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When it comes to the history of the striptease, Chicago has more to show for itself than any other city in America. Rachel Shteir, the head of dramaturgy at DePaul’s Theatre School, dates the American striptease back to 1893 when the famed World’s Columbian exhibitionist, “Little Egypt,” originated the Hootchy Cootch. Little Egypt, who wowed millions of fairgoers on the Midway, was arguably the first mass-entertainment erotic star. Clad in vaguely Middle Eastern harem garb, the performer, Shteir says, was the first to import another loose arabesque: “belly dancing,” borrowed in fact from Paris, where orientalism was all the rage. One distinctly American addition was the tune, still sung on playgrounds, about a place in France where the naked ladies dance. The tune came out of a cocktail-party improvisation by Sol Bloom, the impresario who imported the exotic entertainment. Watch any cartoon with a reference to belly dancers or snake charmers, and you hear the very music Little Egypt danced to.
Oddly enough, Little Egypt, the performer, remains a mystery. No doubt fairgoers went to see the dancer. One contemporary news account described the Hootchy Cootcher thus: “When she dances every fiber and every tissue in her entire anatomy shakes like a jar of jelly from your grandmother’s Thanksgiving dinner. Now gentlemen, I don’t say that she’s that hot. But I do say that she is as hot as the Fourth of July in the hottest county in the state.” A 1951 movie, Little Egypt, directed by Northwestern grad Frederick De Cordova (later the director of The Tonight Show), purportedly chronicled the dancer’s life. “Who Little Egypt was is one of the more controversial topics among historians of the striptease,” Shteir says. “Some think she was English, some think she was in fact a lot of different dancers, some think she was a man.”
The scarcity of details didn’t dampen the phenomenon she set in motion. “The belly dance grew into the bump and grind and the shimmy of Jazz Age dance,” Shteir observes. “It was picked up everywhere. It became an indispensable part of entertainment with many performers learning it to be popular.” That was certainly the case in vaudeville and in burlesque, which was previously performed by women dancing and kicking in tights. But belly dancing was also popular in operas, such as Richard Strauss’s 1905 Salome, and in highfalutin dance performances, such as those of Isadora Duncan.
The World’s Columbian Exposition also gave rise to the most famous skin-show impresario. As manager of Sandow the Strong Man, Chicago-born Florenz Ziegfeld ran a male strip show in another venue on the Midway. “The difference between the male and female performances,” says Shteir, “is that the masculine version stressed athleticism.” Wink, wink. In 1896 Ziegfeld went on to launch his New York production business, which a decade later grew into the Ziegfeld Follies.
Shteir’s familiarity with the exotic past along the Midway is not altogether new. The New York native holds a BA in Near Eastern studies from the University of Chicago, where she made big Egypt her object of study. Shteir pursued theater on the side, working at the Court Theatre on productions of Greek tragedies under the aegis of translator David Grene and director Nicholas Rudall. She also took a two-year hiatus from the U. of C. to study in Tunisia, and following graduation she spent four months in Cairo. Her intention had been to continue in Near Eastern studies, though even while abroad she gravitated toward thetheater. On her return, she decided to enter the Yale School of Drama’sgraduate program in dramaturgy,employing the techniques of literary textual analysis to works for the stage. “I was always interested in popular, not just dramatic, theater,” she says. “I was especially drawn to the question of how people transformed themselves through theater. Burlesque was the lowest rung on the entertainmenthierarchyfull of jokes and girlsbut it was also a means to create a new persona for the performers.”
One of Shteir’s friends from Yale adopted the alias “Wednesday” and moved to New York to become a stripper and dominatrix. “I kept up with her and found that her personality transformed very quickly. It became all about what she could get, centered on the commercial exchange. There was nothing romantic or sentimental about it for her, and especially not about the sex.” Like Wednesday, most strippers hail from a world far from the Hootchy Cootch. “They come from nowhere,” Shteir says, “women from rural Pennsylvania and Georgia who wanted to get the heck out but who had no other means. Stripping afforded them glamour, albeit a seamy, second-hand sort of glamour.”
Following graduate school, Shteir spent time in and out of writers’ colonies trying to put together a memoir of her time in Tunisia. She eventually set that work aside to focus more fully on the bump and grind. “I found there weren’t any good histories of the striptease and I felt it was a lost culture that needed to be captured.” Shteir has recently completed a book, Grit, Glamour, and the Grind: A History of Striptease, for Oxford University Press.
Her study repeatedly led her back to Chicago. The classic stripteaseas opposed to the erotic shimmywas born here by accident. In 1926 Hinda Wassau, a Kansas City girl who came to Chicago at a young age (probably around 16), was performing at the State-Congress Theater. She had on two costumes, one of which she was to shed to reveal the scantier number underneath. The two caught together, and Wassau tugged at the outer garment so hard both came off. The crowd went wild. Afterward, the theater manager scolded her, complaining that she would run him out of business. Tex Guinan, one of the only woman nightclub owners of the Jazz Age, hired Wassau to repeat the act in her clubs.
“Chicago was always racier than New York,” Shteir says. “It gave birth, for instance, to the Chicago G-string in 1930, and was the first place to warm to famous strippers like Margie Hart, the G-string’s foremost perpetrator.” Calculated to conceal and reveal at the same time, the Chicago G-string was designed to look like pubic hair. New York, then under the thumb of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s decency campaigns, had banned it. But Chicago didn’t flinch. The city was already peppered with big burlesque houses, among them the Rialto, the Star and Garter, the Trocadero, Minsky’s, and the Music Box. (Shteir will talk about “Burlesque in Chicago” at 4 PM this Friday,May 18, at DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus, 1150 W. Fullerton, room 202; call 773-325-7537 for more.)
Chicago’s openness also created an atmosphere where strippers could move upscale. Sally Rand, a failed film actress, enthralled crowds at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in the early 30s. She danced nude behind a fan of swan feathers manipulated ever soartfully to the strains of classical music.
The striptease and the burlesque theaters that provided its poshest venues were eventually outflanked by nightclubs, which could offer liquor and raunchier pleasures, and by the mainstreaming of erotica by the likes of Playboy, which in dishing up nudes of the “girls next door” dashed the allure of the peek-a-boo stripper act.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.