My most recent piece for Historicist centres on a 1912 burlesque play at Toronto’s Star Theatre, and the charges of obscenity surrounding it. As with most of my pieces, I was forced to exclude a lot of fun stuff I found in the interest of brevity and focus. If anyone is interested in more detail about the Star Theatre, Rev. R.B. St. Clair, or the Toronto Vigilance Association, I very much recommend Lyndsay Mills Campbell’s essay: “The St. Clair case and the regulation of the obscene in pre-World War One Ontario,” which you can download as a PDF from the University of British Columbia’s Library website here.
While researching this piece, I stumbled upon this headline from the March 2, 1912, Toronto Star:
At first glance the headline seems like a rather amusing way of saying that there is a talent scout in town. The first line of the article, which I have included in that screen grab, suggests an insecurity about Toronto’s level of recognition elswhere (what else is new), but more importantly a sinister attitude that chorus girls are some sort of natural resource which are attracting American interests. The whole things reads like a comic satire of historic chauvanism, with haunting lines like “Girls are divided into four classes by men who make a business of handling them for stage trade.”
It struck me that while this article wasn’t directly related to my task at hand, it was actually a peculiar insight into the vocabulary used in the burlesque industry, and it contains the sort of information that often gets lost over time. In addition to being an interesting and somewhat appalling article (to be fair to the Star, most of the worst lines are quotations attributed to the New York chorus girl scout), it could also be a useful article for anyone interested in theatre and/or feminist history. Thus, I’m thus including its full text below, so that search engines might pick it up. Annotations in square brackets are my own.
New York Man in Toronto Looking for Chorus Girls
Leon Berg Is Hunting for Maidens of the Evelyn Nesbit Thaw Type to Draft Into His Firm’s Musical Shows — Too Few in New York
How Styles In Girls Vary From Year To Year
Toronto is now on the theatrical map as a city from which a supply of chorus girls can be drawn.
Leon Berg, the general representative of Hurtig and Seamon [Noted New York City burlesque producers, perhaps best known today for opening a theatre in Harlem which later became the Apollo], producers of musical comedies and burlesque shows, is in the city [of Toronto] and he is on the hunt for pretty girls who can dance and sing. To the Star he stated that he had found but few candidates in his short stay here, but he knew that there were many Toronto girls in chorus ranks, and he hoped to get more of them for the Hurtig and Seamon shows.
Mr. Berg is a rather unusual theatrical man. He is a Heidelberg graduate. He has been a newspaper man, a dramatic critic for German-American papers, a press agent, and a theatrical manager. He is now racing ahead of his firm’s two new shows, “The Social Maids” and “The Taxi Girls.” [“The Taxi Girls” was on the burlesque circuit the following year. According to a review in the Montreal Gazette, “the ‘plot’ centres around a couple of actors stranded in Mexico and the action of the piece gives the principals an opportunity to disport themselves in their own particular line of fun production and displays a well-trained chorus.”]
“Yes, I want chorus girls — ‘ponies’ preferred,” remarked Mr. Berg to the Star. “We can’t get enough of them in New York — at least, not the kind we want.”
“Styles in girls are just as well defined as in any other branch of trade. The normal size is going to be the kind of girl to grace the chorus of musical attractions next season. The girl that will have the best chance during the coming season will have to be five feet, four inches tall, and her bust measurement must not exceed thirty-six inches. Girls with olive skin, black hair, and dark eyes will find a preference.”
Like Evelyn Nesbit Thaw
“In fact,” declared Berg, “the more nearly she approached the type of Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, the more nearly ideal she is for theatrical requirements.” [Evelyn Nesbit was a noted chorus girl and “Gibson Girl” model of the time who was involved in a sensational scandal in 1906 when her husband, Harry Kendall Thaw, murdered her lover, prominent New York architect Stanford White.] “Girls are divided into four classes by men who make a business of handling them for stage trade. Girls less than five feet high are called ‘Broilers,’ those between five and five feet two inches tall are “Ponies,” those two inches taller are “Regulations,” and all over the five foot six march are “Showgirls.”
“A year or so ago everybody was raving over showgirls. The more majestic a woman, the icier she appeared, the greater the admiration of masculine audiences. Her vocation on stage was principally to disport herself in elaborate garments. She was a stately affair, but she was not the type that inspired our poets and lyric writers to enchanting love ditties.”
“This is an age when men seek out the girl who has a good mind. The blonde girl is losing out. Her charm has always been a negative one. It has been the charm of distance, of hauteur, of disdain. She has not been ‘human’ enough. And, in defiance of her attitude, man is choosing the little dark girl. Of course, like in all other cases, there are exceptions. I know of blondes who are ideal girls, but the percentage is very small.”
“As for the ‘broiler’ and ‘squab’ size [It’s unclear, but I suspect he may mean that ‘squab’ is a synonym for what he earlier called ‘broiler’] — I am almost certain that it will vanish from the stage except, perhaps, in pantomime or productions of ‘fairy-tales.’
“The selecting of a chorus for a musical show is a most difficult undertaking. The girl with a pretty face and a good form may not qualify as singer or dancer. For this reason the producer is often compelled to overlook either the one or the other shortcoming.
Twenty Thousand Girls In Choruses
“There are hundreds of musical attractions rehearsing during the summer in New York. Appromiately from 15,000 to 20,000 girls are needed for the choruses. The New York market is unable to furnish ‘Regulation’ girls in such quantity. For this very reason, Hurtig and Seamon draw the majority of the 800 girls needed for their enterprises from different parts of the country. This is not an easy task. It requires the services of two experienced showmen, who visit the large cities during the spring, to find the right kind of girls.”
Incidentally, it might be well to mention that chorus girls start this season at an average of $18, and after a season’s experience they can count on $20. The margin of profit is small when a girl pays for her sleeping car berths [most burlesque companies would travel from city to city, playing week-long engagements], her tights, her hose, and shoes for stage use, her hotel expenses, etc. Wise girls won’t leave happy homes, even for Mr. Leon Berg.
It is estimated by local theatrical people that there are over 100 Toronto girls now in the ranks of the chorus.