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.

21 Comments:

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 williamburns3312@comcast.net

6:59 am  
Blogger VideoGems said...

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

12:29 pm  
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.

10:08 am  
Blogger chenlina said...

chenlina20151120
michael kors outlet
jordan retro
coach outlet
ugg sale
michaek kors outlet online
michael kors outlet online
canada goose
michael kors outlet
oakley outlet
kevin durant basketball shoes
the north face outlet
michaek kors outlet
uggs on sale
abercrombie
canada goose jackets
ray ban sunglasses
jordan 11s
mont blanc legend
cheap ray ban sunglasses
uggs sale
ugg boots
coach outlet
michael kors outlet
swarovski outlet
timberland outlet
timberland outlet
air jordans
michaek kors handbags
louis vuitton handbags
coach outlet store online
canada goose outlet
louis vuitton outlet
louis vuitton outlet
jordan retro
burberry outlet
oakley sunglasses
canada goose jackets
jordans for sale
mont blanc pens
louis vuitton handbags

3:11 am  
Blogger Minko Chen said...

cheap ray ban sunglasses
michael kors uk
nfl jerseys
ralph lauren uk
nike trainers
ugg outlet store
fitflops clearance
moncler jackets
fitflops outlet sale
ferragamo shoes
hollister clothing store
nike outlet
louis vuitton outlet online
louis vuitton handbags outlet
valentino outlet
jordan shoes 2015
fitflop sale
the north face outlet
tory burch outlet online
oakley sunglasses uk

10:04 pm  
Blogger Cran Kate said...

North Face Jackets Prada Outlet Burberry Outlet Hollister Clothing Ferragamo Shoes Tiffany Jewelry Tiffany Outlet NFL Jerseys Cheap Jordans Oakley Outlet North Face Outlet Burberry Outlet North Face Outlet Skechers Shoes
Chan Luu Sale Toms Outlet Oakley Sunglasses Toms Shoes Sale Beats By Dr Dre Coach Outlet Christian Louboutin Shoes Oakley Sunglasses Valentino Shoes Burberry Outlet
Oakley Eyeglasses Michael Kors Outlet Coach Factory Outlet Coach Outlet Online Coach Purses Kate Spade Outlet Toms Shoes North Face Outlet Coach Outlet Gucci Belt North Face Jackets Oakley Sunglasses Toms OutletLouis Vuitton Outlet North Face Outlet

12:56 am  
Blogger Eric Yao said...

Burberry Belt Tory Burch Boots Louis Vuitton Belt Ferragamo Belt Marc Jacobs Handbags Lululemon Outlet Christian Louboutin Shoes True Religion Outlet Tommy Hilfiger Outlet
Michael Kors Outlet Coach Outlet Red Bottoms Kevin Durant Shoes New Balance Outlet Adidas Outlet Coach Outlet Online Stephen Curry Jersey Vans Outlet Ralph Lauren Outlet
Ugg Boots Sale UGGS For Women Skechers Go Walk Adidas Yeezy Boost Adidas Yeezy Adidas NMD Coach Outlet North Face Outlet Ralph Lauren Outlet Puma Outlet Polo Outlet
Under Armour Outlet Under Armour Hoodies Herve Leger MCM Belt Nike Air Max Louboutin Heels Jordan Retro 11 Converse Outlet Nike Roshe Run UGGS Outlet North Face Outlet

8:15 pm  
Blogger Chen Zhiqin said...

nike free running
miami heat
titans jersey
browns jerseys
air jordan 11
nike roshe run shoes
los angeles lakers jersey
texans jerseys
ed hardy clothing
tods shoes sale
falcons jersey
arizona cardinals jersey
cincinnati bengals jerseys
bears jerseys
nike free run
air max 90
colts jerseys
nike soccer shoes
nike foamposite
oklahoma city thunder jerseys
washington redskins jerseys
air max 90
raiders jerseys
giuseppe zanotti shoes
mizuno shoes
nike outlet store
puma outlet
mizuno running shoes
chicago bulls
arizona cardinals jerseys
ferragamo outlet
miami heat jersey
tods outlet
kansas city chiefs jersey
san francisco 49ers jersey
czq20160704

5:07 am  
Blogger Unknown said...

jianbin0902
ugg uk outlet
oakley sunglasses
oakley sunglasses
cheap mlb jerseys
rolex watches
tiffany jewelry
coach outlet clearance
true religion jeans
nike free 5.0
michael kors canada
hermes outlet
longchamp solde
michael kors outlet online
louis vuitton handbags
cartier outlet store
lululemon uk
converse shoes sale
ugg australia
cheap uggs
kobe shoes
prada shoes
ralph lauren outlet
ugg boots
michael kors outlet clearance
ralph lauren polo shirts
tory burch outlet online
tory burch outlet
fitflops sale clearance
mcm outlet
lululemon outlet
canada goose uk
michael kors outlet
ugg sale

4:24 am  
Blogger Gege Dai said...

moncler outlet
cheap nike shoes
jordan pas cher
louis vuitton outlet stores
coach outlet online
ed hardy clothing
gucci outlet
hollister uk
longchamp pliage
basketball shoes
20161122lck

2:16 am  
Blogger Hua Cai said...

fitflops
swarovski jewelry
coach outlet online
cleveland cavaliers jersey
timberland boots
hollister canada
ray ban sunglasses
giuseppe zanotti shoes
cheap ray bans
ray bans
20170223caihuali

12:26 am  
Blogger Meiqing Xu said...

nike blazer low
pandora charms sale
coach factory outlet
jordan pas cher
tory burch outlet store
louboutin chaussures
fake rolex
gucci purses
ugg boots
true religion outlet
20170224caiyan

12:13 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

jimmy choo shoes
michael kors outlet
canada goose
michael kors handbags wholesale
michael kors outlet online
texans jerseys
adidas nmd runner
broncos jerseys
armani exchange outlet
jaguars jersey

8:52 pm  
Blogger Unknown said...

ferragamo shoes
minnesota vikings jerseys
hermes belts
fitflops shoes
reebok outlet
san antonio spurs
longchamps
michael kors outlet
nike roshe run
chiefs jersey
20170322

10:19 pm  
Blogger Joyce James said...

Great article, this is such an interesting and informative article as well. for few of people like me this article is really helpful. Please Visit:

olivia burton watches sale
links of london earrings
swarovski jewelry sets

7:02 am  
Blogger happy 123 said...

led shoes
tory burch shoes
fitflops clearance
lacoste online shop
led shoes for kids
hogan outlet
yeezy boost 350
harden shoes
adidas online shop
pandora charms
20170606

1:02 am  
Blogger happy 123 said...

longchamp
adidas nmd
yeezy boost 350
michael kors outlet
adidas nmd runner
michael kors outlet
air force 1
cheap basketball shoes
cheap jordans
adidas stan smith sneakers
20170607

1:07 am  
Blogger raybanoutlet001 said...

christian louboutin shoes
jimmy choo shoes
nike air huarache
michael kors handbags
new orleans saints jerseys
pandora outlet
nike huarache
mbt shoes outlet
air jordan uk
coach outlet online

8:44 pm  
Blogger raybanoutlet001 said...

rolex replica watches
nike air max 90
cheap nfl jerseys
ugg boots
ray ban sunglasses
ugg boots
fitflops sale
reebok shoes
cheap jordan shoes
oakley sunglasses

9:50 pm  
Blogger happy 123 said...

nike dunks shoes
ferragamo belt
nike air force
michael kors factory outlet
new england patriots jersey
michael kors handbags
lebron james shoes
curry 3 shoes
kobe 11
nike polo shirts
20170721

9:37 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home