No. 432
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
July 20, 2019

Burlesque Comes to America.

April 17, 2012
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Chapter 2
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Burlesque Comes to America.

Lydia Thompson
New York, New York, September 28, 1868 – Lydia Thompson’s British burlesque troupe opened to a packed house at Wood’s Museum and Metropolitan Theatre. Some critics praised them as “perfect blondes whose flowing golden hair charms all beholders” while others condemned them as “brazen-faced, stained, yellow-haired, padded limbed creatures.” [more]
 
ixion
The arrival of Lydia Thompson and her troupe—who soon became known as The British Blondes—was preceded by an intensive public relations campaign touting her recent success in Europe and Russia. In Helsinki her path was strewn with flowers and torches carried by enthusiastic fans illuminated the streets. It became the custom, in homes in Riga, to display Lydia’s portrait alongside that of the Czar. In Lemberg, a captain of the Russian dragoons shot himself in the heart leaving a note saying his love for Lydia had driven him to the act.
Pauline Markham Pauline Markham

Though skeptical at first, most of the critics and the vast majority of theatre goers were won over after the opening of Ixion, the play performed by The Blondes at the 2,200 seat theatre in Wood’s Museum. Ixion, was a lampoon of classical culture in rhyming pentameter, filled with puns and topical references tailored to fit 1868 New York. The show included singing and dancing to familiar songs with parodied lyrics. Lydia played the king of Thessaly (in a stylized thigh-length Greek tunic and flesh colored tights) who seeks advice from the Greek gods. Jupiter and the other male gods were portrayed by women. Pauline Markham, who was later called “the most beautifully formed woman who had ever appeared on stage,” played Venus. The other goddesses were played by Harry Beckett, the only male member of the troupe.

Harry Beckett Harry Beckett
Thompson’s troupe played to sellout crowds at Wood’s theatre until February 1869 when they moved to the larger and more prestigious Niblio’s Garden, to perform another burlesque, The Forty Thieves; or Striking Oil in Family Jars. Though the crowds still came in droves, by the time they opened at Niblio’s the critics had lost their love of Lydia Thompson and the British Blondes. What had previously been “delightful deviltry” was now called “leg business” and “nude drama.” Though the women’s costumes were no more revealing than could be seen at the ballet, the cut of the clothes was more vulgar, tending to focus the eye on legs and breasts. Not surprisingly, this antiburlesque campaign was joined by clergymen, legislators, literary figures and suffragettes.

In July 1869 the troupe closed at Niblio’s and took the show on the road for a seven month tour of the east and Midwest. Starting at Niagara Falls, they traveled southward to Buffalo, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Cincinnati, Louisville, Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans, with return trips to Cincinnati and Chicago. In every city played to packed houses and received generally favorable reviews. But in their second visit to Chicago, Lydia and her troupe were met by a series of personal attacks by Wilbur F. Storey, editor of the Chicago Times. In one article he said that Lydia and her troupe…
“have made an unnecessary and lewd exhibition of their persons, such as would not be tolerated by the police in any bawdy house; that they have made use of broad, low and degrading language, such as men of any self respect would repudiate, even in the absence of ladies; that their entertainments have been mere vehicles for the exhibition of course women and the use of disreputable language unrelieved by any wit and humor.”
Horsewhipping
The evening of February 24, 1870, Lydia Thompson, Pauline Markham, Alexander Henderson (Lydia's husband), and publicist Archie Gordon were waiting in a carriage outside Wilbur Storey’s home in Wabash Avenue. When Storey and his wife came out, Mr. Storey was grabbed by Henderson and Gordon, and held while the women horsewhipped him with buckskin whips. Witnesses said that Henderson held Storey at gunpoint to make sure he got his punishment.

The group was arrested and released on bail, but by then the story had circulated throughout Chicago and a raucous crowd of at least two thousand supporters met them as they left the jail. Lydia and her party were re-arrested for inciting a riot.

In their trial, the defense attorney made no attempt to defend the actions as legal, but begged the judge to understand that, since their performance schedule made a libel suit against Storey impractical, the whipping was morally and socially justifiable. The judge fined them one hundred dollars apiece.

The financial success of Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes, spawned numerous imitators, and burlesque became a staple of American theatre. But as the genre grew, its critics became more and more vocal, and what had begun as light amusement for middleclass women and men, by the 1890s was low entertainment, specifically aimed at working class men.
And way down in front by the footlights glow,
The bald-headed men sat in the front row.
They had big glasses to see all the sights
Including the blondes who danced in silk tights.

- Lydia Thompson.

Sources:

  • Allen, Robert Clyde. Horrible prettiness: burlesque and American culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
  • "An Editor Assaulted." Chicago Tribune 25 Feb. 1870: 4.
  • Pullen, Kirsten. Actresses and whores: on stage and in society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.