This article was published in Issue No. 28, Fall 1998, of Naturally

© 1998. All rights reserved. John Bramhall.

Nudity on the American Stage

by John Bramhall

The very notion of nudity in the American theater really did not come into play until the early years of the previous century. In Colonial America, society was ruled by such a stultifying atmosphere of rigid puritanism that no theater fare of any kind could be offered. Of all the arts, the theater was subjected to more condemnation from the pulpit than any other entertainment medium. From its European heritage, the theater was associated by the straitlaced with vagabond performers, rambunctious and hedonistic audiences, and plays that were irreverent and sometimes even ribald.

As such, no playhouses existed in Colonial America until 1716 --- with the exception of a handful in the more tolerant South. In 1714, the First Continental Congress legally banned all kinds of "shows, plays and other . . . entertainments." Even after America won her independence and theaters were legalized, Puritan opposition still banned theater in such places as Boston, which had no theater at all until 1794, and Philadelphia, where the theater was not legalized until 1789. Still, strong opposition continued into the 1830s, as opponents of the performing arts in America publicized the fact that many theaters contained bars, and at least one had an adjoining brothel.

The first public outrage over the public display of too much flesh upon the stage came in 1827, when the first major French ballet troupe visited New York City and made the more uptight members of the audience blush --- with some patrons even marching indignantly out of the theater --- at the dancers' skimpy costumes. That same thing happened a few years later with the visit of the ballet to Cincinnati.

With the dawn of the 19th century, though, such unreasonably strict standards were beginning to relax somewhat --- albeit quite slowly and evasively --- until in the 1840s risque shows labeled tableaux vivants or poses plastiques --- featuring scantily clad girls designed to give the illusion of stark nudity were presented at Palmo's Opera House in New York. Before long, many theaters were presenting similar performances; the price of admission ranged from six cents to one dollar. The fashionable Broadway Odeon Café offered such tableaux, entitled "Eve in the Garden of Eden" and "Esther in the Persian Bath," until the police raided the establishment one Sunday. After the proprietors paid a fine, though, the tableaux resumed and gradually became more and more popular, with the performers wearing less and less clothing, until finally some establishments were featuring totally nude girls prancing behind gauze. Eventually, the police stopped such shows in 1848, prompting the New York Sunday Messenger to pose the poetic query of whatever happened to:

Those nice tableaux vivants
Of beautiful young ladies sans
Both petticoats and pants,
Who, scorning fashions, shifts and whims,
Did nightly crowds delight,
By showing off their handsome limbs
At fifty cents a sight.

But once begun, the trend proved all but impossible to stem. In the 1850s, when the famed international stage star, Ada Isaacs Menken, clad only in pink tights, galloped across the stage bound to Mazeppa's back, critics called the performance "immodest, degrading and corrupting to chastity." By the pre-Civil War era, however, America and the rest of the English-speaking world had left the Puritan era and had entered into the Victorian --- an age in public prudery was countered by an equally pervasive private eroticism and a fascination with all things prurient, among them the unclothed human body.

In the 1860s the theater was still deplored by the prudent and denounced from the pulpit, but its popularity --- whether in spite of such condemnation or possibly because of it --- continued to increase.

Two opposing factors were just now beginning to come of age: the first, burlesque, originally designed as a parody of some well-known play, literary work or social custom, now was beginning to be converted into a travesty or farcical commentary on contemporary affairs. In 1866, a play, The Black Crook, that soon became notorious for its scantily clad dancers, inspired the modernized burlesque: a collection of comedy and dances, featuring a female chorus. The emphasis on beautiful, sparsely clad women and sexually oriented jokes ensured an increasingly male-dominated audience, though not until many years later, in 1929, would the striptease become its most renowned feature.

The second opposing factor was Anthony Comstock. Born in 1844 in New Canaan, Connecticut, Comstock was a thoughtful and religious young man who worked as a clerk in a dry goods store. More and more, Comstock noted that other young men were showing an obsessive weakness for what he considered "vile weekly newspapers" and "licentious books." With the help of the YMCA of New York, Comstock formed the Society for the Suppression of Vice, an organization that received the support of such influential men as banker J. Pierpont Morgan, copper magnate William E. Dodge and soapmaker Samual Colgate. With the passage of new state and federal anti-obscenity laws (or "Comstock Laws," as they came to be known), Comstock was appointed as a special agent of the U.S. Post Office with police power. In its report for 1874, the Society stated proudly that since March, 1872, "130,000 pounds of bound books and 60,300 articles made of rubber for immoral purposes" had been seized.

