At the height of its popularity in the 1920s and ’30s, burlesque was the poor man’s Ziegfeld’s Follies. A man of means spent upwards of five dollars, which wasn’t chicken feed in those days, to ogle the topless chorines at the Follies or George White’s Scandals, while a burlesque ticket cost the average joe seventy-five cents or a buck. One name in burlesque stood out from all the rest: Minsky’s, run by Louis Minsky’s four sons Abe, Billy, Herbert and Morton.
Back in Belarus, the Minskys had been Selzers, a rabbinical line that included Louis’ grandfather, known as the Blind Maggid (itinerant preacher, storyteller) from Grodno. Louis was born Aryeh Lev Selzer. In the 1880s, with the czar’s army forcibly conscripting Jewish males, those who could buy false papers fled. Lev became Louis, and Minsky was for Minsk, the city nearest the Selzers’ shtetl. He sailed for the Lower East Side in 1883, leaving his wife and eldest son Avram home while he got set up in the new land. He started out peddling pins and needles on the street, but soon opened Minsky Wholesale Dry Goods and Notions on Orchard Street (later moved to Forsythe Street), supplying other peddlers. From there he moved up again, buying the Grand Museum at Grand Street and Bowery. On its four floors it housed a theater, a dime museum, boxing, and a minstrel hall. Louis tossed them all out and turned it into a department store. To draw customers in from the grime and soot of the El-shadowed street he installed a soda fountain dispensing seltzer and sarsaparilla. By mid-1890s he was a prosperous and respected man in the neighborhood, president of the Minsky Realty Company, and Big Tim Sullivan tapped him for alderman of the Sixth Ward to help secure for Tammany the neighborhood’s burgeoning Jewish vote.
Louis continued to be a pious man, president of his synagogue, but like a lot of folks around him he also slipped into some American ways. He bought fancy suits and a silver-topped cane, and in 1904 got embroiled in a bank scam, taking kickbacks for luring poor Jews from the neighborhood to put their savings in a Grand Street branch of the Federal Bank. When the bank failed Louis was arrested for grand larceny. Big Tim got him off, and the neighborhood shrugged. A bissel larceny, a bissel corruption — nothing new on the Lower East Side.
Louis did retain Orthodox views against secular arts and entertainment. In his 1986 memoir Minsky’s Burlesque, Morton says his father never watched a movie, and certainly would never set foot in his sons’ burlesque house. Adhering to the Orthodox injunction against graven images, he wouldn’t allow paintings to be hung in the family home at Second Avenue and Tenth Street. But when Avram, now Abe, came to him with an idea that combined real estate and a bit of show biz, Louis couldn’t deny him.
Abe had set his sights on an old pile of a building at 143 East Houston Street, between Forsyth and Eldridge Streets. It had been a Dutch Church, a German one, and then a boxing hall, the Houston Athletic Club, owned by Jack Rose. Born Jacob Rosenzweig, known as Billiard Ball Jack and Bald Jack for his shiny dome, Rose was a flashy hoodlum who also owned some opium dens and the Rosebud gambling house on Second Avenue. In 1909 Abe and a friend, Charlie Steiner, whose father owned a livery stable on Essex Street, talked Louis into buying the place for them. With minimal fixing up they turned it into the Houston Street Hippodrome, a nickelodeon that would also present Yiddish theater. The stage was where the pulpit had been, the projector was in the choir loft, and the audiences sat in the old, hard wooden pews. Between the short films the projectionist ran slides adjuring the audience not to spit on the floor or shout out the silent films’ dialogue (the intertitles were in Yiddish). Yonah Schimmel’s knish shop next door, famous for its blueberry cheese knishes, served as an ad-hoc snack bar.
Louis got wind that some of the films his son was showing were rather racy for the time — Morton remembers one titled The Butler and the Upstairs Maid — and ordered him out of the building. A few years later Steiner renamed it the Sunshine. After World War Two it was used for storage. Then in 2001 it was revived as the Landmark Sunshine, a hip multiplex. Yonah Schimmel’s shop, one of the last remnants of the old Jewish neighborhood, was still next door. It turned 100 in 2010.
