How Britain Started Burlesque In America – The Story Of Lydia Thompson

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Lydia Thompson was born in Covent Garden in 1838, daughter of a pub landlord (who died only 4 years later) she left home at 14 to become a professional dancer. She spent the next few years performing in various shows and pantomimes in London until she went onto a tour of Europe in 1856. She became well known for her dance routines and vivacious character.

Thompson married John Christian Tilbury, a riding-master, in 1863, but sadly he died just fifteen months after their marriage in a steeplechasing accident. In the following years, she alternated between London and touring, mixing dancing and acting in plays.  She had various burlesque performance roles and her experience increased as did her reputation of excellence. Burlesque at this time mainly revolved around mocking either literature or a serious subject, an early form of parody – I love how “The Cabaret Club” has continued this into the modern day!

In 1868 Lydia married Mr Henderson and after quitting her role in ‘The Field of the Cloth of Gold’ at the Strand Theatre (in which she had performed 104 times) the two sailed to America. I can’t help but wonder if this had always been a dream of hers, I like to think she got bored of the monotonous routine and desired change – the big city was calling her. What a innovative and inspiring creative, I might have to take a leaf out of her book.

Lydia and her husband lead a small theatrical troupe, adapting popular English burlesque for middle-class New York audiences by adding topical and local references and reworking the lyrics of popular songs, while preserving the comedy of the burlesque form they had previously been part of.

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Lydia and her troupe

It was this troupe, who later became known as the “British Blondes”, who first introduced America to the burlesque form. The performers caused a scandal with their short skirts and skin coloured tights, but as is always the way, this only added to their fame and they quickly became in demand in New York.

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Their first show “Ixion” saw women playing male roles (an early form of drag!) which at the time would of course been quite controversial. Additionally the whole show was directed by women! This led to a huge amount of attention – which only meant that the show was an even bigger success. If you want to find out how the troupe dealt with one of their critics from the Chicago Times, I will leave you to find out …

By Natasha Steer

It is worth bearing in mind that at this point burlesque only involved cheeky outfits and not strip tease. An urban legend says that in 1900 during a performance by the famous Minsky Brothers, the performer Mae Dix lost her costume when it came undone – everyone went crazy and this is supposedly how burlesque evolved.

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