From its late 19th century beginnings in the United States, burlesque thrived both in the theaters and nightclubs of major urban centers and as a midway attraction at circuses, carnivals, and fairs. What circuses may have lacked in glamour and big-city sophistication, they made up for with crowds, big ones.
And big crowds meant big money. Top names like Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee could make as much as $10,000 a week working a circus, but even the B- and C-listers could make thousands in a season on the road – and during circus season, there was plenty of work to be had.
The list of performers who found a home on the road, working circuses, fairs, and carnivals, reads like a Who’s Who of 20th century burlesque: Ricki Covette, Blaze Fury, Bonnie Boyia, Betty Howard, Val Valentine, Rita Cortes, Tirza, Mitzi Sinclair, Jennie Lee, Tubby Boots, Hedy Jo Star, Divena, Evelyn West, Faith Bacon, Rosita Royce, Margo, Georgia Sothern, Carrie Finnell, Zorita, and many more.
We’ve highlighted just a few performers here, along with a few themes to help you get a sense of what life was like in a travelling girl show. We hope you like it a lot, but if you don’t, the gentleman in the front office will be happy to give you your money back!
The bally was the free show offered outside the show, on the façade. The star of the show was the talker, usually a man, who kept up a steady stream of ballyhoo, talking up the wonders to be seen inside. While he talked, the dancers in the show would come out and take up a place on the narrow stage, giving enough wiggle and show to the passersby that they’d stop long enough for the talker to work his magic.
(Incidentally, talkers didn’t like being called “barkers” – they don’t bark, they talk, nice and smooth thank you very much.)
The bally existed with one purpose: to get men inside, and thus appropriately parted from their money.
"The Human Heatwave" dropped out of high school in Detroit to become a chorus girl. Like her parents, who were both burlesque and vaudeville performers, entertainment was in her blood and Blaze soon stepped out as a feature, becoming well-known in the 1940s for her blazing hot performances (and inspiring a gaggle of imitators). She signed with Royal American and was proud to be their highest-paid burlesque star, after Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee. Blaze didn't retire from the stage until the late 1970s, and went on to be a theater costumer and wardrobe manager. She died in 1997.
One of 13 children, Rita Cortes, joined the carnival as a popcorn seller in her teen years, and later became a ride operator before being asked to join the girl show. With no dance training or experience, Rita wowed crowds well enough to get hired for Minsky shows during the carnival off-season, and operated girl shows for Strates Shows, Ringling Bros., Royal American, and other circuses and carnivals with her husband Bob Hassan.
An early bloomer, Zorita started in show business at age 15, working stag parties and the nudist colony at the California Pacific International Exposition in San Diego in 1935. It was there that she was introduced to what would become her signature: dancing with snakes. Her "exotic" snake acts brought her fame as a burlesque dancer throughout the 1940s and made her quite a catch for the World of Mirth midway show. Maybe too much of a catch: in 1951, Zorita left the circus, having asked for more money and been turned down. She was instantly replaced with a newcomer with the stage name "Dorita".
Zorita retired as a performer in 1954, and ran a burlesque club in Miami Beach the next 20 years. After selling the club in 1964, she spent her time breeding and selling Persian cats. She passed away in 2001.
Bonnie Boyia got her start in the burlesque world as a chorus girl in Chicago. As a non-drinking, non-smoking, non-cursing part of the cast, she was bullied by the other chorus girls for several weeks until she had enough and quit. She joined travelling shows as a "talking girl", a female foil for the comics in their skits, and worked her up to headlining. Becoming a big star in the 1940s, she worked all over the country before joining Cavalcade of Amusements and later Strates Shows, leading her show to its top-grossing year for the latter organization.
Carrie Finnell joined the Ziegfeld Follies as a chorus girl in 1917, but rose rapidly to become a top-billed performer by the 1920s. She was often billed as "The Girl with the $100,000 Legs" but it was her "educated bosom" people came to see. Promoting herslef as a "mammary manipulator", Finnell used tremendous muscle control to move, point, and twirl each breast independently of the other. To show off her skills, she invented the pastie tassel, all the better to twirl with.
Finnell gained weight throughout her life, reaching near 300 lbs. at her peak. But audiences adored her - especially when she pulled off the longest strip tease imaginable, removing one more article of clothing a week for 54 weeks in an Ohio theater in the mid-1920s. Finnell continued to wow crowds with her impressive and usually hilarious breast tricks for decades, performing up until her death in 1963. in 1948, she led a girl show, Harem Nights, on the midway of Cavalcade of Amusements, introducing a new audience to her educated bosom.
Mitzi Sinclair was born into show business. The daughter of vaudevilleans, she began performing on stage at age 3, dancing and singing. When Sally Rand became a hit in the 1930s with her fan dance, Mitzi's mother helped her put a costume together and she worked local fan dances until the fad ended. Mitzi becamse popular in burlesque for her theatrical acts, including a half-and-half Daisy Mae and Li'l Abner act. Carnivals were a regular part of her career and she performed for numerous companies, including Royal American, Raynell, and Strates, sometimes headlining a show and sometimes running her own with her husband of 20 years, Roland Porter, a bally talker.
As burlesque started to fade, Mitzi moved on to other jobs but couldn't resist the call of the stage, and performed off and on well into her 70s.