Louis’ attitude toward entertainment wasn’t so stiff that he couldn’t see the profit potential in it. He and a partner built the National Winter Garden, an eight-story elevator building at the southwest corner of Houston and Chrystie Streets, opened in 1912. Trinity Church’s St. Augustine’s Chapel was right next door. The Winter Garden was designed by the great theater and movie palace architect Thomas W. Lamb. (He also designed the beautiful Loew’s movie palace that still stands on East Canal Street.) It included two theater spaces. On the street level, the National Theatre seated 1,700. Yiddish theater greats Boris Thomashevsky and Jacob Adler (Stella’s father) leased it. The other, smaller theater space was impractically located up on the sixth floor. Abe convinced Louis to let him show movies up there, promising there’d be no racy stuff this time.
Abe brought his brother Billy into the show biz with him. Billy needed a safe haven. Although he’d never made it through high school — he joked that he had a G. E. degree, as in Gutter Education — he’d become a reporter for the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer’s muckraking daily that was just then exposing the sordid connections between the ailing Big Tim’s gambling operations and one of his enforcers, the thoroughly corrupt and thuggish police lieutenant Charles Becker. Big Tim was going mad, probably from tertiary syphilis, and would die mysteriously in 1913. Meanwhile Becker was trying to take over given Tim’s increasing absence. When Becker leaned too heavily on Herman “Beansie” Rosenthal, a gambler who’d come up through the ranks of Big Tim’s rackets alongside the evil genius Arnold Rothstein, Rosenthal startled everyone by spilling the beans about the operation to the World. In July 1912 he was gunned down in the street. It was later revealed that Becker had ordered the hit, and that Bald Jack Rose had hired the hitmen’s getaway car. Rose offered damning testimony at Becker’s trial for murder, and Becker fried at Sing Sing in 1915.
Billy had been involved in the World's reporting. A few weeks after Rosenthal's assassination someone took a shot at him as he was entering the Minsky family home. It scared him out of the muckraking business and into the show business. He started out booking vaudeville acts to perform between Abe's films. (Even five-reel feature films ran less than an hour at this point, so “pick-vaud” combinations were common.) When it became obvious that Abe and Billy couldn't compete against either the bigger vaudeville concerns or the growing movie chains like Loew's — a big Loew's at Suffolk and Delancey Streets opened in 1912 (and would screen movies into the late 1970s) — Billy got the idea of converting the space to burlesque. They brought in the next brother in line, Columbia Law School grad Herbert, to help. Behind Louis' back, Herbert let the teenage Morton hang out in the theater. He would join the team when he dropped out of NYU in the mid-1920s.
Burlesque was still pretty innocent when they started out — far less risqué than the nearly-nude extravaganzas Flo Ziegfeld and George White put on uptown. The girls wore flesh-colored tights, or as Morton calls them, union suits. A man could see more skin in the ads in newspapers, he writes, than on the Minsky stage. Comedy and song predominated. Parents brought their kids, who were so entertained riding the rickety elevator — a marvelous novelty on the Lower East Side — that they often didn’t even go into the theater.
To compete with Ziegfeld and White, the Minskys decided the girls needed to show a little more flesh. It wasn’t really striptease until a hot night in 1917 when, according to Morton, “a red-haired beauty with a gorgeous figure” named Mae Dix removed the collar of her outfit on-stage. A wolf whistle from somewhere in the crowd encouraged her to continue. She peeled off her gloves, and the crowd — locals who had most likely never been up to see the goings-on at the Follies or Scandals — whistled and hooted. Mae had unbuttoned her bodice by the time the scandalized stage manager rang down the curtain. It was not the first striptease in America, but it was the first at Minsky’s. Within a couple of weeks cops showed up, saw the action, and arrested the first Minsky they could grab, Herbert. Soon after, the boys installed switches in the box office, connected to warning lights backstage. If the ticket-taker spotted a cop entering, the warning light went on and the cast instantly switched to “the Boston version” — burlesque and vaudeville slang for the clean version.
