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Minsky's Burlesque refers to the brand of American burlesque presented by four sons of Louis and Ethel Minsky: Abraham 'Abe' Bennett Minsky (1880–1949), Michael William 'Billy' Minsky (1887–1932), Herbert Kay Minsky (1891-1959), and Morton Minsky (1902–1987). They started in 1912 and ended in 1937 in New York City. Although the shows were declared obscene and outlawed, they were rather tame by modern standards.
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The eldest brother, Abe, launched the business in 1908 with a Lower East Side nickelodeon showing racy films. His own father shut him down and bought the National Winter Garden on Houston Street, which had a theater inconveniently located on the sixth floor. He gave the theater to Abe and his brothers Billy and Herbert. At first they tried showing respectable films but could not compete with the large theater chains. The Minskys tried to bolster their shows by bringing in vaudeville performers but could not afford good acts.
Then they considered burlesque. Burlesque acts were cheaper, and circuits (called "wheels") supplied a new show every week, complete with cast, costumes, and scenery. There was the Columbia Wheel, the American Wheel, and the Mutual Wheel. Burlesque during this period was "clean"; a fourth wheel, the Independent, actually went bankrupt in 1916 after refusing to clean up its act. The Minskys briefly considered signing with a wheel but decided to stage their own shows because it was cheaper and Billy longed to be the next Florenz Ziegfeld.
But Minsky's clientele of poor immigrants had not been taught to appreciate clean burlesque, and the Minskys were not about to teach them. Plus, their audience needed a compelling reason to trek up to a sixth-floor theater. Billy realized that success in burlesque depended on how the women were featured. Abe, who had been to Paris and the Folies Bergère and Moulin Rouge, suggested importing one of their trademarks: a runway to bring the women out into the audience. The theater was reconfigured, and the Minskys were the first to feature a runway in the United States. Billy had the sign out front changed to "Burlesque As You Like It – Not a Family Show," and the Minskys were on their way.
The Minskys were raided for the first time in 1917 when Mae Dix absent-mindedly began removing her costume before she reached the wings. When the crowd cheered, Dix returned to the stage to continue removing her clothing to wild applause. Billy ordered the "accident" repeated every night. This began an endless cycle: to keep their license, the Minskys had to keep their shows clean, but to keep drawing customers they had to be risqué. Whenever they went too far, they were raided.
Morton joined the company in 1924, after graduating from New York University, and worked at the Little Apollo Theater on 125th Street. There was a raid during the very first show. For the next four years, the theater showed a weekly profit of $20,000 after payola.
Billy's attempt, however, to present classy burlesque at the Park Theater on Columbus Circle failed miserably.
Another famous raid occurred in April, 1925, and inspired the book and film The Night They Raided Minsky's. By this time it was permissible for women in shows staged by Ziegfeld, George White, and Earl Carroll – as well as burlesque – to appear topless as long as they did not move (a similar rule in London burlesque was famously demonstrated in the film Mrs. Henderson Presents). In a show at the National Winter Garden, Mademoiselle Fifi (née Mary Dawson from Pennsylvania) stripped to the waist and then moved. Occasionally a raid was triggered by the comedy material, but filthy comics did not last long, because they were a liability to the management.
Business boomed during Prohibition and the National Winter Garden's notoriety grew. Regular patrons included John Dos Passos, Robert Benchley, George Jean Nathan, Condé Nast, and Hart Crane (see Crane's poem "National Winter Garden" in The Bridge).
Billy realized that while burlesque could not be classy it could be presented in classy surroundings. In 1931 he proposed bringing the Minsky brand to Broadway, amid the respectable shows. The brothers leased the Republic Theater on 42nd Street and staged their first show on February 12. The Republic became Minsky's flagship theater and the capital of burlesque in the United States. (The theater is now called the New Victory and, ironically, specializes in children's entertainment.) Other burlesque shows were inspired to open on 42nd Street at the nearby Eltinge and Apollo Theaters.