Before WWII, many circuses featured minstrel acts, which of course substituted blackface for black-skinned performers. After the war, ads in Billboard regularly sought performers for “colored girl shows” alongside the other entertainments wanted; these shows featured largely light-skinned performers and were usually presented as an “exotic” show alongside the more traditional white girl show. In many parts of the country, where Black attendees were not welcome except on specially-designated "Black days", the regularly all-white shows hired Black performers from local agencies to fill in.
After her “coming out” at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, Sally Rand was a natural for the fair circus. Soon, she put together her “Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch”, setting up shows at the Fort Worth Frontier Centennial Exposition in 1936 and the California Pacific International Exposition in 1935 and ’36.
In 1939, the Nude Ranch was a big hit at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Exposition on Treasure Island, where they held a prominent space on the fair’s Gayway. Rand and her 47 ranchers cavorted in semi-undress from 1pm to 2am daily during the fair, riding horses and burros, showing off lariat tricks, playing badminton and basketball, and lounging about for the fairgoers’ viewing pleasure.
Sally Rand Unfair to Nudism
Nudists protest Sally Rand's appearance at the California Pacific International Exposition in San Diego. The story was carried nationwide. The Sunday Star (Washington, D.C., April 12, 1936, Part 1, p 2) described the scene:
Nudist pickets wearing sandwich boards strolled the exposition grounds Saturday as war flared between Sally Ran, fan dancer, and the nudist colony... Led by militant Mary Pomeroy, raven-haired beauty, the embattled nudists avowed the will give Sally 'a battle she will never forget'.
It is entirely possible the protest was orchestrated by Sally Rand to promote her appearance at the Expo.
In 1947, Rand did a few appearances for the Hennies Bros. circus that drew huge crowds, including a single-day take of $55,000 at the Iowa State Fair. Her success prompted Royal American Shows, then the largest circus in the country, to sign her on for the 1948 season. Appearing alongside her “Star Studded Revue”, Rand was a smash hit and the group was booked for tours off and on throughout the 1950s.
Gypsy Rose Lee
Born into a vaudeville family, Gypsy Rose Lee was no stranger to life on the move when she joined Royal American Shows, the largest circus group in the country at the time, in 1949. Her 6-month contract committed her to 8 to 15 acts a day, quite a grind for a performer used to grand theaters by then. However, the $10,000 a week she was paid (about $110,000 a week in 2020 dollars) seemed to have done a lot to squelch any concerns she might have had about the workload!
Lee was watched closely along the route by local censors to make sure her show didn’t go “too far”, considering the family environment of the circus. The fact that she toured with her own son, Erik Preminger, then 4 years old, may have helped allay some of the censors’ fears. But Lee did not rely all that much on showing skin, even in her theater days, which made her less of a threat than, say, Sally Rand had been in the same spot the year before.
Already a huge star when she toured with Royal American in 1949, Gypsy would go on to even greater heights of fame. Her memoir, Gypsy, was published in 1957 and adapted into a smash Broadway hit and then movie starring Natalie Wood. Long before her death in 1970, Gypsy Rose Lee had become a household name.
Hedy Jo Star
An early recipient of sex reassignment surgery, Hedy Jo Star performed in and ran several girl shows over the years. Star’s "Hollywood State Revue" toured throughout the 1960s. Star worked hard to create a space for other nonconforming performers, and her show featured mostly female impersonators throughout its run. Star went on to become a costumer for Circus Vargas before opening her own boutiques and producing costumes for a generation of burlesque performers.
Hotcha Hinton was born into a circus family and by age 18 was already working as a chorus girl at the Chicago World’s Fair (Gypsy Rose Lee was the headliner). She worked as a touring burlesque performer into the late 1940s, and then became a fixture in the Seattle gay community as a feature at the Garden of Allah club, where she performed and made costumes until it closed in 1956.
Vicki Marlane started working as a kootch dancer (and some times alligator girl) at age 17, and was one of Hedy Jo Star’s performers until leaving the circus in the mid 1950s. She drifted a bit before settling in San Francisco, eventually becoming a leading figure in the San Francisco drag scene.
In the 1940s, Evelyn West got her start in the girl show at the Illinois State Fair. After WWII, she relocated to California where she became a feature performer and starred in A Night at the Follies. West toured the country through the 1950s on the theater and nightclub circuits. In the 1960s, West settled in St. Louis and became a resident feature at the historic Stardust Theater.
Master of publicity, West insured her breasts with Lloyd’s of London in 1947 and adopted the tagline “The $50,000 Treasure Chest”. Known to cultivate shocking headlines, West promoted herself as a nudist, regularly commented on or wrote about the benefits of a sexual appetite, and was known to throw insults and lawsuits at fellow bombshells including Jane Russell, Jayne Mansfield, and Marilyn Monroe.
Betty “Blue Eyes” Howard, a.k.a. “The Girl Who Has Everything,” worked as a feature in the 1950s primarily in the eastern half of the United States. In addition to headlining nightclubs and theaters- including the Minsky show in Newark- Howard joined several carnival tours. Once dubbed the “Cadillac of Strippers” by photographer Roy Kemp, Howard traveled with her four dogs in a 32-foot trailer, pulled behind a Cadillac convertible.
These images were captured by Kemp at the New York State Fair, Syracuse in 1957. At the time, Howard was on tour with the James E. Strates Carnival headlining her own revue, backed by her Rythmette dancers.