From Gaslight to Spotlight by Jessica Glasscock

by Natalie Hope McDonald

12 January 2004


Fan Dance

One can scarcely imagine a book being written about the gaze without it being conscious of image as much as it is explanation. Jessica Glasscock’s steady balance between word and image is what makes Striptease: From Gaslight to Spotlight so successful an exploration into the history of burlesque. Striptease is the only illustrated book on the subject.

In an early working chapter draft to be included in Glasscock’s book, the author defined burlesque in terms of linguistics. She wrote, “The definition of the word burlesque in The Oxford Modern English Dictionary (Second Edition) reads as follows: ‘burlesque n. 1 a comic imitation,parody. b a performance or work of this kind. c bombast, mock-seriousness. 2 US a variety show, often including striptease. adj. of or in the nature of burlesque. (burlesques, burlesqued, burlesquing) make or give a burlesque of. [from Italian burlesco].’”

cover art


Jessica Glasscock

From Gaslight to Spotlight

(Harry N. Abrams)

Despite the author’s allegiance to thesis, this witty book is neither overly academic nor dangerously frivolous, though Glasscock has a Masters in visual culture from New York. Nor is it missing vital links between the sly tradition of tease and the assault of naked imagery in today’s world, though Glasscock also worked with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights and Reproduction Freedom Projects. Instead, the book is very much a performance piece on its own accord. Tracing early 19th and 20th century burlesque performers, the book’s ode to the female form is poised around a fairly sturdy amount of “arts reporting.”

Glasscock references several instances in which popular magazines tackled burlesque early on:

Burlesque as contemporary phenomenon was well-evidenced in the mass-media of the 1950s, but it was also compartmentalized as an exotic or sociological phenomenon. Mass media depicts 1950s burlesque as urban, foreign, or marginal. The first 1950s mention of burlesque in the periodical Life falls into the nostalgia vein. It reviews Vaudeville: From the Honky-tonks to the Palace by Joe Laurie, Jr. and concludes that ‘[vaudeville] was killed by talking pictures, the radio and the greed of its management.’ In 1956, Life covers striptease as a fad in Paris where ‘the newest fad is the U.S. method of slow and coy disrobing.’ By 1958, Life announces the presence of striptease in Las Vegas in an article about conflict between east-side and west-side revues over ‘the extent of show-girl nudity that is both decent and lucrative to display.’ The tone of the Life articles is more tickled than scandalized. Still, burlesque and striptease are portrayed as exotic phenomena existing in the past or in exciting travel destinations.

Striptease does the opposite by legitimizing the form’s impact on culture, as well as how its own cues related much about each era in social history. Rather than being a visual assault along the lines of the fast food cultural tendency for the “here and now,” the book reads less about tits and ass and more about the icons of stripping, including Gypsy Rose Lee, Blaze Star, Tempest Storm, Maud Allen and Lili St. Cyr. But if you’re hoping to find definitive biographies on the pantheon of strippers from burlesque’s past, present and future, you won’t find it here. The author spends more time establishing the history of the form rather than going into intricate details about the players, although this book is excellent at naming names. It could easily be used as a resource for future reference, as few other art books have really conquered this subject as well.

The book pays tribute to women who have made vocations of sex appeal by balloon-popping, shimmying and prancing their ways across stages around the United States and Europe. Glasscock doesn’t draw any moral absolutes about this genre, though surely the artful ode can be considered a tribute in itself. However, the author does point out that perception is fluid, depending on whether a nude body is considered entertainment, art or tool. With surprisingly little attention paid toward the concept of the “male gaze,” Glasscock, instead, frames her retrospective around the impact that these women have had on culture, both selectively and in entirety.

Glasscock writes that response to a properly performed striptease is a physical one, but the stripper has to be more than physically exciting to be convincing, thus ushering in tease, subtlety and humor. The author makes no apologies about calling a stripper a performer and does justice by highlighting the theatrics involved in both the dance and the audience participation (or the physical response). Or as the immortalized Gypsy Rose Lee crooned in the Arthur Laurent’s musical Gypsy, “You gotta have a gimmick.”

Within the pages can also be found a satisfying amount of material and plenty of unusual facts. For instance, did you know that the famous Florenz Zeigfield can be attributed toward inspiring many of the first strippers, who became burlesque performers after first being involved in vaudeville and musical theatre? Or did you know that Times Square’s legendary foray into prostitution and stripping had a natural relationship to the Great White Way? Or that Gypsy Rose Lee actually “performed” controversy-free at the World’s Fair in 1939 New York?

Interestingly, the book’s publication preempted what would be the final performances of modern-day burlesque at New York’s Fez Under Time Cafe’s Va-Va-Va-Voom Room. In its closing chapter, Glasscock’s book makes mention of several of these “Fezbians,” including The World Famous *BOB* and Dirty Martini, who have picked up the pasties of the past and put them back on.

For the voyeur, the student of cultural studies, the old-timer or the fan, Striptease ironically does something that any good burlesque performer knows not to do: lays it all out in front of you. But with a good imagination, turning the pages of this Class A Abrams book will seem less like a lecture and more like a fan dance.

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