The girls, still in their tights, continued the stripping and teasing. Mae turned out to have a natural genius for it. She’s credited with inventing the banana costume Josephine Baker would make famous in Paris in the 1920s. In Mae’s act, the bananas were plucked off one at a time and tossed into the audience. In Paris Abe had seen girls strutting out runways into the audience. He brought the idea to the Winter Garden, the first burlesque runway in America. Billy put a new sign up outside, “Burlesque As You Like It – Not a Family Show.” He freely stole ideas the Follies and Scandals, and even put up a sign that said “The Poor Man’s Follies" until Flo threatened to sue.
After Prohibition came on in 1920, the many speakeasies downtown began to draw uptown slummers. They’d step out of taxis and limousines in their tuxes and gowns and swan into joints, like Manny Wolf’s speakeasy at Forsyth and Grand Streets, where they’d never have ventured before. And they discovered Minsky’s. As the Prohibition decade rolled on the crowds packing the place included both “neighborhoodniks” and toffs the locals called “the soup and fish.” Hart Crane wrote a poem, “National Winter Garden” (“Outspoken buttocks in pink beads/ Invite the necessary cloudy clinch/ Of bandy eyes”). E. E. Cummings drew sketches of the girls. John Dos Passos was a regular. Walter Winchell came, and Robert Benchley, and of course Mayor Jimmy Walker. Brooks Atkinson and Edmund Wilson wrote lovingly of Minsky’s in the Times and New Republic respectively. Wilson, a keen and penetrating observer, was struck by how “solemn” the men in the audience seemed when the girls strutted. He concluded they’d come to burlesque “to have their dreams made objective, and they sit there each alone with his dream.
Billy, an ebullient high roller by nature, spent his money as fast as it came in. He and his wife dazzled with his tuxes and her furs and a startlingly yellow Packard that had been hand-built for Babe Ruth, who rejected it as “too cheesy.” Billy bluffed his way into the Harvard and Yale Clubs, hobbed with the nobs, and began to build a burlesque empire. With a well-heeled investor named Joseph Weinstock — who sounds like the classic cigar-chewing, girl-pawing backstage johnny — Billy brought burlesque to the Park Music Hall on Columbus Circle, where the first musical version of The Wizard of Oz had been staged in 1903. Billy flopped there, but had more success at “the Little Apollo” on 125th Street. (Not the Apollo, though that too started out as a burlesque hall.)
Minsky’s Winter Garden would be immortalized, with a great deal of creative license, in Rowland Barber’s 1960 novel The Night They Raided Minsky’s, poorly adapted for the screen by Norman Lear and William Friedkin in 1968, with Morton as a technical advisor. Untangling fiction, fact and legend would vex historians of burlesque ever after. John Sumner, who had taken over the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice after Anthony Comstock retired, had been visiting Minsky’s regularly, notebook and pencil stub in hand. The Society had no official government standing but tremendous pull; Sumner could call in the cops at any time. It wasn’t the chorus girls he found lewd and obscene so much as the bawdy comic routines, which traded in a lot of innuendo and double entendre. (Red Buttons, Phil Silvers, Danny Kaye and Abbott and Costello would all hone their chops with the Minskys.) Sumner sent Louis Minsky a warning letter. Louis was not clueless about what the boys were up to. His office was also on the sixth floor, and he walked past the theater every day muttering darkly and shaking his head. Now he figured the best thing for his sons would be to get raided, after which he could shut them down. So he kept the letter a secret from them.
Sumner was in the house on April 20 1925. So was Joe Weinstock, who had a thing for the program’s headliner, Mademoiselle Fifi. Fifi was May Dawson, a cooch dancer from Philadelphia who’d previously played Billy’s Little Apollo with great success. In Barber’s book, Dawson’s father, a Philadelphia vice cop, was also in the house this night, having come to see what his wayward daughter was up to in New York. Both Morton and Dawson later said this was one of Barber’s many fanciful embellishments. As Fifi headlines the finale, a racy tribute to La Boheme, Barber has her spotting her father in the wings and running off the stage — to the other side, where Billy begs her to get back out there and wow ‘em, by whom he means Weinstock. She goes back on-stage and, gyrating like a vamp, strips topless. By 1925 topless girls frozen in tableaux vivants were old news, permitted by law as long as they didn’t move. Fifi was definitely moving. Sumner blew his police whistle, the half-dozen cops he’d planted in the audience jumped up, and pandemonium ensued. Paddy wagons ferried cast and crew, including Billy and Fifi, to the station house. Weinstock showed up there as well. He’d loved Fifi’s act and bailed them out.
