Burlesque! The word is so hidden under an accumulation of unfavorable connotations that the world has forgotten that burlesque, by definition, is nothing more nor less than immature, inexpensive musical comedy. One is apt to ignore the fact that burlesque, with its elemental appeal, is entitled to an honorable, if lowly, place in the scale of amusements.
Burlesque has a past, and a dark one it is. Twenty years ago the theatres which housed it were the rendezvous of gunmen, thieves and other representatives of knavery. Policemen watched their entrances and exits in order to trace the movements of "bad men"; "plain-clothes" officers mingled with the crowds on the inside, ready to "black-jack" the audience into order. On the stage nothing was too foul for utterance, no scene too low for presentation. Even in its exalted moments, the drama has tended to drag its feet in the mud, and the burlesque of twenty years ago rolled in the gutter.
First-nighters were recently amazed to learn that the leading critics of the metropolitan papers had consented to review the show at the opening night of the Columbia Theatre, New York's principal burlesque theatre. Broun and Benchley and Woolcott, and all the rest of them, occupied aisle seats at the performance, and printed their formal reviews in their publications. The meaning of the incident soon became plain: the authorities recognized the effort made by the better element in burslesque to clean house. The most prominent theatrical personages paid homage to the wagers of the bitterest war that the theatre has ever known.
This week the demonstrations are being continued. The dramatic story of how Mr. Sam Scribner and his associates of the Columbia Amusement Company fought for two decades against precedent, against hostile managers, against indifferent actors, is being re-told; and now their triumph has been proclaimed.
Burlesque will never be considered the highest form of theatrical entertainment, but it will furnish its millions of patrons with clean amusement, and all because a few men had the courage of their convictions. All the drama of the theatre is not enacted upon the stage.