Hippie-Strippies! The Dawning of Psychedelic Burlesque
by Howard Smith
THE ONLY THING that can get the New York press out at nine in the morning is a major fire or a naked woman. The Mayfair Theatre was not exactly aflame. Nevertheless, a patient horde of cameramen and reporters waited an hour on Tuesday morning to witness the first psychedelic burlesque show audition.
Sticks of burning incense were passed around. Cameras took pictures of cameras. Producer Art Steuer in a brown Mao suit, white shoes, American flag tie, and "Dick Gregory for President" button roamed about the theatre handing out longstemmed pink carnations which were promptly attached to cameras, microphones, lapels, and ears.
A few bewildered potential hippie-strippies straggled in.
Two of them were off-duty artists' models, one a secretary at NYU, another a student of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School. Without too much ado they were whisked onto the stage where a five-piece rock group called the Burning Bush launched into a song. The girls began to dance and shed their clothes a bit awkwardly but quickly. One peeled to a pair of men's white cotton jockey shorts. She later explained that they were her boyfriend's and the only clean pair in the house. Another girl kept on her floppy brown hat. None of them had maxi stripper bodies; all were young, cool, and mini-chested, with very plain faces. The only pretty girls in the theatre were camera assistants, and they kept their clothes on.
As the naked girls swayed and jerked, the irrepressible Kusama suddenly appeared, sashaying around the stage flinging the dancing girls' clothes into the audience, and then, hopping from foot to foot, attacked each one with paint brush and spray can, polka-dotting their bodies in red and gold. Cameras flashed madly as the number proceeded in riotous amateurness. The girls looked as out of place as they had from the start, but everyone seemed to be having a great time. The girls smiled as they danced and the distinguished gentlemen of the press smiled back. When the band finished the girls filed quietly off stage.
What followed was perhaps the highlight of the morning. Steuer gleefully announced the appearance of the first topless camerawoman. Ruth Rose jounced on in a gold lame G-string holding a 35mm camera above her head. She was a mountain of jiggling flesh, bumping and grinding and clicking away in the only remotely stripper-like motions of the day. She photographed the band, the audience, and the people in the wings. Coyly turning her back she snapped the audience over her shoulder. She leered. Her flesh rolled like jello, and her camera looked obscene.
Poster-sized lusty photos of authentic strip queens gazed down from the walls of the theatre, full red lips puckered in petulant smiles. Steuer assured us that with this event burlesque was revived and brought up to date. Psychedelic trappings for a turned-on generation will make it the great American folk art it once was, he said. Goodbye, Sally Rand?
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]