The History of Burlesque

Burlesque is a theatrical entertainment of humor that involves parody and grotesque exaggeration. Modern burlesque is generally associated with striptease variety shows while early burlesque is more closely associated with theater performances and poetry. The art of burlesque has undergone some significant changes throughout history.

History of Burlesque

The literal meaning of burlesque is to "send up" and the term is derived from the Latin word burra. In 14th century Britain, Geoffrey Chaucer’s satirical The Canterbury Tales popularized burlesque in verse and prose. In 16th century Spain, poet, Miguel de Cervantes, popularized burlesque in his many satirical works. In 17th century France and Italy, burlesque became a widely known term and popularly known as the grotesque imitation of the pathetic or dignified.

In the early 18th century, burlesque combined with comic and serious elements became popular in Europe for a grotesque effect. In 19th century England, theatrical burlesque became popular in the form of musical parody and became a form of middle class entertainment. Burlesque gained its large appeal because of its penchant for casting female actors in the lead male roles and double entendre. The traditional British burlesque is now known as classical burlesque or musical burlesque and is very different from modern burlesque which focuses more on striptease.

In 20th century America, burlesque became associated with many variety shows where striptease became the chief attracting element. American burlesque encompasses parody, wit, and pastiche with a variety of acts such as chanson singers, mime artists, dancing girls, comedians, and striptease artists. In 1870, Michael B. Leavitt created one of the first burlesque troupes, Rentz – Santley Novelty and Burlesque Company.

Notable Burlesque Stars

Some of the most notable burlesque stars are Josephine Baker, Lola the Vamp, Bettie Page, Lady Gaga, Bert Lahr, Miss Polly Rae, Marie Dressler, Gypsy Rose Lee, Harper Ray, Tracy Phillips, Sally Rand, Tura Satana, Leon Errol, Satan’s Angel, Ann Corio, Michelle L’amour, Dita Von Teese, Catherine D’lish, and Sherry Britton.

Dita Von Teese is one of the popular American-Armenian burlesque artists. She is famous for her classic retro style and fascination for 1940s cinema. She is a classically trained ballet dancer and also a trained costume designer. At the age of 18, she began her career in a local strip club. In 1993, she started performing burlesque and her famous acts have involved a giant powder compact, a carousel horse, a claw foot bathtub with a working shower head, and a filigree heart. In 1996, she published her first book about the history of fetish and burlesque, Burlesque and the Art of the Teese/Fetish and the Art of the Teese.

Burlesque on Film

The film Lady of Burlesque made in 1943 depicts the back stage life of burlesque performers. Hollywood Revels made in 1946 is the first actual motion picture on burlesque. Film producer W. Merle Connell’s 1951 production French Follies is a beautiful movie on burlesque, with singing emcees, stage curtains, dances, comedy performances, and a final act from the star performer. In 1953, he also produced A Night in Hollywood, which featured a famous burlesque routine, Slowly I Turned. The best example for the burlesque entertainment in movies is Naughty New Orleans, produced in 1954, in which the venue is shifted from the burlesque theater to a popular night club. Burlesque massacre is the traditional horror movie with burlesque artists performing the leading roles. Currently, this movie is in post-production and expected to be in theaters in 2010.

Modern Burlesque

The revival of burlesque is pioneered independently by Billy Madley’s Cinema and later with Michelle Carr’s The Velvet Hammer troupe in Los Angeles, Ami Goodheart in Dutch Weismann’s Follies revues in New York, and The Shim-Shamettes in New Orleans. Also, many individual performers are incorporating burlesque in their acts.

Today, modern burlesque has emerged into many forms and also honors one or more previous burlesque incarnations with performances such as bawdy humor, strip tease, cabaret, expensive costumes, and many more. Annual burlesque conventions such as Miss Exotic World Pageant and Vancouver International Burlesque Festival are held throughout the world for the burlesque performers.

For additional information on the history of burlesque refer to the following sites:

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