The New York Society was concerned with more than just "dirty" literature, however. They also opposed smut on the stage. In 1870, modern burlesque merged with the continually increasing number of plays, musicals, dance recitals and similar shows, and later, "theaters" featuring nothing but striptease artists. This meant that Comstock and the Society now had their work truly cut out for them.

But it still seemed to be the written word --- rather than exposed, live bare flesh on the stage --- that proved Comstock's main bugaboo. In 1905, Comstock was at the very peak of his power and influence. In that year, Irish playwright George Bernhard Shaw penned a play, Mrs. Warren's Profession, that dealt with prostitution. Banned from production on the British stage (unlike the U.S., England had --- and still has --- a law allowing precensorship), the play was on stage in New York and Comstock carried out his promise to prosecute any production of the Shavian play. Comstock allegedly referred to Shaw as an "Irish smut-dealer" and a "foreign writer of filth."

The New York court ruled, however, that the play in question did not fall within the scope of the state's obsenity law, whereupon Shaw responded with a one-word phrase that became a new derisive term for censorship: "Comstockery!"

After forty years of assiduous labor as America's national censor, Anthony Comstock died in 1915, boasting shortly before his death that he had "convicted persons enough to fill a passenger train of 61 coaches, 60 coaches containing 60 passengers each and the 61st almost full . . . and destroyed over 160 tons of obscene literature."

The dawn of the twentieth century saw a new fad in theater: the girlie revue. Producer Florenz Ziegfeld started the first cycle with his Follies in 1907. In 1919 came George White's Scandals. Both the Follies and the Scandals featured girls, girls and more girls, usually dressed in fancy gowns, dripping with jewelry or clad in feathers. A few other Broadway producers --- such as the Shuberts --- tried to compete by staging musicals such as Artists and Models, in which partially undraped chorus girls posed statue-like on stage to titillate audiences.

But it was Earl Carroll who in the 1920s made nudity a Broadway staple. After a brief career selling Bibles in the Orient, Carroll turned to penning songs and plays, eventually managing to get his first original play, The Lady of the Lamp, premiered on the Great White Way. It was a flop, as were his next three plays. Then the young producer had his first hit with White Cargo, a play in which the graphic interracial love scenes aroused the ire of the local clergy, press and eventually the police force, which banned the show. But via promises to tone down the show --- which he never kept --- Carroll got all the charges dropped and the play went on to become a huge success, playing for 864 performances.

Heady with his new success, Carroll boldly announced his next project: a new musical revue entitled the Vanities.

"Look at Flo Ziegfeld," Carroll declared, "presenting girls bedecked in jewels and furs. Let Flo spend money dressing them. My plan is to undress them." Carroll proved as good as his word, by persuading all of the hopeful young lovelies who sought to become an "Earl Carroll Beauty" to audition for him totally nude.

Wearing a black tam and a light blue artist's smock, Carroll would sit in the front row before a well-lit stage as row after row of beautiful young women paraded before him stark naked. A mental nudist, Carroll brought to the American stage a fundamental sense of realism, stark, revealing and intense in his bareness. He also sensed better than either Zeigfeld or White the moral, philosophical and emotional Zeitgeist of the "roaring twenties."

In his first show, the Earl Carroll Vanities of 1923, he designed new and novel ways of presenting his girls' luscious nudity. The following year, his second Vanities show presented a sensuous "peacock dance" in which each girl waved a giant fan to the music, giving audiences intermittent glimpses of their completely nude anatomies. During rehearsals of this provocative number, some of Carroll's associates gently reminded him that full frontal nudity was contrary to the law.

"But gentlemen," the young producer protested, "What I am trying to create is a Biblical scene. The story of King Solomon. . .And the esthetic art of the number demands that the girls be in the absolute buff this time, not even G-strings." In order to circumvent the obscenity laws, however, the showman agreed to the use of "pasties"" little round cutouts of skin-colored tape over the girls' nipples and a low, narrow strip pasted over the most strategic area of each dancer's crotch. Wags of the era nicknamed this strip "Carroll's chastity belt."

