, sexual partnership and the relative

value of humor and beauty can be examined; there is always a new truth or perspective to be

revealed, a new idea or vision of humanity unveiled in the strip.


259

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Manuscript Collections

Ann Corio’s papers, collection of Carole Nelson, private


Clippings files, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library
Bambi Vawn Papers, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library
Lester Sewyd Collection, Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library
Theatre on Film and Tape, New York Public Library
Florenz Ziegfeld Collection, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin

Centres d'intérêt liés