Photo by Jim Marcus
The Roxy- The Golden Years Of Cleveland Burlesque!
There was a time where Cleveland housed more than 796,841 people and ranked as the 5th largest city in the nation that was in the 1920s. Even winning a world series with The Cleveland Indians. Impressive? Thur the years Cleveland founded amazing places such as Cleveland Clinic, Hopkins International Airport, even creating a comic book hero such as Superman. If that is not enough lifesavers candy was a first in Cleveland on 1891.
There is a place and a group of people history forgot to mention, In 1868 a movement of bombshells came from Britain stirring up controversy with their scandalous show. The leader in all of this was Lydia Thomson and her British Blonde's. Causing a great spark in American entertainment, The world of burlesque in America was born.
American burlesque shows were originally an offshoot of Victorian burlesque, New York show incorporated elements of the popular minstrel show, They consisted of three parts: First, songs and ribald comic sketches by low comedians: second. assorted olios and male acts, such as acrobats, magicians and solo singers, and third, chorus numbers and sometimes a burlesque in the English style on politics or a current play.
The entertainment was usually concluded by an exotic dancer or a wrestling or boxing match. Close to the 19th century English burlesque came to an end giving way to American burlesque style to flourished, even do it was focus on the female nudity, Exotic “cooch” dances and elaborate strip teases where place in front of lavish scenery and grand live jazz in music halls, theaters and even nightclubs.
The movement took the country by storm and Cleveland was not left behind, The Family theater was established in 1907 on address 1882 E 9th. St Cleveland, OH that is now the corner of Euclid and East 9th. Presently (PNC Bank) Stands. The Family Theater showed films shortly after its opening. The theater was closed and renovated and reopened in 1913 with a new name The Orpheum, and it remained open for sixteen years before it was closed.
In 1931, The Roxy Burlesque Theater opened it’s doors showcasing such acts (Ann Corio, Blaze Starr, Irma The Body, Cindy Parker, June St. Clair, Frenchie, Candy Kane, Val Valentine, Zorita, Carrie Finnell, Valeri Parks, Ann Perri, Trudy Wayne, Camille 2000, Michey jones, Marion Morgan, TNT RED, Sally Rand and Tempest Storm.) Featuring Phil Silvers and The Red Buttons along with Abbott & Costello with Manager Geo Young this theater was a nationally known burlesque extravaganza. Carrie Finnell was credited for inventing tassel twirling in Cleveland and played 54 strait weeks at The Roxy with her Educated breasts She holds the record for the longest striptease! one piece at a time. At this point in Cleveland’s history the municipal stadium was opened with Schmeling-Stribling boxing match, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel giving birth to Superman and the amazing win of four gold medals by
Jesse Owens in the Berlin Olympics. Cleveland became more of a destination with its thriving steal industries and akron’s rubber companies it’s future seem timeless.
The Great Lakes Expo in 1936 was Cleveland’s answer to The Chicago Worlds Fair even the news paper poked fun of the amazing fan dancer that saved the Chicago Worlds Fair (Sally Rand) That later perform at the Cleveland Capitol Theater in 1937 with the support of twenty lovely texas rangerettes.
In 1956 it was remodeled by new oweners Frank Engle and Frank Bryan along with a new face lift it brought the eastern burlesque circuit to Cleveland. The Roxy along with Short Vincent were a success, The place to go on a Friday or Saturday night.
Short Vincent, a street 1 block in length between E 9th and E 6th streets NE, was a colorful center of downtown Cleveland nightlife, When the Hollenden Hotel was built, the street filled with restaurants and taverns to accommodate guest of the hotel, Truly turning into the one stop shop for entertainment back in the day. Short Vincent became a gathering place for gamblers, sport figures. racketeers, lawyers and newspapermen, Offering good food and underworld gossip the street became the place to be for some and the place to play for others. The Theatrical was the longest Jazz Joint in the area Morris “Mushy” Wexler open the Theatrical in 1937, Some gambling wire services that provided odds for bookies and was later accused by a senate committee for being a member of the Cleveland mob. Wexler’s grandson, Jeffrey Spitz, sitting at the bar in the theatrical, recalled. “This was probably the only place in the city of Cleveland where judges and lawyers sat with felons.” According to Spitz they brought in a nice mix of people in the joint and they were all gentlemen when in the theatrical. Cleveland Press columnist Winsor French, once wrote “the only part of Cleveland that never goes to bed”.
In the early 1940s Dean Martin was performing with the Sammy Watkings Orchestra next door to the Vogue Room on the Hollenden Hotel, He would dash over to the theatrical to join impromptu jam session with the jazz musicians. Some of the names include Bobby Hackett and Jack Teagarden and continued with Earl “fatha” Hines, Gene Krupa, Wild Bill Davison, Oscar Peterson, Dorothy Donegan, Dizzy Gillspie and Billy Butterfield. They did not come to Cleveland for one nighters: They were on bandstand at the Theatrical six nights a week, usually for a couple of weeks.