The number was a great hit with all onlookers except a couple of plain-clothesmen, who delivered a detailed report to the chief of the vice squad. The following morning, District Attorney Joab H. Benton's office called Carroll and told him that they had received a complaint about his show-girls' costumes --- or lack thereof. But Carroll adamantly refused to consider any changes.

The following night, when Kathryn Ray appeared au natural on stage, a patrolman, Tom O'Leary, ran on stage from the wings, pulled the surprised showgirl off stage and tried to wrap her nudity in a blanket. The nude dancer escaped O'Leary's grasp and ran back across the stage with the cop pursuing. Since the uniform of New York cops were identical to those of Mack Sennett's Keystone Kops --- even down to the bowler hat --- the audience laughed at what they believed was simply part of the show.

When order was at last restored, though, Carroll walked out on stage, explained the whole situation and then asked if the audience preferred to see the original number or the censored version. The original won. Angered at Carroll for making their department the target of ridicule, Police Commissioner Enright had Carroll arrested the following day for exhibiting a nude photograph in his theater's lobby, a charge which caused Carroll to spend four days in the New York Tombs jail.

Ironically, it was a private incident involving nudity, though, that sent Carroll to a federal penitentiary for a year and a day. On Feb. 22, 1926, Carroll threw a backstage party to celebrate both Washington's birthday and also that of Col. William R. Edrington, his chief "angel." At dawn, an old plugged-up bathtub was put on a wheeled platform and brought on stage. The tub was filled with champagne. Then a 17-year-old model, Joyce Hawley, clad only in a chemise, stepped behind an upheld fur coat, removed her chemise and got into the tub. Then, at Carroll's signal, male partygoes formed a line to dip their cups into the bubbly-filled tub. As the revelers sipped the champagne, Joyce Hawley passed out in the tub.

Unfortunately for Carroll, one of his trusted guests was Phil Payne, called "the maverick of the tabloids," a news reporter so hot for a front-page scoop that he began scribbling notes as the bathtub caper proceeded. Rushing back to his office at the NY Daily Mirror, Payne feverishly began typing: "The Bacchanalian revels of ancient Rome were eclipsed last night by Earl Carroll when he staged a disgusting orgy. . ."

Shortly after the paper hit the stands early on the morning of Feb. 24th, every other tabloid in the city was looking for some angle to further public interest in the Carroll "orgy." The Evening Graphic, though --- a tabloid with a reputation for being the most sensationalistic of all --- scored the highest publicity coup via the publication of one of their "composograph" photos. The "composograph" --- an Evening Graphic specialty --- consisted of a composite photograph in which models were posed, then the faces of the story's principals were superimposed upon the heads of the models, thus rendering a graphic representation of what some scene must have looked like, replete with the actual participants' faces. Though such "composographs" were, of course, clearly labeled as such, the tabloid's front page for Feb. 25th indeed made journalism history by printing their composer's conception of the Earl Carroll bathtub party.

Dubbed "the photograph that sent Earl Carroll to prison," the Graphic photo composite showed Joyce Hawley in the champagne-filled bathtub while surrounded by an array of celebrity guests as an enraptured Earl Carroll looks upon the scene with a delighted expression.

This stark publicity resulted in Carroll being presented with an arrest warrant on April 1st, an act he'd at first thought was simply an April Fool's Day gag. But the "gag" turned out to be quite serious indeed.

At the evening trial, Carroll was first charged with violation of the Volstead Act, the law that had made alcohol --- including the champagne that filled the bathtub in question --- illegal.

When Carroll stated under oath that the bathtub had contained only Canada Dry ginger ale, other witnesses contradicted him. Eventually he was convicted of perjury, for which he served a year and a day at the Atlanta federal penitentiary.

After his release, though,Carroll returned to Broadway with a vengeance. Even after the depression hit and there were no more Ziegfeld Follies or George White's Scandals, the Carroll Vanities continued. On July 1, 1930, his new show premiered at the New American Theater, featuring such scenes as a totally nude dance by Faith Bacon and a skit wherein five girls were seated motionlessly in a department store window dressed in evening clothes, whereupon comedian Jimmy Savo entered and totally undressed these "mannequins." Like so many times in the past, this show was raided, the principals were hauled into court and jurors heard police officials for one hour blast the new Carroll show as "obscene, indecent, immoral and impure exhibitionism." Then they spent the next hour listening to Carroll's defense of his show as "art."

