In the late 1800s and early 1900s, burlesque shows enthralled the American public. Sultry dancers, raucous comedy, striptease, lowbrow jokes -- burlesque shows had it all.
Burlesquers in Europe performed musical and theatrical parodies. In the United States, though, burlesque found a new definition. American burlesque shows combined satire, performance art, comedy, and striptease into a new art form. Female performers wore minimal costuming and recited sexually suggestive dialogue, while male performers offered gags and jokes. Burlesquers set up acts and routines that lampooned popular culture, focusing on experiences and situations that were common to working class Americans. Burlesque skits were likely to take place in a doctor's waiting room, in a school house, or on a street corner. Though each skit was sure to include sexual innuendo, not until the 1930s did burlesquing become synonymous with striptease--in its heyday, striptease was only a portion of the burlesque act.
Burlesque shows followed a three-act structure: the first act consisted of song and dance performed by women, the second act focused on lowbrow humor from male comedians, and the third act delivered a grand musical finale. While burlesque was seen as inferior to vaudeville by most performers, many vaudeville performers had started their careers as burlesquers. Burlesquing was considered a training ground where amateurs could prove they had what it took to have a career in show business.
As burlesque troupes traveled the nation, they advertised their arrival with posters. Take a close look. Notice their bold colors, their striking text, and their classic imagery. These posters show what it meant to live during a rowdy time in American entertainment. Though the performers and parodies are gone, the posters live on.
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