Andy Davis Remembers - When Burlesque was Banned in Burbank

 

When was burlesque banned in Burbank? And why? Andy “Doc” Davis tells all in his 1/2/16 interview. Impresario Doc Davis is one of the foremost experts on burlesque, an art form that reached its height during the 1920’s and 30’s. As the strip-tease began to dominate the show, New York City officials tried to ban it by taking away the licenses to operate theaters from burlesque producers. As people began to turn to television for their primary form of entertainment, burlesque shows were replaced by topless dance clubs.

 

David "Stumpy" Springhorn, Uncle Eddy Bell, Michael "Tuba" Heatherton - Photo by Amber Walker

 

 

Well, folks, burlesque is back with a vengeance in Los Angeles - courtesy of Doc’s hard work to draw attention back to a nearly lost theatrical style. Doc was so taken with burlesque that he actually wrote a book about it, “Baggy Pants Comedy: Burlesque and the Oral Tradition,” published in 2011. He also developed an act with partner David “Stumpy” Springhorn - Doc and Stumpy - where he gets to play the straight man to Stumpy’s comedic gaffes. The two have performed for the past six years. Doc actually completed his Ph.D. in Performance Studies with a dissertation on burlesque and now teaches at Cal Poly Pomona. 

 

 

Doc and Stumpy produce four burlesque shows a year at the Mayflower Club in North Hollywood. Their shows combine strip-tease acts with musical numbers and baggy pants comedy routines. Their upcoming show – scheduled for January 29-30, 2016 – is Uncle Eddy’s Big Time Burlesque/Banned in Burbank, a show originally scheduled some years ago but closed down by the Burbank Vice Squad. 

 

 

The story of Doc’s love affair with burlesque cried out to be told, and so it made sense to go to the horse’s mouth. Here are some of Doc’s thoughts on the subject.

 

 

William Barrett, Christina Linhardt, Michael "Tuba" Heatherton - Photo by Amber Walker

 

HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INTERESTED IN BURLESQUE? 

 

 

It was back in the mid-1980’s, when Ann Corio brought her show, “This was Burlesque,” to the Variety Arts Center in downtown Los Angeles. Ann Corio was one of the three major strippers of the 20's and 30's. She put together “This was Burlesque” in New York in the 60’s. Burlesque had been banned in New York since World War II; and the show became a hit, largely on the strength of the comedy. Ann had toured the show for 25 years when we saw it. The Variety Arts Center was located in a bad neighborhood downtown, and they couldn’t get an audience down there. They were papering the house, so 25 friends and I went to see the show. There were maybe eight other people in the 1200-seat theater. We started to whoop and holler to give the performers a bit of energy, and the people in front of us actually shushed us up. We told them they should be whooping and hollering too – it was a burlesque show, after all. 

 

 

Later, I went into the Variety Arts Center library and found a collection of burlesque scenes. I looked at them and realized there was something to it. I found out there are dozens and dozens of scenes, some short and some long, and a burlesque comic would have a repertoire of a couple of hundred scenes. Everybody in burlesque knew those scenes. Any comic or straight man could put them up, even if they had never performed with each other before, because they all knew the repertoire. They basically ad-libbed the scenes after, maybe, talking the scene over. Abbott and Costello started in burlesque. That famous scene, “Who’s on First?” was different each time they did it. Sometimes, they purposely tried to screw each other up. That’s what kept the comedy fresh. Burlesque comedy is dynamic, and that’s why it’s always fresh. You have to stay on your toes and be aware of everything. If a joke gets a laugh, it stays; but, if it doesn’t, it’s out of there. So the scenes were always evolving. 

 

 

Later, when I went to graduate school and was looking for a topic for my dissertation, I remembered those burlesque sketches. It was just the sort of topic they liked in the Performance Studies Department at NYU. While I was working on my dissertation, burlesque got a new life. This was in the mid-1990’s. Suddenly, I found myself part of a movement.

 

 

Andy "Doc" Davis, Uncle Eddy Bell, Stephanie Blake - Photo by Amber Walker

 

WAS BURLESQUE REALLY BANNED IN BURBANK?  

