A look at Brooklyn, then and now.
Before television, radio, streaming video, DVDs, VCRs or even motion pictures on film, there was the theater. Brooklyn was packed with theaters, in almost every neighborhood, with all kinds of entertainment offered; from grand opera, to Shakespeare, to musicals, comedies and melodramas, and vaudeville and burlesque. Highbrow to lowbrow; there was something for everyone. By the beginning of the 20th century, the area around Flatbush Avenue and Fulton Street, and on over to where the new Brooklyn Academy of Music would soon rise, was our version of Broadway. Flatbush, Fulton Street, and the surrounding neighborhood was a mecca for theater goers, as there were at least a dozen theaters in the area, all striving to get you to spend money and be entertained.
The biggest draw was the entertainment that appealed to the common man, and in the new century, that was vaudeville and burlesque. Vaudeville was, in essence, a variety show, with unrelated acts or performers following each other over the course of the evening. It’s from vaudeville that the expressions “small time”, “medium time”, and “big time” come, originally describing the size of the contracts, the size and conditions of the venue, and the quality of the act and the audience.
Your average vaudeville show could have it all: a comedy sketch followed by an acrobat, followed by an operatic tenor, followed by a blackface song and dance routine, followed by a humorist like Will Rogers, followed by an animal act, and so on. Many of Hollywood’s earliest stars got their start in vaudeville, some, like Buster Keaton, coming from a family of long time vaudevillians. On the average, vaudeville was pretty clean, as it had to appeal to a wide range of people and age groups in the audience. Many of the big theaters also had strict rules about language, lewd behavior, or inappropriate costumes. No one wanted to be boycotted, shunned or run out of business.
The other popular form of entertainment was the burlesque show. This was always a little more risqué, and relied heavily on scantily clad girls in chorus lines, strip shows, and ribald humor. Some of the shows also interspersed the dancing girls with comedy acts, sometimes doing both at the same time, as comedians, as surrogates for the audience members, leered at the girls and exchanged double entendre remarks and sexual humor, never getting the girls. Bob Hope got his start here, as did Red Buttons, Abbott & Costello, Milton Berle, Danny Kaye and Jimmy Durante, among many others. The famous women of burlesque included Mae West, Gypsy Rose Lee, Betty Page, Jayne Mansfield and Fanny Brice.
In 1909, the Casino Theater opened at 98 Flatbush Avenue, on a small and awkwardly shaped plot of land. The building was built to house “high class burlesque,” and was opened by the Empire Circuit Company; a booking corporation operating out of Cincinnati, which had begun building theaters to house their growing roster of acts. They already had other theaters in Brooklyn and Manhattan, as well as other cities across the country. The Casino would be their finest to date in New York. The Brooklyn Eagle liked it, gushing that “Brooklyn at last has a burlesque theater that it can be proud of.”
The first show was called “Wine, Women and Song,” and was a big hit. The theater did well, and ran burlesque shows here for 16 years. In 1918, they put an ad in the Eagle advertising jobs for light-skinned colored girls as ushers in the theater. We must have been exotic. But nothing lasts forever, and in 1929, the theater packed it in, and the building was bought by a firm of builders who tore it down, and replaced it with the office building that still stands in its place. They paid $630,000 for the building.
Vaudeville was practically dead, and burlesque would gasp on a bit longer, but its reputation for “high class shows” was long gone, as was the comedy aspect of the shows. By the 1930s and 40s, it was just strip tease; low class and raunchy, and by the 1970s, nudity was so common in movies that the industry of burlesque had no real reason to continue. The strip shows and pole dances of today are a far cry from the elaborate costumes and inventive acts that characterized burlesque in its heyday.
A look at some of the more inventive costumes in the West Indian Day Parade this weekend may be a reminder of the fun of burlesque, with feathers, glitter and bodies galore. Oh, and the Casino Theater, once here at 98 Flatbush Avenue? It opened on Labor Day, 1909. Have a great weekend. GMAP