The Art of Schticktease
Paul Andrew gets a lesson in Burlesque from a woman who knows it well, Immodesty Blaize.
Burlesque as you may know is a term subject to controversy when it comes to the subject of etymology. In the 16th century the word appears in the French lexicon meaning derisive imitation or grotesque parody. Earlier again, its potential Italian or Spanish origin, burlesco or burla, means jest or joke, in Latin, an ancient term, burra means trifle or nonsense.
Self-professed “burlesque sophisticate”, Immodesty Blaize is one of the world’s most famous showgirls. She is also a dab hand when it comes to unpacking etymology.
“Burlesque can be traced back further again, to the Ancient Greek classical musical comedies; irony, satire, punning and jokes played to music, " she offers. "By the 19th Century burlesquing had developed into satire-sending up literature, art and current affairs- it was popular with the middle classes, later the working classes who preferred music halls, cheap drinks, shorter variety acts."
As Burlesque became more popular, showgirls attained the status of royalty. Blaize explains:"British Eliza Vestris was the first theatrical Burlesque Madame in 1814. British Lydia Thomson was responsible for transporting Burlesque across to USA in 1868, staying on Broadway for six years. In terms of later American striptease, there were so many burlesque queens, Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St Cyr for example, who were among the most high profile, the most revered.”
Etymology gets a little more “complex” as these queens began to show extra shoulder.
“During the late 19th Century, striptease or peeling as it is known altered the word burlesque into the meaning that we know so well today. After Lydia Thomson toured burlesque across the USA in the 1860’s it attracted a different kind of audience. By the 1930s the more ‘gentleman’ orientated American crowds saw striptease as a popular part of the show thanks to impresarios like the Minsky brothers.”
“The Bawdy comedians on tour would need to cover the scene changes between their comic skits, and since they traveled with a ‘talking woman’ she would strip whilst the scene change took place. As the years went on the stripteasers or peelers became huge stars in their own right, and, as competition increased they had to create bigger and more fabulous couture costumes, gimmicks and spectacles to be memorable, draw in the punters and get the bookings.”
Blaize mentions that not all burlesque contains striptease.
“It’s not always relevant, being bawdy and provocative can be achieved in a number of ways. Striptease became a very popular element of burlesque in addition to the comedy. Schtick was-and still is-as important as the strip.”
Etymology aside, Blaize is adamant, Burlesque is always about imagination, always about humour. “It’s a form of entertainment, a glamorous theatrical genre. We want people to leave their troubles behind for an hour and laugh, have fun, and escape into an eccentric fabulous fantasy.”
We chat about what constitutes the average day for a “burlesque sophisticate”.
“Caviar, small dogs in handbags, rhinestones, feathers, jets, hotels, chandeliers, heels, stockings, breathlessness in tight corsetry, velvet curtains, show boys, spotlights, riding a giant rocking horse, applause, champagne, camaraderie, write a romantic novel before bed, a nudge and a wink, beauty sleep and a soothing eye mask.”
“And an extraordinary day?”
“A very unusual day would involve a pair of thongs and a bluey.”