Burlesque at the Empire Theatre

by Nat Bodian

The Empire Burlesque Theatre enjoyed a unique place among Newark's downtown theatres in the first half of the 20th century. It filled a gap in Downtown Newark stage and screen presentations unmatched by any other area theatre.

The Empire Theatre opened in 1912 at 265 Washington Street, at the corner of Branford Place, just one block in from Market Street.

It was a place, where for a very modest admission payment, a man could get his fill of girls, gags and music, in that order. Early admission prices, according to an old Empire play bill (above) were as low as 30 cents.

The chief attraction, of course was the girls -- both the strippers and dancing chorus line which showed as much of their bodies as the law permitted.

The gags were performed by comic teams and included tried and true time-honored skits, and sometimes take-offs on recent Broadway shows.

The music, played by a pit orchestra, aside from the bumps and grinds for the strippers, was the popular music of the day intermingled with old-time favorites and ballads.

The weekly shows that appeared at the Empire were units of a touring circuit that played the Empire for one week, and then moved on to the next city in the circuit (or wheel).

Each weekly traveling show package included comics, strippers, chorus, scenery, and variety acts. All that the Empire Theatre management provided was the building.

The 'Burlecue' and It's Patrons

A Newark movie owner of the 1930s and 1940s, friendly with the Empire management, recalled recently that the Empire was a beautiful theatre of about 1,000 seats and with a long balcony that brought upstairs patrons down close to the stage, and sat directly over the higher-paying customers in the downstairs orchestra seats.

He also recalled that in the era when the Burlesque Theatre in Newark was in its heyday, many middle-aged patrons, especially church-goers, while burlesque habitués, considered going to the Empire to view the unclad bosoms as something sinful, and before going in to buy their ticket, would look both ways to ensure that no friends, neighbors, or fellow church parishioners were in sight before buying their ticket.

Inside the Theatre, he said, they would usually sit a ways back from the stage so as not to be too visible to other who were also there for the same reason and might recognize them.

Going on Star-Ledger Freebees

As a young sports-writer for the Star-Ledger in the late 1930s, I recall seeing the publicist from the nearby Empire Theatre coming into the Ledger city room to deliver his press release for an upcoming week's new show and dropping free show passes on various reporters' desks as he passed through.

I took advantage of these free passes on more than one occasion. As I recall, the free passes were always for good seats up front. Paying customers paid somewhat more to sit up front; others paid less to sit toward the back.

Seat Cheat Checker

Bill Newman, a former Newarker now retired to Florida, recalls that after his discharge from World War II, he was employed by a private investigative firm and was sent to the Empire Theatre frequently to find out if the attendant on duty in the orchestra between the cheap seats and the more expensive ones was accepting cash to allow patrons to switch to better seats. He said the correct procedure was for the patron to go back to the box office and pay the difference, then show the attendant his upgraded ticket before taking the better seat.

The Comics

As in every standard Empire show, there were always comics, usually a pair -- a 'top banana' accompanied by a sidekick or straight man. Their comedy involved sexual innuendo, but the focus was on making fun of what people go through in pursuit of it.

Usually it was two men, but sometimes there would be a man-woman duo which might involve a conversation filled with ambiguities: The woman might say something innocent and the man would think she meant something else.

If two men were involved, there would also be a lot of talk leaning toward the vulgar, but something that would get big laughs.

Here's one example:

Man No. 1 says to Man No. 2: "I'm going to Tampa with your daughter."
Man No. 2 responds: "You lay one hand on her and I'll break your neck."

Here's yet another:

Man walks past comic wearing bandages and cast on one foot.
Comic: "What happened to you?"
Injured Man: "I was living the life of Riley."
Comic: "And?"
Injured Man: "Riley came home!"

The Strippers

Although the Empire in Newark opened in 1913 as a variety show house, the strip tease was not added to burlesque until the 1920s when vaudeville began feeling the competition from motion pictures and added the strip tease as a vehicle for attracting men away from the movies.

The name strippers of the 1930s and 1940s that played the Empire included Margie Hart, Lili St. Cyr in her bath routine, Rosita Royce with her trained doves covering her partial nudity, and the fiery red-headed sensation, Georgia Sothern who made the biggest impression on this young pre-World War II burlesque attendee.1

The Empire enjoyed an unexpected surge of business in the late 1930s after New York City Mayor, Fiorella LaGuardia, shut down the strip-tease shows2 that were mostly along 42nd Street, and drove the patrons of the strippers across the Hudson River to the Empire in Newark, and the Hudson Theatre in Union City.

Ann Corio who starred as a burlesque queen and rose to greatness as a star of stage and as a bestseller book author3 was quoted in her March 1999 obituary in the New York Times as saying this of her life as a stripper: "We were naughty and bawdy, but never vulgar."

The Chorus Line

As best as I can recollect, there were a dozen or more girls in the scantily-clad Empire choruses. They were all tallish, attractive, shapely, appeared to be in their 20s. From my research, I learned that most were single girls and many came from the farms and mining towns of Pennsylvania, and were happy to have steady pay checks at good salaries and were able to help out their families at home.

However, at least one such chorus girl was from Newark as I was able to learn. In the course of my work at the Star-Ledger, in the late 1930s, I frequently stopped to chat with the Star-Ledger receptionist/switchboard operator at the front entrance to the 217 Halsey Street building. She was a 50-ish tiny Irish lady named Peggy.

Peggy had mentioned to me that she had a daughter who was a dancer in the theatre. From time to time, during conversations, she would tell me what city her daughter was dancing in that particular week.

One week, she excitedly told me that her daughter was currently dancing n Newark. As there were no live stage shows in Newark at that time, I inquired where and she told me it was at the Empire Theatre. She was a dancer in a traveling burlesque chorus.

The Candy Pitchman

One of the strong memories I have about the shows at the Empire is about the spiels of the candy pitchman.

After the starring strip-tease act that closed the first part of the show, he would come down to the front of the theatre and make his lengthy candy pitch, holding up what he described as 'delectable confections' that he would offer for sale at a somewhat inflated price with the promise that there was a prize awaiting the buyer "in each and every box." Sometimes, he would wave a ten-dollar bill or a wrist watch as a hint of what the enclosed prize might be.

After his pitch, youngsters would race up and down the aisles, delivering the candy to the buyers and collecting the money.

An acquaintance who had been a candy deliverer at the Empire as a teenager in the 1930s once told me he'd tried substituting some of his own candy once to earn a little extra income, but was caught and hastily hustled out of the Empire to the Washington Street sidewalk.

The candy sold during the Empire shows was handled by an outside concessionaire who paid a small commission to the theatre management from the sales proceeds. Income from candy sales were so lucrative that in the burlesque era, loans from candy concessionaires helped keep many burlesque theatres operating.

End of Burlesque in Newark

By the 1950s, TV and other forms of entertainment reduced attendance. Simultaneously, anti-burlesque amendments were added to the city's theatre ordinances making it virtually impossible to continue operations.

With the arrest of 21 burlesque performers in the preceding two weeks, and a license revocation threatened by the city, the Empire management finally closed its doors forever on February 14, 1957.

In July 1958, the Empire Theatre building was torn down and the land on which it stood was leveled and paved over to become a parking lot for downtown Newark shoppers

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