It was bound to happen eventually. My last bout with the flu was in 1995 despite repeated close contact with sufferers every year since. I was beginning to think I was immune. Some anonymous donor this past week disabused me of that notion. I am not alone. The CDC notes a widespread uptick in flu infections (http://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/) as spring approaches.
Studies of the flu virus indicate that (in endless variants) it has been in human populations for at least 6000 years, but the first pandemic identified as influenza was in 1580 in Europe and the Middle East. The first identified pandemic in North America was in 1731 when it spread outward from Boston, though almost certainly the presence of the virus predates this event. 1918 was notoriously the deadliest global outbreak for reasons that are still debated. But in mild form or severe, the bug is a constant and it finally bit me.
Accordingly, out of kindness toward whomever would have been sitting in the seats around me, I regretfully cancelled on last night’s final performance of Snow White at the Minetta Lane Theater in Greenwich Village for which a friend had acquired the tickets. It was not a family-friendly version of Snow White, but rather one that might have been imagined by the Marquis de Sade. It had seemed worth a look.
The idea of adult fairy tales is far from a new one. In many ways it’s a natural: a lot of fairy tales have highly sexual subtexts, as even Disney’s version of Little Red Riding Hood in Into to Woods failed to miss. More than a few playwrights and screenwriters have tried a hand at making the subtext…well…text. The degree of success with explicit productions has varied. I can’t say first-hand whether Snow White was performed with style, though the facebook photos and comments my friend posted after the show indicate it was. When a show such as this fails, it usually does either because the writers treat the story as unimportant or because they ultimately have a bad conscience – especially about appealing to male lechery, which is politically unsound in some quarters. This can be self-defeating.
One sees similar reticence crop up occasionally in the revival of modern burlesque. Beyond the stultifying effect such concerns can have on a show, San Francisco-based burlesque instructor Bombshell Betty warns it also can lead to unseemly bias: “I also think it’s funny how quickly many burlesque performers denounce our pole dancing sisters, calling burlesque ‘the good stripping’ and similarly distancing themselves by calling stripclub dancers ‘strippers’ and themselves ‘burlesque dancers’ or ‘burlesque artists,’ when to my way of thinking, the current strip clubs are a lot closer to the original environment and performance intention of the ‘original’ burlesque than the neo-burlesque shows of today.”
The “original” burlesque, at least in an American context, took shape in the 1920s, coinciding with the decline of vaudeville. Formerly family-friendly by design, vaudeville houses in the decade 1915-25 lost most of their audience to the movies, which offered grander spectacles and bigger stars at a cheaper price. Many (Minsky’s, most famously) responded by adding strippers, previously a feature primarily of traveling carnival shows; the term “pole dancer,” already in use, referred originally to tent poles. The conversion of vaudeville to burlesque at least preserved the adult male audience for the old vaudeville theaters. The best-known strippers became major stars, traveling the country in the same way as famous musicians and singers.
If the reader would like to see what shows of the classic era were like, try a DVD titled The Best of Burlesque, which, among other features, contains a recording of an entire burlesque show from 1955 subtitled “Too Hot to Handle” with its live band, songsters, comic acts, and, of course, strippers. The burlesque houses prevailed until the 1960s when all but a handful shut their doors, almost entirely replaced by the simpler modern-style strip clubs. Most of these are little more than bars with stages, but they serve their function and their customers well enough. The arrival on the scene in the 1970s of male dancers aimed at female audiences added another dimension.
Are these clubs in turn being pushed aside by the rise of neo-burlesque and legitimate erotic theater such as Snow White? No. For most customers the theatrics of the more upscale events are a distraction. But these other venues do supplement. Will Americans ever shake our puritanical streak enough to have an entirely good conscience about any of it? Probably not, and if we did we might stop attending all of the spots altogether. Guilt makes it better.
Tonight however, like last night, it is for me a moot point. My feverish ramblings do not come from any of those places, but from influenza.
[See The Roxy Caution at my Richard’s Mirror site for an account of a youthful experience with one of these clubs in the 1970s.]
Stevie Lange – The Stripper