Dawson came out of obscurity in 1975 and denied she ever went topless, that night or any other. Though the Minskys were raided dozens of times, there’s no record of one at the Winter Garden on the night in question. At any rate, in Barber’s account the ensuing trial, presided over by a Tammany judge who was friendly to Weinstock and the Minskys, took seven weeks to play out, including one notable day when Sumner was directed to stand before the judge and demonstrate what he meant by Fifi’s “indecent and immoral pelvic contortions.” The judge, after watching the head of the Society for the Suppression of Vice assay a cooch dance, dismissed the case.
If the Fifi story is largely fictional, it is true that burlesque had lost its innocence by the mid-1920s. The union suits were discarded and stripping became the centerpiece, the comedy and singing mere window-dressing. In 1931 Billy realized his dream of bringing burlesque to Broadway, when Weinstock helped him take over Oscar Hammerstein’s elegant Republic on Forty-Second Street and rename it Billy Minsky’s Republic Burlesque. It opened with great ballyhoo to a packed house of the soup and fish, while the legit theater owners in the neighborhood grumbled and gnashed their teeth. Gypsy Rose Lee, whom Billy had seen strutting her idiosyncratic stuff in Newark, became the Republic’s star, teasing more than stripping — all audiences ever saw from her were the long legs, a flash of breast, a wink of the g-string. It drove them wilder than the raunchiest striptease.
The Depression was ruinous to Billy’s legitimate Broadway neighbors, but good to the cheaper burlesque. As more and more legit theaters closed some were converted to burlesque, until Times Square was so crowded with strippers and tassel-twirlers that Mayor La Guardia, cleaning up the city’s sin pits in preparation for the 1939 World’s Fair, would bring the hammer down on the whole area.
The Minskys, in various combinations, wound up operating more than a dozen burlesque houses in New York and other cities, and had their own touring circuit. But their original Minsky’s at the National Winter Garden faltered and closed in 1931. With burlesque on Broadway, Prohibition straggling toward its inevitable end and the Depression littering the sidewalks outside the theater with armies of the homeless, there was no way to lure uptown audiences downtown anymore. The building would house movie theaters into the early 1950s and was torn down in 1959. Today an anonymous brick and glass monolith looms over the entire block, with a Whole Foods in it.
Billy had barely made his Broadway dreams come true when he fell off the Republic stage during a rehearsal in 1932, prompting a sudden flare-up of his Paget’s disease. He died, only 41 years old. Herbert and Morton soldiered on at the Republic without him, racking up good box offices despite pressures from all directions. After Billy died Abe broke with them and became their competition in what the press called “the battle of burlesque.” It had the effect of further coarsening the shows, as both sides told their girls to strip farther and bump harder. One performer at the Republic, Margie Hart, is thought to have introduced to New York a device known as “the Chicago g-string,” a triangle of fur that gave the illusion of total nudity. This trend in turn only increased La Guardia’s determination to shut them all down. They even fought with Gypsy, who led a uniquely entertaining strippers’ picket line to force them into paying better in 1935.
In 1937 La Guardia succeeded in closing the Republic. In a further insult he even banned the Minsky name from appearing on any theater in the city. The Republic, renamed the Victory, turned into a movie house during the war. In the 1970s, when Times Square sank into an even deeper pit of sin than ever, the Victory led the way down as the first porn theater in the area. It’s where De Niro takes Cybil Sheppard in Taxi Driver. Then, reborn again in the 1990s as the New Victory, it became the cornerstone of the family-friendly Times Square we know today.
Abe died in 1949, Herbert a decade later. Morton lived on to see the family name revived and vindicated in Barber’s sympathetic novel and the mythologizing film adaptation. He wrote his memoir, published in ‘86, and died the year after, at the age of 85.
by John Strausbaugh