Renaissance Noir as Finn the Stormtrooper and Pizza Wolf, Asha Rabbit, Maso Kiss, and Honeytree Evileye as Stormtroopers inJD Hickock as Palpatine in Broad St. Burlesque’s show, May the Fourth Be With You.
A long, long time ago (the late nineteenth century,) in a galaxy far away (Philadelphia,) burlesque became a popular genre of theater. Burlesque took multiple cities by storm beginning with New York City in 1868 when the British burlesque troupe, Lydia Thompson and the British Blondes had a traveling performance. While American Burlesque developed from Victorian Burlesque, New York performances began putting their own spin on shows, which has since morphed into modern burlesque.
While the origins of American Burlesque are mostly credited to New York City, Philadelphia has its own rich history of burlesque that continues today with performances of a pop culture nature, like Star Wars, that are popular today.
“Exterior of 11th St. Opera House, a Philadelphia theater advertising Dunmont’s Minstrels, burlesque, and Buffalo Bill’s Ranch 101.” Via Library of Congress
Burlesque shows hovered on the line of social boundaries and muddied the waters of constraints such as gender and race. They were comprised of elements like absurd comedy and parodies developed from Victorian Burlesque and comedy skits, music, and dancing that were inspired by popular Minstrel Shows, which were racist shows consisting of blackface and the mockery of African-Americans.
Photograph of Gypsy Rose Lee performing sometime between 1930-1940, taken by Vandamm Studio. Photo Via NYPL
Dumont’s Theater, in Philadelphia, which began as a minstrel venue, was one of many burlesque theaters in the city located in the Tenderloin, which was known as a sex and vice location in Center City. In 1870, the Arch Street Opera House was built on Arch Street and became the center of burlesque in Philadelphia in the early 20th Century and hosted many traveling shows. Gypsy Lee Rose, a famous burlesque performer, got her big break in the Arch Street Opera house when she was noticed by Billy Minsky who gave her a headlining position in his New York City burlesque theater, Minsky’s Burlesque.
The Troc Theater, also known as the Arch Street Opera House via Library of Congress.
Burlesque’s increasing focus on nudity began in the early nineteenth century and by the early twentieth century, it delved into the Columbian Circuit, which focused on clean shows and the Empire Circuit, which tried to be as sexual and raunchy as possible. In the 1920s, shows became more professional and lost the outlier appeal and the boundary-pushing they once had. In the 1950s, many burlesque venues closed down as the genre went out of style.
Pizza Wolf as Darth Vader in the opening number of Broad St. Burlesque’s show, May the Fourth Be With You.
As many performance styles do, burlesque made its way back into popularity in the ’90s with neo-burlesque. Once again, the genre pushed boundaries. The new burlesque tackled issues like queer theory, feminism, body positivity, sex positivity. Philadelphia was at the forefront of the revival when Annie A-Bomb, Annie Frangiosa, performed with her Philadelphia Burlesque group the Peek-A-Boo Revue and founded the Philadelphia School of Burlesque.
Sharp Robert as Jar Jar Binks in Broad St. Burlesque’s show, May the Fourth Be With You.
On May 4th, commonly known as Star Wars Day, Broad Street Burlesque took to the stage for their Star Wars show, May the Fourth Be With You. As is common with modern burlesque, the show used a timely pop culture subject to address issues of oppression and feminism. the show focused on Rey, played by Liberty Rose, accepting The Force, which was a metaphor for burlesque and personified in human form, played by Francis Menotti.
Francis Menotti as The Force and Liberty Rose as Rey posing for a photo for Untapped Cities at the end of their show, May the Fourth Be With You.
The Force took on the position of a pushy male and tried to force Rey into her force filled destiny. When he invited audience members onto the stage to “force the force on them,” multiple audience members yelled, “consent is mandatory.”
Asha Rabbit as Leia and Liberty Rose as Rey having a heart to heart in Broad St. Burlesque’s show, May the Fourth Be With You.
The most iconic moment was when Leia, played by Asha Rabbit, graced the stage to give Rey a pep talk. Rey relayed that she was tired of men telling her what to do and Leia insisted that she needed to follow what was in her heart and do what’s right for herself. Leia then alluded to her infamous slave bikini outfit when she said, “a giant slug kidnapped me and forced me to wear that outfit,” (to which the audience booed) and went on to say that she uses The Force because she enjoys it.
Maso Kiss as Kylo Ren and JD Hickock as Palpatine during the America’s Next Top Sith Apprentice Segment of Broad St. Burlesque’s show, May the Fourth Be With You.
While there was a lot of empowerment, feminism, characters that were played by opposite genders than the characters, comedy was also a central focus. During the final two scenes, the headliner, General Palpatine, played by JD Hickock, announced America’s Next Top Sith. He first announced Kylo Ren, played by Maso Kiss, as the winner but to reference the recent Oscars debacle, announced that he had the wrong envelope and declared Darth Jar Jar, played by Sharp Robert, as the winner. This was a nod to the headcanon that Jar Jar Binks is really a Sith in disguise.
Sharp Robert as Darth JarJar and JD Hickock as Palpatine in the conclusion of Broad St. Burlesque’s show, May the Fourth Be With You.
May the Fourth be With You was a timely representation of what many burlesque shows look like today. Using pop culture, comedy sketches, music, dance, and tasteful strip teases, the show tackled multiple social issues while providing a fun, safe and lighthearted environment for attendees.
Renaissance Noir as Finn, Liberty Rose as Rey, and Flirt Vonnegut as C3Po, the self-proclaimed overqualified discarded panty retriever.
Make sure to check out Broad Street Burlesque’s upcoming show, Twin Peaks- Damn Fine Burlesque on June 23rd. Also check out Wookiedelphia’s page, as they provided fantastic Star Wars music during the show.
JD Hickock as Palpatine in Broad St. Burlesque’s show, May the Fourth Be With You.
Asha Rabbit glittered out in honor of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in Broad St. Burlesque’s show, May the Fourth Be With You.
Get in touch with the author at @LitByLiterature