 

Oh, yeah. In 2004, we were planning to do a burlesque show in the Moose Lodge in Burbank; it was built around some of the sketches I’d uncovered. We got in touch with some dancers and were busy preparing the show and sending publicity out. Two days before we were to open, two members of the Vice Squad showed up and left a copy of the city ordinances. The pertinent item was that there couldn’t be a display of any portion of the female breasts below the top of the areola. Although the dancers would be wearing pasties, if any of them showed any under-boob, they would arrest us and take away the Moose Lodge’s liquor license. It was so absurd, because the San Fernando Valley is where most of the porno is made in this country – and somehow we were a threat to morality. We were doing a nostalgic look at old-time burlesque and were totally blind-sided. We just cancelled the show and called the newspapers. I look back on it as a rite of passage, having my show raided. For our show this month, we’re bringing back most of the original cast of that 2004 show and doing the line-up we had planned for that show. 

 

 

We talk about what happened in a court room scene in one of our shows. It’s about the history of exotic dance; we did that show last year. The first half of the show ends with a raid by the vice squad. The second half opens with a court room scene. The censor who closed the show is on the witness stand, and he says the show was obscene. The judge asks what the dancers did that was obscene, and he couldn’t really explain. So the judge asks him to demonstrate. When he does, it looks absurd; and the judge rules that the dance was anything but obscene. When the censor raises the areola business, the girl who was busted comes out and says that her breasts were covered by a net bra. She removes it and dangles it from her finger. The judge agrees that the show did not violate the ordinance, and the show proceeds.  That’s how the old-time strippers got around the areola thing. They would wear a bra made of hosiery material.

 

 

Andy "Doc" Davis, Reno Goodale - Photo by Amber Walker

 

WHAT MAKES BURLESQUE SPECIAL?  

 

Most people equate burlesque with strip-tease. But the word burlesque originally referred to the comedy. It’s a combination of sexiness and comedy that really defines the burlesque show. At least for me. Most burlesque shows today are dancer after dancer after dancer, with an emcee introducing the acts. But that gets boring after a while. The comedy gives the audience something else to focus on. That way, when the next dancer comes on, the audience is ready to be aroused again.  

 

The style of comedy that we do is very different from most of what you see nowadays. We don’t comment on everyday life or make topical references like most stand-ups do. We tell and act out jokes. We even have a drummer doing rim-shots. The comedy is situation-based. A lot of our bits are classic scenes from burlesque’s Golden Age – like the courtroom scene – or like “Crazy House,” where the comic is hired to guard an insane asylum and make sure that none of the patients escape. During the night, various crazies come on and torment him. When the old material is still funny – and much of it is – we go with it. But we’re just as likely to drop our own jokes in. My comedy partner has a huge repertoire of remember jokes. He’s got a real talent for remembering them. He picks up aurally, and I am more visual. I scour joke books for material. It’s a good give-and-take. Once we’re onstage, it can go in all sorts of unexpected directions because we’re both comfortable with ad-libbing. 

 

 

The interest in burlesque seems to be increasing, but it’s hard to tell. Now there are more burlesque shows in LA. There’s a good one in Hollywood and a couple of good ones in LA. Overall, there are maybe 15-20 burlesque shows in the greater Los Angeles area. One of the clear differences between what Doc and Stumpy do and what the others do is that we make comedy a central part of the show. I’m pushing to get people aware that burlesque is about striptease and comedy, but it’s a hard sell. I think our show is more entertaining than the run-of-the-mill burlesque show. 

 

 

Burlesque used to be mostly for men. Now, with the revival, half the audience is female. What happened with feminism is that now you don’t have to have a perfect body to do burlesque. 

 

 

DO YOU HAVE ANY OTHER PROJECTS IN MIND? 

 

 

My main interest right now is our show on the 29th and 30th of January at the Mayflower Club. We’ve got a good cast of comedians with a variety of backgrounds – improv, clowning, stand-up, Shakespeare, television, and film. Uncle Eddy Bell, who’s emceeing and directing the upcoming show, had a recurring role on “Married with Children.” It’s really a top-notch cast of comedians and dancers. I’m also working on publishing projects. I’ve already published two books, one on the history of burlesque that came from my dissertation, and the other one a history of the oldest theater in the United States, the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. I’m working on a collection of scenes so that other people can draw on the long tradition of burlesque. And, of course, I love teaching and want to keep at it.

 

 

 

BANNED IN BURBANK: Uncle Eddy’s Big Time Burlesque performs at 8 p.m. on Friday, January 29, and Saturday, January 30, 2016 at the Mayflower Club, 11110 Victory Blvd, North Hollywood, CA 91606. Tickets are $30 (premiere seating $40). For reservations, call 800-838-3006 or go online at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2480620.

 

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