Thursday, March 3, 2011

Burlesque Historical Society: Philadelphia, 1950s

The Burlesque Historical Society of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania established circa 1950 whose mandate (it appears) was to publish the Cavalcade of Burlesque magazine. Searching for details about BHS turned up nothing except a contemporaneous version created by former strippers. The publication, part trade magazine, part promotion of burlesque was a wonderful compilation of photographs, comedy sketches, interviews, promotion and advertising of the trade. Over the years I have had as many as twelve different issues starting with the premiere issue in 1952.

Above: Kitty Lynn on the cover with an introduction by Robert Alda, 
the father of Alan Alda of MASH.

Each issue featured a burlesque star on the cover as well as an introduction by one of the great comedians, former vaudeville stars of the time. Here's Vickie Wells with an introduction by Bert Lahr, whose characterization as the lion in The Wizard of Oz is iconographic in American cinema history.

Peaches on the cover plus an introduction by Jackie Gleason aka Ralph Cramden the mastermind behind The Honeymooners.

Irma The Body on the cover plus introduction by Bert Wheeler who started in vaudeville and continued working in movies and tv.

Delores Del Rey on the cover plus introduction by Billy Gilbert. Gilbert, a character actor in 1930s and '40s films is best known for his mumbling, repetitive dialogue usually ending in extreme confusion on his part. He played the role of Pettibone, the process server, in MY GIRL FRIDAY staring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.


Around the same time BHS began publishing a series of color, chrome postcards of burlesque stars as you would see them on stage. They are not performing but posed as for a foprmal portrait or promotional photo - a body shot as opposed to a head shot. After years of searching and compiling get some idea of what constituted a complete "set" I've come up with 62 different postcards (not including the "backstage" nudes). I'm probably lacking a handful. Unfortunately, the numbering system on the back of each card is non-sequential, so figuring out exactly how many were published in impossible.

Once again I am assuming that these cards were sold at burlesque houses as souvenirs, possibly by the performers themselves or by the "candy butchers" walking the theatre during breaks in the show. Each card has a typical postcard back with the performer identified, plus the BHS copyright and the byline of the photographer, Bill Bennett.

Above, clockwise from the upper left: Texas Sheridan, Ann Perri, Babs Mitchell, Toni Rose, Jeanne Joyce and Lois West 

The first time I saw these cards was in an old furniture/antique show in the Bronx, near where I grew up. I opened the drawer in one of the tables and a few of the cards were inside and damaged from some kind of furniture varnish or shellac. It was before I collected nude/risque material, however I did have a burgeoning  interest in postcards, so I bought them. I kept them for years until I eventually found better examples of the same cards and then sold the duplicates. Note that the women are only "teasing" in these stage views, not displaying any nudity.

Mildred Scherry


Gloria (Flame) Marlowe


Lynn Paige in an unusual backstage view

The remaining images below are from what I call the "back stage series" which for the most part, shows the performers nude or partially nude. These cards have plain white backs with no identification or bylines. I assume they were sold by the performers to their "special" fans, photographed by Bill Bennett and published by BHS. There are other cards of some of these same performers, posed nude, that use cropped images with brightly colored borders. They are probably from the same time and also by Bennett (not shown).

I have located the names of the performers below by comparing them to the "stage" photographs which are identified on the back.

Fifi La Verne

Vivienne Morgan

Dottie Deane

Flame LaMarche ?

Betty Jo Morgan


See Burlesque Historical Society postcards for sale here.

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