Back in 1973, there was a burlesque house, the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey. Once when my mother and sister were off in Boston visiting my mother's family, I talked my dad into taking me to the Capitol, to see the show. The theatre, which had big rock concerts sometimes, and showed porn movies during the day, was a legit burlesque theatre at night and weekends, with a small orchestra, a choreographer, five or six female dancers, four or five comics, and three strippers, who stripped down to a g-string and pasties, except for the headliner, who had the privilege of not wearing pasties. The headliner was a woman named Liz Renay, who was most famous for going to prison rather than testify against gangster Mickey Cohen. He, and later his people, made sure she could always find employment, which is why she would turn up in John Waters films, and the like.
I'd been fascinated by burlesque ever since I fell in love with the comedy of Abbott and Costello, and found out that's what they did. After I'd seen the show, back at NYU, I got credentials to write for Cold Duck Magazine, the NYU literary magazine, and made arrangements to interview folks in the show, and write an article about it. The article ran in the October 15, 1973 issue, Volume 9, Number 2. I've scanned the article, which is below, but knowing how hard it is to read text in this form, I'm retyped it below each page. All of the photography is by Celia Cockburn. Enjoy!
There is no Burlesk (or Burlesque, if you prefer) in New York. I am not saying there is very little Burlesk here, or that it is not very good, but that it simply does not exist in our city, and I feel I can say this with a bit of authority, having visited every major so-called Burlesk theatre in the city, with the exception of the gay one. I cannot say whether they started out as actual Burlesk, and deteriorated, or whether they were raunchy at the outset, but at the moment, in either case, the shows are simply obscene, and, more important, tedious. The shows have eliminated all but the strippers, and promise total nudity, that is, removal of the G-string. Since the truly interesting thing about a strip is the "tease," in other words, the question of how much she is going to take off, and how long she will take to do it, advertising total nudity ends the suspense, and thus the entertainment.
The Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey, famous for rock concerts, is now presenting honest-to-God Burlesk. As Frank Silvano, one of the show's very funny comics put it, "What people in Passaic think we have here is a New York City Burlesk show. But we don't. We have old-fashioned Burlesk." Old-fashioned Burlesk in this sense does not mean that the material is dated, but that the basic original format of a Burlesk show is used.
The production, which changes every two weeks, consists of half-a-dozen comedy scenes, four exotic numbers (stripteases), and six or seven musical numbers, giving the audience a fast-moving two and a half hours of entertainment. It is a glossy, well-produced show, and yet, as veteran comedian Charles Naples points out, "...people are still mistaking Burlesk for pornography."
However, things are improving, as people learn to think for themselves. The size of the audience has been growing steadily from performance to performance. According to singer-dancer-choreographer Tony Pischado, many of the people in the audience arrive with a condescending attitude, "but they leave completely entertained. Everyone thought that Burlesk was strictly strippers. Now they're beginning to realize that Burlesk is an entire show...with strippers."
For scene comedy, as opposed to monologue, the stage is obviously preferable to television, with its stringent controls on content, running time, and its lack of spontaneity. Yet every comic in the show has left night club work, which would seem to have the closest performer-audience communication, and returned to Burlesk. Comic Sammy Petrillo explains it bluntly: "Who wants to play for a bunch of drunks?" From the performer's point of view, Burlesk is preferable because the audience is in the theatre to see a show, not to drink or play games.
It's better for the audience also. There is a minimal investment: $4.00 a head, $3.00 with a school ID, as opposed to a $10 cover charge. You get a full-size show, instead of one or two acts. And best of all, you won't be served a meal which is cooked to be eaten in the dark by someone who's had their four drink minimum and is watching someone taking their clothes off.
In most forms of comedy there is a constant search for new material, but this is not true of Burlesk. Burlesk comics tend to refine and perfect their material, until it becomes so perfect that it is hilarious no matter how often you hear it, and, in fact, tends to improve with age. A prime example is Abbott & Costello's "Who's on first?" which works no matter how frequently it's heard. Similarly, comedian Charlie Naples, with his partner, straightwoman Lucille Vance, does a Charlie Chaplin routine which has for a few decades been considered a Burlesk classic, and is in fact a good deal funnier than most of what Chaplin has done.
There are numerous standard scenes in Burlesk. Every comic in the business (literally) knows "court-room scene," "crazy-house," "Floogle Steet (the Susquehanna Hat Company)," "Niagara Falls," and so on, but star straightman (continued)
(The Capitol Cuties. Far right is Ann Middleton)
Eddie Black points out that no two comics do the same version of the same scene. They take advantage of the audience's familiarity with the material, "and refine and stylize the material to make themselves look best."
The comics of the show have very varied show business backgrounds. Charlie Naples was in Vaudeville from 1917, and went into Burlesk in 1930, when Vaudeville died. He worked in Burlesk until 1940, when he left for night clubs, with their shorter hours and better pay. Now that the night clubs are dying, he's back in Burlesk. His partner, Lucille Vance, was a singer until he taught her to be a straightwoman. They've been working together for twelve years now. Eddie Black has been in Burlesk for thirty of the fifty-five years that he has been in show business. He gave up being a jockey to join "Hunt's Great American Circus," when he had to leave town suddenly, and went on to medicine shows, tent shows, minstrel shows, vaudeville, and finally Burlesk. He even played the legendary Astor and Palace theatres with "The Honeyboy Minstrels."
