PS sends me an old theater program from Treasure Island’s California Auditorium of 1940: Clifford C. Fischer’s Folies Bergere, showing a gorgeous “doll” with a strategically placed feather boa, pearls, black hat, red shoes, and nothing else.
I read that this Parisian production, premiering at the Golden Gate International Exposition (1939-1940), “grew legs” and remained in the San Francisco area, so popular was the Folies Bergere, known for generations from its music-hall home in Paris at 32 rue Richer, 9th Arrondissement, open for burlesque business since 1869.
The Golden Gate International Exposition was a singular World’s Fair, celebrating San Francisco in honor of the city’s two new bridges, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (1936) and the Golden Gate Bridge (1937). That special island, Treasure Island, was created artificially and attached to Yorba Buena Island, near the Oakland and San Francisco spans of the new Bay Bridge. Massive piles of landfill went into the 385 acres island. Because the Fair was literally in the water, the subtitle of the exposition was “Pageant of Pacifica, Goddess of the Pacific Ocean.” Therefore, females were definitely a theme of this world’s fair.
Take, for example, Sally Rand’s wildly famous Fair show, “Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch,” (not Dude Ranch), her “nudies” beckoning behind semi-disclosing fence posts. Her show, aptly, was held on the “Gayway,” a 40-acre midway embracing the Fair’s amusement zone. If you wanted to keep your kids away from the “nudies,” you could shuffle them off to the “Gayway” racetrack, featuring monkeys taught to drive cars.
The Folies Bergere’s impresario directed the burlesque girls, featured in PS’s program, in a two and a half hour show of “talent,” including a cast of 120 beauties, “the world’s most gorgeous girls.” These “girls” included Malica, “a saucy little dancer,” Jean Devereaux, the spinning ballerina, Ardelty, the “daring” trapeze artist; and Rollo and Verna Pickert, who tap-danced on stilts, as we read in the Sausalito News. All this in very scant costumes.
The Folies Bergere became one of the 1939-40 Fair’s most popular shows. The Oakland Tribune, on July 30, 1939, covering the show on the night of its closing, writes, it had “nothing short of a phenomenal (run), which was interrupted,” and (usually) “an interrupted run spells failure. Once the attendance is broken, the public looses its white heat and apathy sets in. The Folies Bergere proves the exception to the rule.”
Clifford C. Fischer, the impresario, continues The Oakland Tribune, will henceforward be “faced with the problem of outdoing himself.” The Folies played at the Fair for 15 weeks, averaging $27,000 per week, for an astounding box office of $400,000. How payrates have changed, but not for burlesque. The Screen Actors Guild says a major performer or guest star will be paid a day rate between $3000 and $6200, depending on the genre of the show. Stripped: More Stories from Exotic Dancers by Bernadette Barton says this ‘genre’ of performer receives on the average between $500 and $3 a performance. Even at this, the Folies dancers in 1940 did not do as well. As much as things have change in this genre of performance, things remain the same.
The show featured extravagant costumes, huge sets, and very little clothing. The original Folies Bergere, in Paris, trademarked this eroticism in a famous performance in 1926 by Josephine Baker, who danced in a string of artificial bananas only.
Clifford C. Fischer carried on the erotic tradition at the Folies Bergere of 1939 at the Broadway Theater in NY, and the Folies Bergere of 1944 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The tradition continued until March 2009, at the Tropicana Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, closing after 50 years of titillating entertainment.
Since this show was so popular, PS’s program is not all that rare, and therefore not all that valuable, worth $25 in good condition. We needed some nudity at just about that time, when the world was facing WWII. And when it comes to World’s Fair memorabilia, the market is hot, because the supply is dwindling. My prediction is that PS will have a valuable piece in 25 years, because printed paper ephemera fades, is destroyed. Furthermore, this type of art form is becoming obsolete in the world of computer printing. The artist of the “doll” portrait on the cover, Irving Sinclair (18895-1969), was a well know San Francisco artist, whose portraits included Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, and the 1920’s celebrities of Fox West Coast Theatres, not just those pin-up girls of burlesque!
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Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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