The first American showgirls emerged in the United States in 1907, created by producers such as Florenz Zigfried and Margaret Kelly Leibovici, otherwise known as Miss Bluebell.
Striptease was one of the many sideshows featured in travelling carnivals, and female performers incorporated the tent pole into their routines by climbing to the top and grinding their bodies against it.
Toward the end of the 18th and the start of the 19th century, a provocative belly dance known as the ‘hoochie coochie’ was unveiled in Philadelphia. The vaudeville trapeze artist Charmion performed a ‘disrobing’ act on stage as early as 1896. Charmion made her onstage entrance dressed in full Victorian dress, mounted the trapeze and undressed down to her acrobat leotard in the midst of the trapeze’s swinging motion.
The Minsky Brothers family business started out in New York City with a Lower East Side nickelodeon, a small indoor exhibition space dedicated to showing projected motion pictures.
At first the brothers showed respectable films but could not compete with the larger commercial picture theatres. They tried to bolster their shows by incorporating vaudeville performances, but could not afford the top acts. And so they considered burlesque acts, which were more affordable and supplied a new show every week.
The Minsky Brothers theatre was raided for the first time in 1917, when performer Mae Dix absent-mindedly began removing her costume before she reached the wings of the stage. The crowd cheered, and Mae Dix returned to the stage to continue removing her clothing to wild applause. Billy Minsky ordered the ‘accident’ to be repeated every night.
This became a vicious cycle. To keep their license the brothers had to keep their shows clean; however the risqué nature of the shows was what kept customers coming back again and again. As a result, authorities frequently raided the theatres.
In the wake of the Great Depression, few people could afford to attend expensive Broadway productions, which created a demand for affordable entertainment.
Furthermore, there were a multitude of unemployed young women who were willing to accept the steady work offered by burlesque. Burlesque was thriving in New York, boasting fourteen theatres. By the time they finished expanding, the Minsky Brothers controlled over a dozen theatres in America – six in New York and others in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Albany, and Pittsburgh.
Billy Minsky realized that success in burlesque depended on how the women were featured on stage. The eldest brother Abe had actually visited Paris, and suggested installing a runway in the theatre to bring the women out into the audience, thus creating a more intimate experience. The Minsky Brothers were the first in the United States to feature a runway in their production.
Competition was fierce. Each year, various licensing commissioners issued restrictions to keep burlesque from pushing the limits, but convictions were rare so theatre managers saw no need to tone down their shows. The Minsky Brothers emphasized that a good striptease dance required finesse, and that was not just a matter of getting naked.
Headlining stripper Gypsy Rose Lee made between US$700 and US$2,000 a week performing in Minsky shows. Her innovations were an almost casual strip style compared to the herky-jerky styles of most burlesque strippers, and she emphasized the “tease” in “striptease”. Gypsy brought a sharp sense of humor to her act, and was famed as much for her onstage wit as for her strip style. She was frequently arrested in raids of the Minsky Brothers’ shows.
By 1925, it was acceptable for women to appear topless in shows as long as they did not move, much like the later Windmill Girls in London. In 1937 theatres were prohibited from holding striptease performances altogether, later leading to the decline of these ‘grindhouses’ (referring to the bump ‘n’ grind’ entertainment on offer).
Widespread bans on striptease had a direct influence on the creation of venues dedicated specifically to exotic entertainment, whose audiences were narrowed down to men seeking to indulge themselves in sexual fantasies.
In the 1950s, the casinos in Las Vegas attempted to outdo each other by making their shows bigger and better than the rest. This is where the enormous headdresses and exquisite costuming ideas originated, and it was during this time that the Las Vegas showgirl became an icon of the city. Several of the French revues came to Las Vegas in the 1960s, including the Folies Bergere.
This began to unfold in the late 1950s with Donn Arden’s Lido de Paris at the Stardust, Jack Entratter’s Copa Girls at the Sands, and Harold Minsky’s Follies at the Desert Inn. Minsky introduced the first topless showgirls in Vegas at the Dunes in 1957.
In the 1950s and 1960s, there were showgirls in every hotel and casino on the strip. Showgirls originally danced in the background around the headliners, and it wasn’t until later that the showgirls became the star attraction of the shows.