Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Night They Raided Minskys

cont'd from previous post
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 girls 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 and Abbott and Costello, as well as stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Others included, Red Buttons and Robert Alda, as well as strippers, Georgia Sothern, Ann Corio, Margie Hart, 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.
In 1935, irate citizens' groups began calling for action against burlesque. Fiorello H. LaGuardia, had 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 in the business 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. By his early twenties Harold had already produced shows.
In 1956 Harold brought the Minsky name to a Las Vegas revue at the Dunes, where it could exist without apology. 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.

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