I’d heard about the neo-burlesque movement of recent years but I hadn’t seen any performances. From the pictures I’d seen of the performers, I couldn’t muster any motivation. Recently, however, I was subjected to a brief unscheduled performance that preceded a film showing.
Two overweight women came out and plodded around the stage and stripped down to pasties and G-strings. One had an inordinate amount of cellulite in her buttocks. I felt as though I was looking through a telescope at two crater-pitted moons revolving around Heranus.
There were ritual cries of “Take it off!” and wolf whistles, but it all rang pretty hollow. It certainly wasn’t eyeball candy…eyeball castor oil maybe. Thankfully, the two women were only on briefly before the movie started.
Well, if you’ve ever seen pictures or old videos of the classic burlesque queens, such as Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm, or Ann Corio, you know that their adipose tissue was where it was supposed to be and not where it wasn’t supposed to be: In other words, the classic hourglass figure. The women I saw had figures more like those 33-ounce beer glasses the Germans hoist at Oktoberfest.
Believe it or not, there was a time when overweight girls (“pleasingly plump” as my grandmother was wont to say) were popular on the burlesque circuit. It had nothing to do with body positivity. It was supply and demand. There was a market for chubby chasers back then.
The prime mover behind this fat fetish was a vaudeville veteran known as Billy Watson. Born Isaac Levy on the Lower East Side somewhere between 1852 and 1867 (his date of death, however, is firmly established as January 14, 1945), Billy Watson did it all: Actor, writer, comedian, critic, director, emcee, and songwriter, among other pursuits. Logically enough, all this show biz savvy qualified him to be an impresario. Knowing that repeat customers are the lifeblood of a successful business, he knew it was essential to keep his musical revues fresh so patrons would come back. So in 1909 he decided to recast his chorus girls.
Before the late 19th Century, the fleshy girl was the norm in feminine beauty. Don’t take my word for it. Go to an art museum and see for yourself. Especially notable was the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), from whose nudes are derived the adjective “rubenesque.” This is an all-purpose adjective that could be positive (voluptuous), neutral (plump) or negative (lard ass).
Flash forward a few centuries to the Gibson Girl, the creation of artist Charles Dana Gibson. Like the burlesque queens, this ubiquitous artistic ideal sported an hourglass figure, albeit fully clothed. And she remained the ideal into the first decade of the 20th Century when Billy Watson was in his prime.
Like most impresarios, Billy Watson was a bit of a gambler. He had a hunch that a lot of men missed the plumpers of their youth and would pay money to see them on stage once again. So Watson held a casting call for chorus girls for his proposed Beef Trust Beauties. As it turned out, they were more than a little overweight, as 180 pounds was the minimum requirement. Some overachievers were closer to 250 than 200.
Now at first blush, the word “beef” may seem highly insensitive as it compares women to bovine creatures. Nothing new about that, of course. Women have long been likened to cows and it has never been complimentary. But Billy Watson had something more in mind.
When the Beef Trust Beauties made their debut in 1909, the phrase “beef trust” was already a thing with the public. Upton Sinclair’s best-selling 1906 novel The Jungle dealt with shady business practices in the Chicago meat packing industry. In Sinclair’s muckraking classic, it appeared that the leading names in the industry (Swift and Armour, among others) had formed a trust.
Before the rise of corporations, trust was a good thing. The word had nothing but positive connotations. Towards the end of the 19th Century, it had come to mean corporations colluding to avoid competition and fix prices, creating a de facto monopoly. Famously, Standard Oil magnate John D. Rockefeller had once denounced competition as a “sin.” If small businesses struggled and consumers paid higher prices, at least they weren’t sinners.
The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was passed to tackle the problem, but enforcement was delayed until VP Theodore Roosevelt ascended to the White House after William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. TR quickly established a reputation as a trust buster. A series of trustbusting indictments were pursued. The first was against railroads but others followed. The beef trust was broken up by the Supreme Court in 1905.
At any rate, the beef trust was on the public’s mind during the first decade of the 20th Century. So Billy Watson came along and tapped into the phrase to name his overstuffed chorus line. The name implied that Watson had cornered the market on porker pulchritude. If daddy liked ‘em buxom, this was the show for him!
Not surprisingly, the girls were the butt of jokes by reviewers. One of them wondered about the possibility of the stage collapsing while the “human pachyderms” pranced on it. Rumors of work crews shoring up stages before the Beef Trust Beauties came to town were rampant. Of course, many reviewers couldn’t help but notice the Beef Trust Beauties arose during the administration of William Howard Taft (elected in 1908), the fattest (340 pounds) President in U.S. history.
Whatever your taste in women today, Watson was on to something in 1909. The box office was boffo! As Watson put it, “People get the idea that just because a gal tops 200 she’s fat and nothing else, but she can still be big and beautiful. Why, I dare anybody to say my girls aren’t petite, and besides they can do more routines better than little girls can.”
Unfortunately, the names of these “girls” have been lost to history. It would be interesting to know how long they lived. Given their head start on diabetes, perhaps Watson had an endocrinologist on retainer.
It could be mere coincidence that in 1911 one of the most popular tunes of the day was “Oh, You Beautiful Doll.” This was not just the name of the song but also the first line of the chorus. The second was “You great big beautiful doll.” Had lyricist Seymour Brown seen the Beef Trust Beauties?
Then there is Walt Disney. When Disney was a 10-year old boy in Kansas City, he had a friend from a theatrical family that introduced him to vaudeville. Is it possible that he had heard about, if he was not old enough to see, the Beef Trust Beauties when they were appearing in Kansas City? If so, it could have made a lasting impression on him, one that lingered almost 20 years and inspired the dancing hippos sequence in Fantasia, which came out in 1940.
Well, we are so far removed from the beef trust era that the phrase has no relevance today. Curiously, in subsequent years beef became associated with the male body (beefcake) while cheesecake became a common term for fetching female bodies.
The term “trust” was given a positive spin a couple of decades after the heyday of the Beef Trust Beauties when Theodore Roosevelt’s distant cousin Franklin was elected president in 1932. FDR’s cabinet was referred to as the Brain Trust. In this case, the term was a compliment, as it implied that FDR had cornered the market on brainiacs; he had chosen the best and the brightest to pilot the ship of state through the depths of the Depression.
The phrase might have been apt even as late as the JFK administration, which was compared to King Arthur’s Camelot, with the cabinet members presumably comparable to the knights of the round table. Given the results we’ve gotten from subsequent administrations, however, using the phrase “brain trust” to describe a President’s cabinet would only meet with laughter or scorn. Plus, the very phrase reeks of elitism, so any Presidential handler would advise the Prez never to utter it.
Of course, we still have trusts today, as contemporary corporate flow charts evince. We don’t call them trusts, however. Conglomerate seems to be the word of choice. So if anyone wanted to revive the Beef Trust Beauties, a new name would be in order. The Land Whale Blubber Revue maybe? On second thought, no; that would only invite protesters and bomb threats.
While fat-acceptance is all the rage today, I don’t think a contemporary version of the Beef Trust Beauties could be profitable. It was a phenomenon peculiar to its era. On the other hand, a revue of obese drag queens…definite commercial potential in clown world!
The Beef Trust Beauties revue was certainly not your father’s burlesque…but it might have been your great-great-grandfather’s.