Detroit Burlesque in the Early 1960s
The first time I went to one of Detroit’s three downtown burlesque theaters, I was 15 years old and it was 1963. All three venues in Detroit at that time—the Empress, the Stone, and the National—advertised in the Detroit News on the movie guide page. No one would have described these theaters as plush or elegant. They were rundown storefront operations.
That’s not because burlesque was dying, but because the powers that be had spent decades trying to kill it. Burlesque was raided and handcuffed and hauled off in paddy wagons. It was demonized by the press, the preachers, and the politicians.
The legendary burlesque stars of the 30s, 40s and 50s who are today remembered as “classy,” or “elegant,” or “clean wholesome fun,” were not viewed like this in their day. In cities all over the country throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s, burlesque theaters were busted and shut down and dancers were arrested and owners fined.
The arrests weren’t aimed at small-time operators and unknown artists, but at the biggest theaters and the biggest names in the business. Gypsy Rose Lee was arrested countless times in her three-year run at Minsky’s in New York. By 1942, all 14 of the burlesque theaters in NYC had been shut down by the city and the mayor swore no burlesque theater would ever operate in New York again.
Sally Rand was arrested at least a half-dozen times in the 30s and 40s. Lili St. Cyr was arrested in Montreal, Hollywood, and Las Vegas in the 50s. Blaze Starr was arrested in Philadelphia. Evelyn West was arrested half a dozen times in St. Louis. Tempest Storm was arrested in New Orleans.
Still, in the early 60s when I started going to Detroit’s burlesque theaters, there were dedicated burlesque theaters in just about every decent-sized city in the country—except New York where it had been prohibited by law.
The Detroit burlesque houses had regular theater seating, with a central runway that extended a few rows into the audience from the front of the stage. There was no tipping the dancers and there was no physical contact between dancers and audience members. There was no lap dancing, no table dancing, and no private shows.
Most shows had only five or six dancers per night, each of whom would take the stage in rotation. They all looked good. Clothing was removed slowly with a lot of teasing. The dancers got completely nude. There were no poles on the stages. No one had ever heard of pole dancing. The climactic moment of every dancer’s routine was when she finally spread her legs.
Every show had a headliner, the featured dancer who went on last. I may have seen some of the legends perform—as quite a few of them were still dancing in the 60s—but I paid scant attention to the headliners’ names. The names I remembered were the names of the dancers I liked the most, which were rarely the featured performers.
Every show also had baggy-pants comics that worked the crowd between dancers. Sometimes the comics would do a quick joke and sometimes a more elaborate skit, often with one or more of the dancers playing comic roles.
All of the humor was risqué—dirty jokes, double entendres, naughty sight gags. I liked the comics. Once or twice a night they’d hawk cheap gizmos to the crowd to pick up a few extra bucks–little plastic spyglasses with a picture of a topless girl inside for 25¢, or those little eight-page dirty comics. From what I’ve read and seen in vintage videos, most of this stuff is similar to burlesque in the 30s and 40s, except that it was taking place in shabbier venues.
But some things had changed since the old days of burlesque. There were no more live musicians, not even a drummer doing rim-shots, just recorded music–top 40, mostly rock ’n’ roll, though some of the feature performers still danced to schmaltzier old pop tunes.
An Appreciative Audience of High School Boys
What amazes me now, thinking about it, was how much of the audience was underage. I was 15 years old and a sophomore in high school the first time I went to a burlesque show and I went regularly with friends my age or by myself all through my high school years. I didn’t look older than my age. The minimum age posted at the box office out front was 18, but the theaters never checked IDs.
The dancers couldn’t have asked for a more appreciative audience than a theater full of high school boys. On weekend nights, the shows always had a good crowd. A fair number of adult men were in the audience to be sure—in fact, as it got later into the evening, it was mostly adult men. We were supposed to be at a school dance or wherever we told our parents we were going, and most of us had to be home by midnight. The shows went on till 6 am.
I went back week after week, as did many of my friends. I never wanted to leave the theater. It didn’t matter if I’d already seen the line-up twice. If those women were coming back out to spread their legs again, I wanted to be there.
We rated the dancers loosely according to how “fine” they were and how “dirty” they were. “Fine” was subjective and we often argued about which dancer was finest. “Dirty” meant pretty much what you’d expect. With us, dirty rated a lot higher than fine. In fact, the dancers all had great bodies and we all but worshiped every one of them. But there were always one or two dancers who were so hot they would rattle your bones.
Word passed down from the seniors and juniors to the sophomores and freshmen about the burlesque theaters downtown on Woodward Ave. The way I heard it was: Just walk up and give the cashier a buck-fifty, say nothing, get your ticket and walk in. Most of the dancers take it all off. If they’re not losing their g-strings, that means there’s a cop in there. Don’t act too rowdy or he might ask you for ID. If you ever see a naked dancer run off the stage suddenly, that means the red light is flashing on the back wall and the cops are heading in. Just act normal.
