The History of Burlesque in America: A Midwestern Tale

Jun 9, 2015

The art form known as burlesque has a distinctly American influence. And within its American heritage, burlesque owes much to a Midwestern influence.

That aspect is especially on display in an exhibit open now at the Charles Allis Art Museum in Milwaukee. Stars such as Gypsy Rose Lee, Lili St. Cyr, Rose La Rose, Dixie Evans and contemporary performers such as Dita von Teese and Amber Ray are examined. 

"Burlesque...is no longer the mainstream that it was, but it has influenced all the major forms of entertainment today," says Annemarie Sawkins.

Sawkins is one of two guest curators of the More on Less: The History of Burlesque in America from Lydia Thompson to Amber Ray exhibit. The display can be seen at the Charles Allis Museum until July 5th.

A book by Karen Abbott "lays bare" the myths and facts about burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee.
Credit Getty Images

With the current focus of the Charles Allis Art Museum on the history and art of burlesque, it’s hard to think about burlesque without bringing up the name Gypsy Rose Lee.

Gypsy’s story, of course, was made famous by the stage and movie musical about her, and her overbearing stage mother.

Writer Karen Abbott tries her best to get to the real story of Gypsy. Abbott's 2011 book, called American Rose:  A National Laid Bare, chronicles the life and times of Gypsy Rose Lee. The book goes from her youngest days in Seattle, through her time in Vaudeville to most notably, her strip tease work in burlesque.