The Hennepin History Museum unveils 150 years of burlesque
In 1856, inside the city's first theater - a log cabin called Woodsman's Hall - a woman danced seductively by the light of oil-burning lamps. Minneapolis burlesque was born.
Over the next 100 years, such theaters and performers would come and go along Hennepin and Washington avenues as the popularity of the dance form waxed and waned.
The Hennepin History Museum's “Hips, Pips and Strips” exhibit follows the curve of Minneapolis burlesque from its humble beginnings through its heyday in the 1930s, the decline into modern striptease and on into a recent revival.
The show is just one slice of history at the museum, open since 1957 in the George H. Christian house at 2303 3rd Ave. S., just north of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
The two-story mansion houses a 100,000-piece permanent collection. The archive of photographs, maps, official documents, personal papers and county curiosities is open to the public during museum hours (except Sunday; see sidebar).
Past exhibits include the recently closed “Semblance of Life,” a collection of postmortem photographs from 1850-1940 that captured images of the deceased, often children posed in lifelike settings; black-and-white photos of Hennepin Avenue's past, from Lakewood Cemetery to the Mississippi River; and oddities like the handcuffs and hanging noose of Harry Hayward, executed in 1895 for ordering the murder of Kitty Ging.
A sign detailing that murder stands inside Espresso Royale in the Bellevue building at South 13th Street & Hennepin Avenue, where Ging lived more than a century ago. The site-specific educational marker is part of the museum's award-winning “You are Here” program, just one of the museum's educational programs.
The museum also collaborates with private collectors and institutions like the University of Minnesota, as evidenced in new exhibits opening in March and April (see sidebar).
A revealing history
Burlesque was more than just a striptease, said Jack Kabrud, the museum's director and curator. Most often, women performed as part of a variety show, with musicians, comedians and other performers. By the 1930s, burlesque hit its heyday, with Broadway-like productions at theaters like the Orpheum. Burlesque offered cheap entertainment - for both the theater and audience - during the Depression and war years, when it drew not just men but women and children.
By 1950, however, burlesque was evolving into the modern striptease. “Comics and strippers are the last vestiges of burlesque,” Kabrud said.
“Hips, Pips and Strips” features hundreds of photographs, advertisements and newspaper clippings, as well as costumes, audio interviews and a small theater (with church pew seating, no less) showing the short striptease movies made in the later burlesque years.
The exhibit profiles theaters like the Gayety, at 103 Washington Ave. N., the home of burlesque from 1909 until the Alvin opened in 1935 at 22 N. 7th St. The Alvin was originally called the Shubert; it now awaits restoration just down the block on Hennepin Avenue.
The exhibit profiles theater managers like Billy Koenig, who managed the Gayety and lived in a Dean Parkway home that, like the Shubert, still stands.
And then, of course, there are the performers. More clothing was shed over the years, but the women were never nude - pasties, g-strings and shear clothing covered the most private parts. Dancers often came from other cities like Chicago to perform. Carrie Finnell was famous for her “educated breasts,” which she could make pop out of her dress at will.
Some earned national fame, such as Fannie Brice, (of “Funny Girl” and “Funny Lady” fame) billed as “Minnesota's Sweetheart” though she performed here only three times.
Minnesota native and burlesque performer Lili St. Cyr is honored in name by Lili's Burlesque Revue, one of two local revivalist troupes. Lili's cast performed at the exhibit's opening in November, and is currently touring after moving out of its Warehouse District space. Le Cirque Rouge, the second revivalist troupe, performs frequently - and will do so on March 11 and 25 - at the 331 Club, 331 13th Ave. NE.
Gina Woods, who performs as Gina Louise for Lili's, noted that an early meaning of burlesque had nothing to do with striptease, but referred to women performing on stage, playing men's roles in tights. “It was considered way out of bounds for what women were supposed to be doing,” she said. “It was considered immoral.”
That stigma continued into the height of burlesque, which Lili's celebrates.
“I see what we're doing today as an homage to those women and the art form that I think it is,” said Woods. She admires vaudevillian performers such as Fannie Brice and even Mae West who brought theatricality, satire and social commentary to burlesque.
To Kabrud's surprise, women's groups such as the Minnesota DFL Women's Caucus have enjoyed the exhibit. “I was sure I was getting get into trouble,” Kabrud said.
For Woods, the art form is about empowering women, theatricality and providing audiences with a link to the past.
“It's also an excuse to put on feathers,” she said.
Lili's is in search of a new performance space, Woods noted. “I'd love it if they'd open [the Shubert] and let us perform there,” she said. A burlesque performance in the historic theater - expected to open in 2008 as the Shubert Center for the Performing Arts - would bring the history full-circle.