I saw a dancer run off once in the middle of her floor work, and I mean she ran without even picking up the clothes she’d dropped on the stage. And as she exited stage left, another dancer entered stage right, a dancer who was not naked, but in her gloves and gown. I didn’t get what was happening till the guy I was with nudged me and said, “It’s the red light.” “What?” “It’s flashing.” I turned my head and sure enough a bare red bulb over the exit door was flashing. Just then, a uniformed Detroit cop walked in.
The Beginning of Dirty Dancing
Though just about all of the dancers got naked, only some of them got dirty. A few of the headliners never took their g-strings off, but many did. Headliners usually had more elaborate costumes than the other dancers and the music they danced to was more old-fashioned. Mostly they wore gowns and gloves, sometimes stockings and garters, occasionally they had feather boas or ostrich feather fans, or some kind of belly dancing outfit with veils—but mostly they started out in floor-length slinky satin gowns with a slit to the upper thigh and long matching satin gloves. Occasionally, we’d even see one of them with sparkling pasties, twirling the tassels.
The headliners were often older than the other dancers, but they weren’t old. They were mostly in their mid-to-late-20s, some older than that, and many were stunningly beautiful.
And even though they never got as dirty, they always did a good show and you could tell they enjoyed their last minutes on the stage in naught but their g-strings and heels, with all of us screaming, yelling, howling, Take it off! Take it off!
They’d put a hand up to one ear as if to say I can’t hear you. And we’d scream and stomp the floor and rattle our seats. You could tell they were just eating up the bedlam they’d caused when they turned and faced the back curtain as they slowly dropped that g-string. Turn around! Turn around! More! More!
A few of the young dancers were clean dancers, like the headliners, mimicking their struts and poses and moves. They got naked but even when they did their floor work, they didn’t hold their sexiest poses for any length of time, just kept moving, not letting you focus on anything too much.
All the dancers did three-song sets. The clean dancers would take their tops off at the end of the first song. For the second song, they’d dance topless, but they wouldn’t remove their g-strings until the third song, often right at the end. The clean dancers, like the headliners, were never our favorites. Despite being beautiful, they were out of touch with the world we lived in. The dirty dancers seemed to be part of our generation.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the style of burlesque dancing was transforming from the old strut-and-pose striptease to a newer style that fit better with rock ’n’ roll. The younger dancers all danced to the current rock hits, and 1964-66 was the height of the “British invasion”—the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Kinks, the Zombies, the Who, the Troggs. None of this was gowns and gloves music.
The dirty dancers generally started out in skimpier outfits. They honed right in on the guys sitting on the runway. They would get topless pretty quickly in the first song and they’d spend a lot of time teasing the front row by playing with their breasts, squeezing them, sometimes licking them, or using saliva on a finger to wet the nipples, then pinching them to make them hard.
The dirty dancers drove us nuts. They got their g-strings off in the second song and some would dance naked for much of that song. For the third song, they’d do their floor show, which was when they got really dirty. This was what we were waiting for.
They’d get right down on the edge of the stage and spread their legs, moving to each guy in the front row in turn, looking each one right in the eyes, sometimes touching themselves, sometimes inserting fingers, sometimes getting onto all fours, legs spread, face-down, ass-up. We could hardly believe what our eyes were seeing. An actual human female vagina. Wide open. And they’d look you right in the eyes.
It sometimes seemed like the noise in the audience would bring the walls of the house down. Boys got out of their seats and stood in the aisles squealing or howling like wolves. On more than one occasion, I saw a house manager or usher stop the show to scold hormone-frenzied teenagers like a teacher telling a rowdy fifth-grade classroom to settle down. “Boys get back in your seats! Get back in your seats or the show’s over!”
The dancers would often start laughing at the antics of the crowd, and they’d strut the stage naked and proud and point at different guys in the audience and make the naughty-naughty sign with their fingers. They owned the place.
Occasionally you’d see a dancer go over the edge on dirty. I remember a dancer named Dolly I saw in ’65 or ’66. She would solicit phallic objects—cigarettes, pens, combs, hair brushes, other things—from guys in the front row, insert the objects into her vagina, then pass them back to the guys. Almost 50 years later I still remember she did this act to “Hang on Sloopy” by the McCoys.
I once told a female friend about Dolly’s act and her response was, “That’s not dancing.” I didn’t know how to explain to her that it was in fact dancing and it was one of the most incredible dances I’d ever seen. But because burlesque had been pushed into grungy theaters where it was invisible to the general public and ignored by the mainstream media, none of the best strippers of that era ever became well-known.
In the late 60s and 70s—when porn films replaced burlesque—the forerunners of today’s “gentlemen’s clubs” were born. They were upscale, more comfortable venues with high-end sound and lighting, sometimes with full bars. And as the music got angrier in the 70s and 80s, with heavy metal and punk screeching onto the scene, burlesque got wilder still.
Art forms change with the times. If Gypsy Rose Lee were performing today, she’d be one helluva lap dancer.
To read more about burlesque and strip club history, see The Birth of Lap Dancing about the very first lap dances ever; it all began at the Mitchell Brothers’ O’Farrell Theater in San Francisco in the early 1970s, and I was there to see it.