Book Review: Minsky's Burlesque

Minsky's Burlesque: A Fast and Funny Look at America's Bawdiest Era. By Morton Minsky and Milt Machlin. Arbor House, New York, 1986.

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From the first sentence:
"I was only fifteen and still wearing knickers when I got my first look at the bouncing, bawdy, and often stimulating world of burlesque..."
to the edifying appendices at the end, this book is completely engaging. It is such a favorite of mine. Sure, today's New York burlesque shows are as different from Minsky's as Lili St. Cyr's were from Lydia Thompson's, but a huge part of the attraction to burlesque has always been the fierce brazen energy of live enertainment made with adults in mind, and this book portrays it beautifully.

Each chapter is headed by a terrible joke, such as:
STRAIGHT MAN: (running his hand over the bald comic's head): Ya know, Charlie, your head feels exactly like my wife's backside!
COMIC: (running his hand over his own head): Ya know, you're right!

But of course my obsession is burlesque striptease, and this book is just packed with yummy details about all of that. His comment on Gypsy Rose Lee is priceless: "I didn't know anything really terrible about Gypsy....If you eliminated...the fact that she showed porno movies in her dressing room and encouraged her monkeys in their obscene antics...I guess she was okay."

He shares tips about what made great strippers that could still apply today, such as:
"Hair: The Stripper had to dye her hair a definite color. Red, yellow, or black. Theatrical lighting did strange things to ordinary natural shades of hair...."
"Timing: The stripper has to know when to take off what, how much to take off, what to leave on, and what to do for an encore."

Also irresistable to the historian in me are the descriptions of the troubles they had with authorities, including actual fragments of courtroom transcripts. Having spent a bit of time in courtrooms around the subject of strip joints, I'm always amazed at what the authorities consider not only risque but dangerous to the public good, and as I read Minsky's book I could tell that some things never change.

One of my favorite sections is in Chapter 6, where he compares what he says the more highbrow and uptown Zeigfeld Follies were able to get away with in comparison with Minsky's, who were harrassed more for their tone than for the content of their shows. This kind of cultural class war continues today in comparisons between high-end strip joints and dives. As a feature dancer in the 1990s I was always amused that the high-end clubs didn't want the feature dancers with our elaborate costumes and props and theatrical shows because we were associated with porn (most of us were centerfold models or porn stars or both), and the high-enders were very consciously trying to be disassociated from porn. So the fancy, more expensive strip joints denied the elaborate performances and had only table dancing, while the supposedly icky dives had what many would consider more artistic performances. Funny, that. And in Minsky's objection to Earl Carroll's girls being considered art no matter how naked they got, while his were considered dirty no matter how clothed they stayed, I sense a bit of the same frustration with the strange ways people associate sexual behavior with class.

The tone of this book is so forthright, and the presentation of stories is so entertaining, that I always forget how wonderful the pictures are. There is only a section in the middle of the book, but the juxtaposition of his selection of historical documents, hysterical comics, and hot dames is something every burlesque fan should see.

You can buy this book used on or on EBay, and I recommend you do!

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Anonymous said…
I read this book about three years ago, It is FANTASTIC and there is so much history crammed in there. A must read.
Burgundy Brixx said…
I agree, this book is a fantastic resource and a great read to boot! It was a wonderful source of information when I was working on my Gypsy Rose Lee tribute for Ixion, and so many of the historical anecdotes, tips and tricks of the trade continue to inform all my work.

"Hey what's the difference between mashed potatoes and pea soup?

Anyone can mash potatoes!"

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