Burlesque has seen many incarnations, ups and downs, and even periods of hibernation over the past century, but try as the censors might, it has never really gone away. The magical connection between burlesque and the American audience can be summed up in the lyrics of Willkommen from the opening of Cabaret: “Leave your troubles outside! So life is disappointing? Forget it! We have no troubles here! Here life is beautiful…the girls are beautiful…even the orchestra is beautiful!” Although burlesque has seen success on the stages of Broadway and other high end venues, it remains an essentially working class form of entertainment, aiding escapism from the worries of everyday life through the troubles of the Great Depression and war times. Miss Georgia Sothern was a big player throughout. Her career lasted from 1922-1977 and began when she was barely 13!
Raised in vaudeville, Georgia began performing with her uncle when she was a toddler; her father had abandoned the family and her mother struggled to make ends meet for Georgia (then called Hazel) and her sister, Jewel. Within a week of Hazel’s thirteenth birthday, her mother was in a state-funded hospital being treated for tuberculosis and her beloved Uncle Virgil had died of the same. Uncle Virgil had entrusted Hazel to another vaudeville act, but that form of entertainment was vanishing quickly and the act soon dissolved, the manager running off without paying Hazel, and she found herself alone on the streets of New York city. After a week of nearly starving and without finding work in the only field she knew, the brave young girl turned to burlesque. She had a number of false birth certificates from her vaudeville days and was able to pass herself off as 17! Later, when Mr. Minsky found out that she was only 14 (and had been working for him for over a year) he nearly hit the roof, but she gave him one of her false birth certificates and assured him that she would never alert the law to this indiscretion.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia picked her name on the spot in Phil Rosenberg’s office and in her nervousness, forgot the ‘u’ in Sothern, and so the spelling stuck. Her unique style of whirling dervish striptease was also born out of nervousness, during her very first performance and this jazz age baby rode it all the way to the bank, eventually having a signature tune written for her, “Hold that Tiger.” Ann Corio wrote, “The mere sight of this red hot red-headed temptress tossing her hips in fantastic abandon to the wild music of the band caught up everybody in its spell…the audience was almost as exhausted watching as Georgia was performing.” Sometimes she would get so caught up in her exuberant dance steps that she would end up taking off and putting on her clothing several times during a number, leading one fan to remark, “She strips just like she had dynamite for lunch.”
Not only did she do a fast strip, she led a fast-paced life in the roaring twenties and no matter how conservative she actually was, adventure always seemed to seek her out. Her skirmishes with the law didn’t always involve burlesque, but often gangsters and bootleggers, as well as her poorly picked husbands. While still only 13, Georgia witnessed a gangland murder that would have had her dead that very night, but for the fact that she had worn black and the streetlight happened to be burned out, so that the killers didn’t notice her. The plot thickened later, when she found out that perpetrator was her best friend’s boyfriend! Months of living in fear that he would discover her identity culminated in his dropping a large wad of stolen cash at their apartment as he fled from the police. But when he returned much later, to kill his former flame, he was the one that ended up snuffed out in a nearby park, thanks to her friend, Foxie, a rival bootlegger. The police also became involved in her personal life when her first husband threatened to jump from a tall building, to the amusement of a large crowd and the chagrin of the police squad. Georgia, however, called him on it, and he flew into a rage, swearing at her and hitting her, and ultimately landed himself in jail.
But back to burlesque. She was never busted for being underage, but she was escorted out of Philadelphia by the police. Whenever Mr. Poole, the city’s censor, would come around, the burlesque houses would tame down the show and cut all the bumps and grinds. He became fixated on finding Miss Sothern doing whatever it was that made her so popular; one night the theatre was not slick enough and Sothern was caught wearing only three sequined rosebuds. She was given 24 hours to leave town, or end up in jail. Although Georgia was mortified, the reporters were on her side and it all turned out for the best, with Mr. Cohen selling Georgia’s contract to none other than Billy Minsky. Burlesque thrived in the city of New York’s emerging nightclub scene for years to come, but further into the thirties, things began to change. Mayor LaGuardia was doing his best shut down burlesque and issued stricter and stricter edicts, including this one: “You are not allowed to remove an article of clothing. You may not peel from your person even so much as a glove.” The biz had to get creative, some operations creating floating nightclubs, modeled after prohibition speakeasies. However, when the states entered WWII, the art of the striptease didn’t seem so bad. As Ann Corio wrote in 1941, for Variety, “Burlesque, along with aviation and munitions, is experiencing a wartime spurt.” During this time, Georgia joined Gypsy Rose Lee on Broadway in Mike Todd’s productions of Star and Garter and The Naked Genius.
But when the war was over, burlesque was booted from The Great White Way and it was back to the nightclubs for the peelers. In 1948, Georgia was arrested at Club Samoa in Manhattan, under the charge “lewdness in a tent.” The star was fined $125, but this didn’t stop her. She spent years fighting the case and finally won, the judge ruling that “the city could not deprive her from earning a living in a lawful occupation.” Furthermore, Georgia is cited as being the main force behind the abolishment of the ‘police card,’ which performers in New York had to pay for every two years and, if their card was taken up for any reason, they were not allowed to work in the city. Georgia was a great advocate of her profession and prompted H.L. Mencken to coin the term ‘ecdysiast’ to try and ameliorate the unfavorable image brought to mind by the term ‘stripper.’ Performing the carnival circuit in the later years of her career, Georgia eventually took her own shows on the road, Sothern’s Red-Headed Revue and the Top Hatters. She didn’t retire from the stage until five years before her death, in 1981. She was 72, and in my book, this dynamite dame deserves a lifetime achievement award.
For more information on Georgia Sothern, the Red Headed Bombshell, I highly recommend reading her autobiography, Georgia: My Life in Burlesque.