The American Burlesque Troupe
Established on October 31, 1931, in Los Angeles, The American Burlesque Troupe is one of America's longest performing, and, technically, since their return to the stage, one of the newest, traditional or black tie burlesque troupes, in America. This is a brief history.
In 1931, a small traveling show company, made up of a few traveling vaudeville and burlesque acts, was sold to a German immigrant, at a train station, in Florida. The troupe had been "stuck" at the train station with no money and their luggage and equipment being held by the station for non-payment. The, then owner, while eating at a diner, next to the train station, happened to meet the German immigrant who had come down Florida, hoping to open up a small motel business. A deal was struck and the German, who had just become an American citizen in 1926, and was very proud of that fact, renamed the company, The American Burlesque Troupe.
Trouble in Florida. The American Burlesque Troupe faced a major problem, in Florida, because some of the members of the troupe's band were black. Mixing the races, in Florida, at the time, was not only frowned upon, but was legally discouraged. The German found that getting his company booked into shows ha become extremely dangerous and hard to do. So he made a decision, he would take the troupe to California. He did not care what a person looked liked or believed in or where they came from, he only believed in putting on the best show he could. That is where the company's unofficial motto, "Got Talent, get on my Stage! Don't Got it, Get Off it."
1930s. Throughout the 1930's and 40's, because of "The Depression", many theaters were closing, so "The American Burlesque Troupe", trying to protect its interest, acted, not only as a traveling burlesque troupe, but also, through the purchase of several small theaters that were "just selling out, to get out", as theater owner. It operated several burlesque theaters up and down the West Coast from California through Washington.
1940s. On December 7, 1941, war came to the United States. American industry lost many men, who had joined the Armed forces. Entertaining the troops was considered more than just a vocation but a the patriotic duty. So, throughout the war, The American Burlesque Troupe, provided shows for servicemen, at home, both in their theaters and in the "Tent Shows" on "the Base" and joining with other performers, most notably, big Hollywood names, performed overseas. After the war, the Troupe started to pick up where it had left off but time and tastes started changing the industry. Vaudeville wasn't in vogue, most burlesque companies, added more and more girls and less of any other kind of acts. The large "Black Tie Burlesque Troupes" were becoming somewhat dated and this thing called television was just around the corner, and once an act was seen on TV, they were done on stage.
In 1949, the German immigrant died and his son had taken over the company. Although, not easily intimidated and at the point of a gun, The American Burlesque Troupe's theater ownership and operations, ceased, sometime between 1948 and 1951, when all theater ownership fell into the hands of one, Mr. Mickey Cohen and his associates, in Los Angeles, California.
On the Road again. However, the loss of theaters did not eliminate "The American Burlesque Troupe", for it remained intact, as a traveling burlesque troupe, not only performing in new theaters, including in a new entertainment venue, the formerly sleepy stopover town of Las Vegas, but also in many of the theaters that the company had previously owned.
The Hard Years, 1960-2006. From about 1960, television became a popular magnet for variety acts to perfom on, with biggest being the Ed Sullivan Show. Live performances drew less and less audiences. Strip Teasers, tired of making "just a little money and traveling" started playing local houses that offered less show performance and demanded more show of skin or they hooked up with shows in Las Vegas or Reno. By 1968, the era of social revolutions, changed the mindset of many, with free love, drugs, and Rock and Roll, being the major public interest, almost all the black tie burlesque troupes folded. By 1978, when the grandson of the original owner, officially took over the company, only "The American Burlesque Troupe" remained, but it was reduced to taking shows at dives and for a lot less money. Acts were cut, travel costs rose, and a lot of places, that the troupe had performed at, closed their doors. With a small revival of burlesque in the 1990s, the company managed to hang in there, until October 31, 2006. On October 31, 2006, the company performed its 75th Anniversary show and went dark after that. The company was only revived to do an occassional charity show in 2008. Then, on June 21, 2012, after a reorganization, the company, now consisting of a larger unit, "The American Burlesque Troupe" and a few smaller units, known as "Amburkesk", after several requests, returned to the stage.
Black Tie Burlesque format.
Keeping with tradition, the troupe consistently performed, using a viable cadre of various variety acts, which included Tit-singers (the official name of a crooner in Burlesque), comics, jugglers, impersonators (both female and celebrity), ventriloquists, sword swallowers, magicians, dancers, trick ropers, knife throwers, "The Bad Act" (an act deliberately selected because it was the worst local act the company could find), and, of course, strip teasers.
