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against burlesque performances in New York City
What is obscenity? According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, obscenity is the state or quality of being obscene which means that is offensive to modesty and or decency. During the 1930s and 1940s, New York City was infected with burlesque shows. During these times this shows were considered indecent and immoral by Mayor LaGuardia, his license commissioner Paul Moss, and John Sumner. Women were used as objects of entertainment. In 1934 Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia took office. Fiorello LaGuardia was a decisive and objective man. Mayor LaGuardia saw a very problematic situation for New York City when it came to this kind of performances. The targets of LaGuardia ‘s wrath were burlesque houses, where strippers had alternated turns with stand-up comics and the other acts since at least the turn of the century (Newyorkmetro.com). Clearly, LaGuardia was focused on stopping these displays of female degradation. It is important to mention that were two kinds of entertainments displays during this time. One group was the burlesque shows, which degraded females by displaying them as sexual objects. These shows were targeted towards the low income and illiterated people. The other group was called Ziegfeld Follies, which was aimed for the high elite people. This form of entertainment was a very refine and elaborated, but also did contain degrading displays. Regardless, Fiorello LaGuardia’s campaign unfairly opposed Burlesque performances instead of the Ziegfeld Follies, since it was politically easier to take action against shows that were supported by the lower class.
What actually was Burlesque? It was a popular and inexpensive form of entertainment whose basic ingredients were girls, gags, and music (Minsky’s Burlesque,26). These shows where aimed for mostly low income and illiterate people. One of the most controversial facts that Burlesque performances confronted was when one of their actresses had an accident on stage. She had a detachable collar that as soon the audience saw her pulled off they started applauding for an encore. As Mae (the actresses) came back to bowed they clapped like crazy. For a moment Mae lost her head and decided to came back to the stage and unbuttoned her bodice as she left the stage again (Minsky’s Burlesque,34). The audience couldn’t believe what just happened that night. It is possible that the Mae’s came back fact was one of the first nudity displays at that time.
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Burlesque performances showed evidence that they were not only coarse and vulgar, but also indecent, immoral and lewd (Court Refuses Writing Burlesque Pleas,21). Indeed, the essence of these displays of vulgarity were considered a very sensitive topic during those times. Burlesque shows were vulgar and displayed women as an object of entertainment. Burlesque performances were more spontaneous acts that showed unprofessionalism. These performances also displayed a lack of variety and creativity since their costumes were very basic. Kathleen Spies describes how burlesque displayed women at the stage “On the burlesque stage, striptease acts alternated with comedy skits that often used women and their bodies as subject matter for jokes”(1). Clearly, this shows us that more women were degraded by these performances. These shows involved aggressive comedy and songs, but the primary attraction of burlesque was sex in the form of ribald humor and immodestly dressed women. In comparison to the Ziegfeld Follies these displays clearly were way too obscene for the audience. According to the video The Night They Raided Minsky women look more obligated to do this type of work. They looked uncomfortable since the people on the show treated them as an object. According to the article Burlesque Show Closed By Minskys clarifies that “Mayor LaGuardia advanced the opinion that burlesque was “definitely on the way out” and said that if was “by no means certain” any new licenses would be issued”(26). Evidently, Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia was against these displays. His idea of entertainment wasn’t the same as the Minsky brothers. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia found these acts vulgar and obscene for the society in New York City at that time. Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia wanted to clean all the sex-rated businesses around New York City so that parents and children can enjoy their visits to Times Square and the lower eastside. Who were the people against this type of entertainment? One of the Minskys brothers clarifies that Burlesque always skirted the borders of the law and had problems with the locals bluenoses(authorities), which drew the attention of the law as the increasing of nudity (Minsky’s Burlesque,26).