The Great Depression ushered in the greatest era for burlesque, and Minsky burlesque in particular. Few could afford to attend expensive Broadway shows, yet people craved entertainment. Furthermore, there now seemed to be an unlimited supply of unemployed pretty women who considered the steady work offered by burlesque. By the time they finished expanding, the various Minskys controlled over a dozen theaters – six in New York and others in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Albany, and Pittsburgh. They even formed their own "wheel."
Minsky's featured comics Phil Silvers, Joey Faye, Rags Ragland, Zero Mostel, Jules Munshin, Jimmy Savo, Pinky Lee, Morey Amsterdam, Red Buttons, Benny Rubin, Irving Benson, Red Skelton, and Abbott and Costello, as well as headlining stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Others included Danny Kaye, Jack Albertson and Robert Alda, as well as strippers Lili St. Cyr, Georgia Sothern, Ann Corio, Margie Hart, Mara Gaye and Sherry Britton. These women, who began stripping in their teens, made between $700 and $2,000 a week.
With burlesque thriving in New York (there were now 14 burlesque theaters, including Minsky's rivals), competition was fierce. Each year, various license commissioners issued restrictions to keep burlesque from pushing the limits. But convictions were rare, so theater managers saw no need to tone down their shows.The Minskys emphasized that a good strip-tease dance must know exactly the right psychological moment to remove each garment. 'It is not just a matter of going on the stage and taking off clothes - it needs finesse.'
In 1935, irate citizens' groups began calling for action against burlesque. Fiorello H. LaGuardia deemed them a "corrupting moral influence." The city's license commissioner, Paul Moss, tried to revoke Minsky's license but the State Court of Appeals ruled that he did not have grounds without a criminal conviction. Finally, in April, 1937, a stripper at Abe Minsky's New Gotham Theater in Harlem was spotted working without a G-string. The ensuing raid led to the demise not only of Minsky burlesque but of all burlesque in New York. The conviction allowed Moss to revoke Abe's license and refuse to renew all of the other burlesque licenses in New York.
After several appeals, the Minskys and their rivals were allowed to reopen only if they adhered to new rules that forbade strippers. The owners went along, hoping to stay in business until the November election when reformist mayor Fiorello La Guardia might be voted out. But business under the new code was so bad that many New York burlesque theaters closed their doors for good. By the time La Guardia was re-elected, the word "burlesque" had been banned and, soon after, the Minsky name itself, since the two were synonymous. With that final blow, burlesque and the Minskys were finished in New York.
Of all the Minskys, only Harold, Abe's adopted son, remained active in burlesque. Harold started at age nineteen at the height of the Great Depression, learning the business by working in all facets from the box office to theater management. "At nineteen, Harold took over the business from his father. Every summer, his parents went to Europe for vacation and the theatres would close due to the heat in New York City. Theatres weren’t air-conditioned. The performers begged Harold to keep his doors open; the girls were broke, and they desperately needed the money from the performances. So Harold stayed open and, though a ticket cost a dime, 'He made over a million dollars,' claimed his wife Dardy Minsky.” By his early twenties, Harold had already produced shows. Harold was the first one to do nudity is a nice way.
Harold would become responsible for discovering and grooming dozens of the most famous names throughout the 1930s into the '50s. Harold claimed to have targeted future headliner fourteen-year-old Sherry Britton from an audition. Harold also employed and nurtured first-rate comic talents such as Phil Silvers.
In 1956, Harold brought the Minsky name to a Las Vegas revue at the Dunes, where it could exist without apology. Harold, Dardy and their two children moved there while he put on a show at the Dunes. He kept a chorus line, top-rate comedians, a snazzy band, and, of course, the star strippers. He did smashing business; for the first time making burlesque accessible to an upper-middle-class crowd. That revue ran for six years; subsequently, he moved Minsky productions into other landmark casinos such as the Silver Slipper, the Thunderbird, and The Aladdin.
Harold resided in Las Vegas until his death in 1977.