Historically nostalgic and unlike most burlesque troupes, that survived from the 1950s, which might have just a singer and a comic, to move the show along in between the strip teasers costume changes, the American Burlesque Troupe's shows were more of a multiple act, follie's revue, combining a bit of circus, vaudeville, and burlesque in 90 minute shows. The shows were influenced by three forces of nature, Ziegfeld, The Minskys, and Busby Berkeley. Dance and music were integral in the show's design and because of the "classy nature", the style was dubbed, "Black Tie Burlesque."
The usually 90 minute show was a "Complete package", which meant, in reality, that the actual performances, on stage, totaled just 70 minutes, while there was a twenty minute intermission dividing the show into two sections, known as Act I and Act II. This sometimes would confuse new stagehands and new acts, looking at the "Acts" chart, backstage, for the show, because the booked acts appearing in the show were listed as, the First Act, Second Act, etc., and thus the need and the development of the "Act Cards", that not only appeared backstage for the acts to read, but often, using a sexy card girl, on stage, when an act was introduced.
Other notes of the Troupe.
It was during the intermission, when the house "cleaned up", by selling various items, such as candy, popcorn, Cracker Jack, 8 x 10" glossy, black and white picture's of the headliners, that the fans would attempt to use to obtain autographs, from their favorite Burly-Q Stars of that evening's show, and sometimes, more often than not, roses, which the house bought for about five bucks, for the end of the day stock, of one hundred long stemmed, red roses, then would turn around and sell them to the patrons, often called "Backstage Johnnies" for a dollar each.
Of the items sold, the house had two favorites, that they would deliberately would tout the sale of, the long stemmed roses and the candy coated popcorn and peanut snack, known as Cracker Jack. Both items, being sold to "dreamers." The first item, the roses, as previously mentioned were sold to the "Backstage Johnnies", who would try to send the flowers, usually by a bribe paid to the house manager, backstage, in hopes of impressing their favorite stripteaser, and dreaming of a backstage invitation, an extremely rare event. The second item, the Cracker Jack in a box, were sold to the "Suckers", seeking the one in a million valuable prize, such as a diamond ring or some other valuable trinket, that was supposed to be in the "lucky" box...
...To the performers of the troupe, the sale of Cracker Jack, was of importance. The reason? The sale of Cracker Jack was the only item, that the house allowed, as a monetary incentive, for the better performing acts, usually the top eight acts billed. The money would be split between the top acts and the house, but some houses would not "pay-off" the acts. This would later start a small war between some the theater owners and the "Burlesquers", sometimes written as "Burleskers",The house originally called this incentive, "The Act's Tips", then later, it was shortened to just "Tips."
In reality, the house made a lot of money from the sales, while the acts, (making a penny a box), did not receive a tremendous amount in financial gain from the "Tips", but it did create an illusion, that the acts had some control and say in the show. So while the house "made its nut", the penny a box "Tips", could just about "buy a cup of Joe, in the mo(rning)."
With the acts believing they were benefiting from each box sold, most troupes, including members of the American Burlesque Troupe, worked in comedy bits into the show that supported the sale of the candy-coated popcorn and peanut snack. But, in the late thirties, while the country was still in a depression, the American Burlesque Troupe, after being "stiffed" by several houses, took a different approach to the sale of Cracker Jack, by purchasing similar products, from local vendors, then labeling and selling their own "Green Garter" brand of Carmel corn, while locking out the house totally. The Green Garter, which incidentally, also, become the name of the first American Burlesque Award, followed, in the late 1950s, by the "Jenny Lind", The Gypsy Rose, The Sally Rand, and the "Little Egypt Awards", was sold during performances, by scantily clad, candy girls, wearing Green and Gold sailor outfits, while their leader, "Sailor Jane" tap danced, to "Stars and Stripes" and three "Bullls" block the door, three acts before the intermission, on stage. The company would then take half, which all the acts shared and, with the rest, donate or use the profits, from the sales, to help worthy causes.
This was considered an act of treason against the theater owners, who meant to make "their nut", (no pun intended), no matter what, on the sale of "Cracker Jack." Some shows were canceled, some were raided, so the company would have to put up "bail", with the theater owners, which would serve as a punishment for acting so foolish. The Troupe continued to use the Green Garter with "a deal in place", with a few of themore agreeable theaters owners, quit perfoming in the bad theaters, and later, once they had started to acquire a few of the theaters, that had gone "belly up", sold at their own establishments.