What actually was Ziegfeld Follies? They were shows of beauty of face, form, charm and manner, personal magnetism, individuality, grace and poise. Of course, ability to either sing or dance was every day material at the Ziegfeld Follies (Ziegfeld 101). It is not easy to become part of the Ziegfeld Follies show, since the girls had to have all these qualities and abilities to enter the enterprise. Once the girls become part of the show, they had to work as hard as ‘bees’ on the stage in addition to the normal routine when they appear smiling and happy when the curtain goes up (Ziegfeld 101). The girls had to forget all their problems and responsibilities for the moment that they were on stage; the Ziegfeld follies were mostly aimed for the high-class and literate people. The Ziegfeld Follies were more into the art of entertaining, since they were able to select their own costumes plus they were intended to pick their own choreographies. According to the article Girls and Glitter in Follies of 1911 “the show began with a scene on a steamship dock, showing a customs officer at work”(9). Clearly these types of shows were more decent and well prepared than burlesque shows, which were more professional to the audience. These acts were more elaborate in different aspects, such us costumes, vocabulary and music. These were performances that displayed more elegance on stage. These acts showed more professionalism than the burlesque shows since it wasn’t obscene, but it did showed nudity. These acts had more etiquette, which means that the forms, manners, and ceremonies established by convention as acceptable or required in society, or in official life with all their glamour, which burlesque shows didn’t portray. These performances were more into the art of entertaining the audience since it was more a show of dancing and how women would portray themselves. According to the online article in mcny.org, which emphasis that “…Out of the vulgar leg-show, Ziegfeld has fashioned a thing of grace and beauty, of loveliness and charm; he knows quality and mood”(). Evidently, people at the times see the Ziegfeld Follies as a different way in comparison to the burlesque shows. It seems that the glamour and the beauty of the performance takes away the bad presence of nudity.
Why were authorities interested in closing all the burlesque shows and not the Ziegfeld Follies? Fiorello LaGuardia had a dream “I can see the city of the future…the city of skyscrapers can have cheerful, sanitary houses, clean streets, beautiful parks, a thorough system of education, efficient hospitals, well run public markets”(Job of Mayor as LaGuardia Sees it,SM3). Apparently, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia is a strong man that deliberates with his principles. He had a dream of a better place to life for his people. Mayor LaGuardia wanted a place where there is no obscenity or any kind of degradation.
What was the real issue during Mayor LaGuardia’s campaign, which did not eliminate both performances since both contained nudity. It was not fair for the Minsky brothers to be forced to close their businesses while the Ziegfeld Follies were still open without any problem. This probably was because Mayor LaGuardia knew that it was going to be easier to eliminate them first, since this show was aimed mostly for low-income people, while Ziegfelf Follies were supported by the elite people of the city. It seems to be that it was easier to eliminate Burlesque shows than the Ziedfeld Follies from the a political perspective. Mayor LaGuardia knew that if he would’ve attacked the Ziegfeld Follies instead of the Burlesque shows, he would’ve had more problems with the elite. Also Mayor LaGuardia was part of the high class of the city so he knew that he would have had his colleagues against him and that would affect his campaign. Mayor LaGuardia should had used his power as a mayor of an important city as New York to attack both performances without any fear to loose his re-election, since he would be right to exterminate all these degrading displays. Temporarily, the Ziegfeld Follies were open without any problem. It is important to get rid of both displays, since both were affecting the cultural perspective and were not appropriate for the time. If these shows wouldn’t be eliminated they would cause social damage because these performances would corrupt the people’s perspective in how to raise their children in choosing what is good or bad. People would teach their children to accept the fact that degrading women is normal, since these places were highly visited areas where people had to pass by and were aware of their presence.
In conclusion, Fiorello LaGuardia’s campaign unfairly opposed Burlesque performances instead of the Ziegfeld Follies, since it was politically easier to take action against shows that were supported by the lower class. After the fact, women in Burlesque were able to expose themselves. The owner of the Burlesque enterprise did not care about what type of show they’ll persuade, they just cared about the money. The Ziegfeld Follies was the glamour version of Burlesque, but basically the same context of degrading women showing them as objects on stage. In my opinion, Mayor LaGuardia’s decision to abolish Burlesque show was a political strategy, since if Mayor LaGuardia would have choosen the Ziegfeld Follies; he would have ended up with the high-elite people against him. It wouldn’t be favorable for his campaign and for a possible re-election. Burlesque and the Ziegfeld Follies had not done anything good for the people in New York. Instead, they created an image where women were treated as objects and used as jokes.
1. “Burlesque Show Closed by Minskys”. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. New York
Times. Nov 26, 1937
2. “Court Refuses Writin Pleas Clarifies”. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. New York
Times. Sep 30, 1932
3. “Girls and Glitter in Follies of 1911”. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. New York
Times. Jun 27, 1911
4. “Minsky’s Burlesque”. Booklet
5. “Opening Night, Ziegfeld Follies”. www.mcny.org
6. Spies, Kathleen. “Girls and Gags: Sexual Display and Humor in Reginald Morsh’s
Burlesque Images”. EBSCOHOST
7. “The Job of Mayor As LaGuardia Sees It”. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
New York Times. Sep 17, 1933
8. Tomasky, Michael. www.newyorktimes.com. August 24, 1998