Though the Carroll cast was aquitted, Carroll's old nemesis, Flo Ziegfeld blasted Carroll's show as "one of the filthiest ever seen in New York" --- this from the producer who'd once boastingly called himself "the father of nudity in the American theater." Ingenuously, Ziegfeld further told reporters that he'd had nothing to do with the police raid on Carrol's show.

The Vanities continued throughout the thirties. In an offshoot in 1933, his Murder at the Vanities contained a skit wherein horror film star Bela Lugosi came upon stage to chase the scantily clad Carroll cuties around. In the subsequent years, Lugosi went on to make his now cult-popular Ed Wood movies while Earl Carroll moved to Hollywood, where he produced a number of movies.

After acquiring a scrumptious mansion on Schuyler Road in Beverly Hills, Carroll wooed the Hollywood crowd by throwing fabulous parties. His New Year's Party of 1948 was hailed as one of the last great lavish Hollywood soirees --- wherein a guest list ranging from Errol Flynn to Art Linkletter could enjoy the sight of girls swimming nude in the center swimming pool.

Carroll died in a plane crash in 1948, ending a brilliant career that had brought nudity to the American stage with style and flair. The Carroll shows had also been the genesis of the careers of such subsequent stars as Yvonne DeCarlo, Jean Wallace, Sheree North, Marie MacDonald and June Nicholson --- Jack's older sister.

Nudity on the American stage continued making more and more inroads throughout the next decade, though in an intermittent and indirect fashion. Since the theater was forced more than ever to compete with increasingly provocative films in the Fifites, drama became consequently more and more graphic. The old New York Society for the Suppression of Vice continued trudging along, in 1931 taking an active role against burlesque shows, and in 1939 forcing the withdrawal of the "girl show" at the NY World's Fair. As late as 1942, the Society was investigating the "indecent nature of a floor show in the downtown resort area."

From the Twenties to the late Fifties, most plays on the American stage were more likely to come under censorship for their content than for outright nudity. Jews, for instance, continued their age-old protests against The Merchant of Venice, while Blacks were equally adamant in opposing productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin, which they viewed as patronizing.

It was in the freewheeling Sixties, though, that the American stage first began to present full-frontal nudity, presented in a manner as unabashed as never before. Encouraged by the continuing nudity rampant in popular motion pictures, the stage presented Hair, a musical in 1968, wherein the cast appeared nude, though the lights were dimmed, showing the nude cast mainly as silhouettes. The following year, an off-off-Broadway play, Ché, featured an ape raping a nun, presumed sexual intercourse on stage and a cornucopia of obscene words and nudity, the likes of which had never before been seen in modern times. The public morals squad hauled off the entire cast of Ché and charged them with "consensual sodomy, public rudeness and obscenity." Though the play ostensibly dealt with the final hours of communist Cuban revolutionary Ché Guevara, it was, according to Time magazine, "a squalid series of loveless fornications and related sexual gymnastics, performed in the nude and reminscent of nothing so much as . . . a peep show. . ."

Earlier during 1969, six actors and four actresses were arrested at the University of Michigan after their performance in a play, a contemporary version of Euripides' Bacchea, in which they had stripped naked on stage. The play was part of the university's Creative Arts Festival and had been regarded by academic and professional critics as worthy of serious consideration. The police action was most likely prompted, though, by the play's advance billing, which indicated that the actors would "kiss and fondle each other from head to toe."

Later, in Oh! Calcutta!, the five male and five female cast members pranced around in the nude for about half of the entire show. Though the show was raided in Los Angeles, it later had road companies playing in even such backwaters as San Antonio, Texas.

Thoughout the Seventies, the right of theaters to present full-frontal nudity was fought out in the courts, usually to the defendants' eventual acquittal. Today, of course, nudity on the stage has become a commonplace staple of plays and musicals. Mere nudity in such places as New York's Times Square area, in fact, has become a yawn when faced with competition from "live sex" shows wherein men and women actually appear on stage nude and perform every kind of sexual act in every imaginable position.

Faced with such extreme forms of graphic "entertainment," the right of mankind to view its own undressed anatomy seems a right that never should have been opposed. The fight for nudity on stage has indeed been a hard-won but certainly worthwhile crusade, one that has taken over 200 years to gain. Finally, American audiences in almost every city and town are at last free to view on the stage what many bluenoses and religious fanatics ironically view as the greatest obscenity in the entire world: the naked human body.

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