The troupe had a very difficult time keeping acts, from going to war, in the early forties. Some of the troupe members joined up, some were drafted, some of the acts would hook up with shows going to entertain the troops overseas, some of the acts just quit, leaving just a small group of dedicated performers and the troupe's boss to fill the card, with "dailies", meaning local acts that could be hired for a day or two, to put shows on. Right after the war from 1945 through 1947, there was a short and euphoric boom in entertainment, acts were looking for work, people were looking to be entertained, burlesque theaters started to make money. This boom did not go unnoticed by other opportunists. It attracted certain people, with guns that took the theaters, strong armed acts, an robbed the house with "Insurance" payments, at the threat of the owners lives and the lives of their families. The American Burlesque Troupe fell prey to this, as a theater owner, but as a performing troupe, they were largely left alone and to their own devices by the underworld.
With sociological and economic changes occurring in the late 1950's and 1960's, that caused theater, after burlesque theater, either to close or to become "live, nude, Girls" strip clubs, and the troupe, faced with mounting expenses, while still trying to provide its fans with the multiple stage acts it was known for, the show took on the road, literally. The theaters quit booking most of the troupe's performances,other than stripteasers, which they now wanted to "Go all the way." So to keep the company, somewhat intact and present the show, although abbreviated, in a manner that showed the signature of the Troupe, the American Burlesque Troupe began a new avenue for their performances, the Girlie show at the Fairs. By the late sixties, even that was a major challenge, when it came to booking the company. With people doing free shows in many places, the need, by fair owners to pay for shows, was hard to justify. The Troupe was only able to book, the "Mud Shows" for a ticket split with the owners, at various State and County fairs throughout the western United States, and many of these shows were highly censored by the "respectable" people that ran the fairs.
By the seventies and the eighties, with the "Girlie shows" starting to wane. The troupe held on, by only the merest of luck, having cut the acts from 51 to, usually, five, although, on the rare occasion, if it could afford it, a card could be filled with up to fifteen acts. The troupe moved back inside, playing in the out of the way lounge shows, in truck-stop casinos, in such rural areas, as Jackpot and Ely, Nevada, as well as, the occasional novelty show in San Francisco.
The company enjoyed a small, but steady upsurge of shows, in the 1990's through 2006, when it closed down, as a traveling burlesque troupe, after 75 years in the business. The owner wanted to let it go out with "some" dignity. But burlesque, carries her head high. She is classy, when she wants to be, but she can be trashy if that is what she needs to be to get noticed. So requests, from documentary filmmakers and other started asking for her return. Finally in April 2008, to raise money for a charity event, the owner kissed the sleeping princess called burlesque and she came back to life.
It had been awakened for a reunion show or the "Occasional Charity Gig", raising money for various causes, such as the Chldren's Hospital or the prevention of Domestic Violence causes, from 2006 through 2008, but in 2008, once again, it became a live burlesque theater company, but this time, it was part of a family of production companies, albeit, the only live performance company, of the group, under the banner of its parent company, The American Burlesque Troupe Productions Company, L.L.C., which operated, and still does, operate several small and micro-sized film and television production companies.
The company was granted an autonomous status with in its new family. The new, smaller company, The American Burlesque Troupe and its smaller units, Amburlesk, started doing their brand of nostalgic burlesque shows, on a "one night only" basis, and filled the various venues, to Standing Room Only capacity, wherever they performed.
Today, although, they have no permanent acts, as they carried in the past, they do rotate various regular and very popular acts, in their line up, wherever they perform.
Their shows are energetic, but they are nostalgic, and their acts deliberately reflect that fact. The comics tell familiar jokes and bits, the strip teasers, while superb dancers and their acts are very creative, only strip down to pasties and gadgets (G-Strings), and the songs are reflective of another time, when Frank Sinatra and the Guys hung out,. The company has a regular and growing fan base, that follows and loves them. Very little advertising is done, as word of mouth and social media, seem to inform fans to where the next SRO event for the American Burlesque Troupe will occur.
On-line Ticket sales for their events, usually sell out very quickly. Door tickets are sometimes sold on the night of the events, but only if they have any open seating, a very rare event in itself.
Their return to stage show was the CAP Theater in Sherman Oaks, California, on Thursday night, June 21, 2012. Twelve acts appeared. Tickets were $35.00. For more information, they have an official website, www.amburleskfilms.com
Notable Burleskers that have graced their stage, Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Nora Nowland (Cyd Charise), Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Red Skelton, Red Butons, Red Foxx, Joe E Lewis, Mel Torme, Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, Lily St. Cry, Ann Corio, Abbott and Costello, The Ritz Brothers, the original Three stooges, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Moms Mabely, Pearl Bailey, Minnie Pearl, the Marx Brothers, and many others.
Til next time, from Hollywood with love, this is Hollywood live in revue.