Contrasting with seasoned old-times like Naples and Black are Sammy Petrillo and Frank Silvano, both in their mid-thirties, the two youngest Burlesk comedians in the business. Sammy was a stand-up night club comic for close to twenty years before he went into Burlesk. He currently produces three radio programs for WBHI, one of which he stars in, and he has just produced two feature films. Frank first worked in a Burlesk show starring Christine Jorgenson. Beginning as a singer (he does sing in the show), he then became a straightman, working with the biggest names in Burlesk, and now is one of the field's stars. He recently did a stint at Radio City Music Hall, and stars with his partner, the beautiful Jill Harris, in the film ANGES, which is due in New York very soon.
Contrasting with Frank Silvano's career is Tony Pichardo of "Mr. Tony Pichardo and his Capitol Cuties." Tony went from being a straightman for Pinkie Lee to being a singer-dancer. He worked on Broadway, then left to do his own act for seven years, and then began organizing revues. After playing his revues in clubs, he came to the Capitol. Among Tony's "Cuties" is Ann Middleton, formerly of Australia. She began studying ballet on scholarship at the age of four and continued for twelve years. When she got tired of chorus lines she toured Vietnam for seven months as her first singing job, and then joined Tony's act. "They said, 'working with strippers,' and I didn't exactly fancy that. But it's a lot more wholesome than I expected."
The exotic dancers are varied in their acts. Recently on the bill was Nina Rosee, who, in her enactment of the four seasons, threw plastic snowballs, beach balls, and suntan oil at members of the audience. Another dancer could shake rattles without using her hands, and a third ate fire. The headline exotics are the biggest names in the business, including Liz Renay, author of the best-selling My Face For The World to See, who recently had to cancel playdates in Washington, D.C., so that she could make a film. The current star is Diane Lewis, who is Minsky's favorite dancer.
By far the most talented exotic in the show is Jill Harris, who, working with her partner, Frank Silvano, is also an extremely funny comedienne and straighwoman. Other than being one of the most attractive women in Burlesk, she has such charm and grace that if you decided to see only one exotic dancer in your life, Miss Harris would be your best choice.
There is no such thing as a twenty-year-old Burlesk comic. Unlike other fields of comedy, Burlesk requires years of background and work in the field.
"You can't learn it from a book," claims Frank Silvano, "you can't see it on TV or learn it from a film." A Burlesk comic, by the time he rises from minor straightman status, is not only an artist, but a craftsman who uses new material and builds on the work of others. And these days he has to be a polished performer, because the less sure ones won't last.
You can count the number of Burlesk companies in the country on your fingers: Ann Corio's Show, Hope Diamond's Show, one theatre in St. Louis, two theatres in Las Vegas, maybe two others, and The Capitol. (Continued)
(top photo, l to r, Frank Silvano, Charlie Naples,
Eddie Black, Sammy Petrillo)
(Frank Silvano, plunger, Jill Harris)
(Singer/dancer Dana - can't remember her last name)
The fact that there aren't many places for the performers to work guarantees that the audience will see the best in the business. But according to Sammy Petrillo, incidentally probably the only Burlesk performer with a Masters in Psychology, "There's no real competition. It's just like any other business: there's always room for someone with talent."
Will Burlesk last? That's hard to say. Sammy fears that it may be, "a ship passing in the night." According to Frank Silvano, the most important thing to watch is the number of women in the audience. "You can ask any Burlesk comic...when you get women in the audience, Burlesk is coming back." At present, the audiences average about 40% women, which is the same size it was in Burlesk's heyday.
The Capitol Burlesk Show in Passaic is probably your best entertainment buy in the New York area. The fare from the Port Authority Bus Terminal to Passaic is $1.10 each way. Buses run every ten minutes or so, and it's about a half-hour ride. The admission is $4.00, $3.00 with a school ID, and the show is about 2 1/2 hours, all of it entertaining -- and I should know, having been there five times in two weeks. There are performances Thursday through Sunday at 7:15 p.m., and Saturday there is also a 2:15 p.m. matinee and a midnight show. The Thursday and Friday shows and the Saturday matinee are the least crowded, if you want to make sure you have a seat by the runway (and what Burlesk-goer doesn't?). Just think, for $10.20, (or $5.10 a piece), you and a friend can visit Passaic, see a Burlesk Show that has all the polish of a lot of Broadway shows, have a good time, and be home in time to see the last half-hour of Dick Cavett. As Frank Silvano put it, it's a great "almost family show," clean enough to take your folks to, and, if he's not 18, you still have an excuse to leave your brother home. Please go see it; it's a terrific show.
Finally, there are two great myths about what Burlesk people are like: one says they're wackos, and the other says they're just plain folks. They are neither. All of them are perfectly sane and moral, but they are a great deal nicer than just plain folks. They are some of the nicest people that I have ever gotten to know. Hope I'll see you at the Capitol.