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
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
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
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
Man No. 2 responds: "You lay one hand on her and I'll break
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."
Injured Man: "Riley came home!"
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 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
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
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