Sunday, October 15, 2006

First Exposure To Burlesque

Around 1909, Henry Miller--then 17 years old--attended his first burlesque performance, in which he saw women in states of undress in public for the first time. From that moment on, he was infatuated with burlesque. Miller wrote briefly of this in "The Theatre," a chapter from his Books In My Life (1969).

"I was still going to High School when an older boy (from the old Fourteenth Ward) asked me one day if I would not like to go with him to The Empire, a new burlesque theatre in our neighborhood. Fortunately I was already wearing long pants, though I doubt if my beard had yet begun to sprout. That first burlesque show I shall never forget (Krausemeyer's Alley with Sliding Billy Watson). From the moment the curtain rose I was trembling with excitement. Until then I had never seen a woman undressed in public."
["The Theatre," p. 3; from The Books In My Life, p. 289]

Miller's earliest exposure to the sight of scantily-clad women ("women in tights") was from the collectable cards found in packs of Sweet Caporal cigarettes [examples below]: "featuring one of the famous soubrettes of the day."

Miller next became aware of sexual entertainment on the advertizing found outside of a Grand Street theatre called The Unique. "[T]hose lurid billboards that flanked the entrance to the theatre, showing ravishing female figures of luxurious heft displaying all their billowy, sinuous curves." ...... "[T]hat long Saturday night cue outside, pushing and milling around to squeeze through the door and catch a glimpse of that naughty little soubrette, Mlle. de Leon (we called her Millie de Leon), the girl who flung her garters to the sailors at each performance." [Books, p.290]

In fact, most people called her Millie. Millie de Leon (a.k.a. Millie Zonga) helped step up the raunchiness of burlesque dancing at the turn of the century (besides throwing garters, she also neglected to wear underwear [ref.]). She made use of gimmicks for her act: acting French, wearing blue, and later, in 1909, taking on an Orientalist aesthetic [ref.]. She was still active as of 1915 [ref.] You can read her story (for a fee) in the Journal of American Culture.

The Unique Theatre was located at 194 (198?) Grand Street in Brooklyn, several blocks north of Miller's childhood home on Decatur Street, but only a "stone's throw" away from the home of his friend Rob Ramsay, on whose front steps he used to pass the time during summer evenings. Miller wrote about The Unique in his novel Black Spring; only he refers to it in the way that many of the locals did, as "The Bum":

"All around The Bum were the saloons, and Saturday nights there was a long line outside, milling and pushing and squirming to get at the ticket window. Saturday nights, when the Girl In Blue was in her glory, some wild tar from the Navy Yard would be sure to jump out of his seat and grab off one of Millie de Leon's garters." [Black Spring, p.7]

In Book Of Friends, Miller again reminisces about The Bum, "a name invented because of its evil reputation." Much of the same details are listed (billboards, line-up), but he adds that he and his friends would also try to pick up on the dirty jokes that some of the sailors would tell one another in line. He then lists questions that young Henry used to contemplate during these stake-outs: "[W]hat went on in there when the lights went up? Did the girls really strip to the waist as they said? Did they throw their garters to the sailors in the audience? Did the sailors take the girls to the nearby saloon after the performance and get them drunk? Did they go to bed with them in the rooms above the salloon from which there always came great sounds of merriment?"
[Book Of Friends (I), p. 14-15]

In Books In My Life, Miller doesn't explicitly state his age at the time of seeing his first burlesque at The Empire (nor the date of the performance), other than to mention being in High School. However, he provides some sort of timeline: when he was "about sixteen" he saw A Gentleman From Mississippi; according to the IBDB, this show ran at The Bijou theatre from September 1908 to September 1909. "That same year," states Miller, he saw Alt Heidelberg at the German-language Irving Place Theatre in New York. The New York Times reports that this show was active (at least partly) in December 1908. His moment of burlesque occured "soon" after these two shows: it would have to be 1909, during his final term at Eastern District High School.

The show that the older boy from the 14th ward took Henry to see was called Krausemeyer's Alley, playing at The Empire burlesque theatre in Brooklyn. The prestigious Empire had opened about 15 years earlier, in 1893 [ref.; interior of the theatre, below left]. The play, Krasuemeyer's Alley, was written and performed by Billy Watson. According to Watson's obituary in the NY Times (1945), the plot went something like this:

Philip Krausemeyer (Watson), German clarinetist, is in constant battle with his Irish sausage-making alleyway neighbour (Watson's partner Billy Spencer), until their children end up marrying and forcing the two divided houses together.

Miller mentions the fact that "Sliding" Billy Watson was in the cast. The obituary points out that there are actually two Billy Watsons: the "Original" one [real name: Isaac Levie, seen below] who had great success in theatre (and also produced an infamous "Beef Trust" show, in which every chorus girl in striped tights was over 180 pounds); and the comedic "Sliding" Billy Watson [real name: William Shapiro], who was a completely different person (who earned his nickname by a famous gag which involved sliding on a banana peel): he actually appropriated (the Original) Watson's name for "a while in the burlesque circuit." [NY Times obit].

I can't be sure that Miller knew which Billy Watson he actually saw that night. And I can only assume that the scantily-clad women whom young Miller witnessed were members of the chorus line (there were musical numbers in the show). It made quite an impact on him:

"[T]o see one of these creatures in life on the stage, in the full glare of a spotlight, [...] that I had never dreamed of." .... "[From] that momentous day when I first visited The Empire I became a devotee of burlesque. Before long I knew them all--Miner's on the Bowery, The Columbia, The Olympic, Hyde & Beeman's, The Dewey, The Star, The Gayety, The National Winter Garden--all of them. Whenever I was bored, despondent, or pretending to search for work, I headed either for the burlesque or the vaudeville house. Thank God, there were such glorious institutions in those days! Had there not been, I might have committed suicide long ago."
[Book in My Life, pgs. 289-290]

To read further on the subject of Henry Miller and burlesque, see Burlesque Dreams by William Solomon, as well as my posting about Miller and Gypsy Rose Lee.


Anonymous william burns said...

sliding billy watson aka william shapiro wasfrom phila died about 1940 supposedly got wc fieds a job in fortescue nj

e mail

6:59 am  
Blogger VideoGems said...

I am the great grandson of Sliding Billy Watson. If you have any questions, I can try to answer them

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Blogger VideoGems said...

Miller probably saw Billy 'Beeftrust' Watson and not Sliding Billy. Krausmeyers Alley was a BeefTrust creation. The confusion between the 2 Watsons is amazing. Beeftrust Billy Watsons daughter passed away in 2009 and even she referred to her father as Sliding Billy Watson.

2:03 pm  
Anonymous Fred Aun said...

Billy Watson, the Beef Trust creator, was my grandfather. His daughter, Isabel, my mom, is now (2012) 94 years old. She still remembers her dad, the theaters, the performers and the excitement of it all.

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