Morrie Fisher, the longtime head waiter at the Theatrical, recalled celebrities who visited the club; Heavyweight champion Joe Louis, Actress Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren, actors Don Ameche and Yul Brynner and even sports figures Boog Powell, Blanton Collier and Billy Martin. Even Frank Sinatra and Lome Greene would attend the theatrical when in town.
The night was full of life in downtown Cleveland, Music, Girls, Drinks, Men of Mistery all welcome to have a memorable good time. This brings us to the early 1960s where at this point Cleveland had achive a second world series win in 1948, Cleveland Browns join the NFL and win the NFL championship. Brown also win tittles in 1954, 1955 and 1964 and Cleveland’s population grows to 914,808 the highest ever. In 1952 Alan Freed, Cleveland radio deejay, coins the term “Rock n’ Roll”. First rock n’ roll concert. The Moondog Coronation Ball, Is in Cleveland also.
The times are changing, With the Growth and popularity of burlesque the “girly show” grew to the opening of Empire Burlesque, Sorma’s and French Corders. Some of these venues used the term loosely camouflaging their actual entertaiment of pornographic movies and live nude show. A strike put The Roxy in trouble when workers picketed outside the theater. The following nine years took a toll on the venue, seeing a significant drop in live shows and resorting to showing X-rated movies and nude shows. During those years the property was purchased by kope realty for $150,000. The following year the lobby was bombed, not only forcing the theater to close for a year but the fear of other bombings followed with business owners placing signs “Do Not Bomb Us” in their windows.
The Theatrical Tragically suffered a monstrous fire in 1960, Spitz recalled, “There were fire engines all over Vincent avenue, superior and east 9th street, it was probably the worst fire of the year in Cleveland”. It took almost five hours for the firemen to control the blaze. The building and the Theatrical Grill were destroyed.” The only thing left was a bottle of scotch. A year later a $1.2 million resturant opened with jazz trumpeter Jonah Jones on the bandstand. Sadly in 1979 Wexler passed away. After his death Krawcheck said the music policy changed to include pop performers. by the 1970 Cleveland’s nightlife was gradually migrating to the flats. by 1980 the Theatrical was the only nightclub left on short vincent and by 1990 around 53 years after the club reopened the club stopped presenting live jazz.
How ever The Roxy could not really come back from the bad manager decisions Tommy Flynn showed “Behind the green door” and was arrested and charge with obscenity and the theater sited, The Roxy now held a bad reputation due to mismanagement. Some one once said “ The black pit was where the musicians played, the stage was a death trap for costumes getting cought in the exposed nails”-
The last show ever played was in 1977, The Roxy closed it’s doors forever.
Euclid Ave and Short Vincent's layed silent, no more laughter came from the streets or music from the nightclubs. Only memories from an era gone by-
The Roxy was torn down along with Short Vincent now modern businesses stand and a parking lot, All we have left of them physically. The population of Cleveland slowly diminished with the steal industry moving out, Still great things happen like the acquirement of the Rock n’ Roll Hall Of Fame in 1986 was a historical event that brought Cleveland together and in 1991 Key Tower is completed on public square at a 948 feet it stood as the tallest building between NYC and Chicago.
A new generation, nostalgic for the spectacle and perceived glamour of the classic american past that so many forgot was growing, Developing a cult like phenomena in the early 1990s New York came alive with Billie Madley;s “Cinema” and later at the “Duth Weismann’s Follies” reviews and all the way in the other side of the coutry “Velvet Hammer Burlesque” started their own movement. Notably it was called Neo-Burlesque and in a little chicken farm outside of Las Vegas a woman named Jennie Lee form what is now known as The Exotic world museum, He dear husbend and her long time friend Dixie Evens took care of the place after Lee passed away. Making a mecca for every burlesque performer to travel towards almost like a ground zero or a religious pilgrimage. Keeping the memories alive with pictures, costumes, props and stories. Evans started a reunion with a pool side party that grew to a amazing show seeking the new burlesque queen every year. Such burlesque queens are now Angie Pontani, Cathine D’lish, Dirty Martini, Kitten D’Ville, Indigo Blue, Roxy D’light and many more. Once again Cleveland followed with a traveling soul in Akron, OH a girl named Bella Sin started Le Femme Mystique Burlesque in 2004, Later following in her foot steps Rubber City Bombshells then Pussy Foot Girls in Cleveland.
Sin found a successful seven year run with burlesque in Cleveland, This was not with out it’s hardship for the people did not remember the past only the new age generation of “gentleman's clubs”. They forgotten about the costumes and the jazz along side the comedy of the every day life.
Sin created and fought for a new kind of memory, for those that danced in The Roxy to not be forgotten with the popularity of burlesque more troupes rose to grace Cleveland’s past. late in the movement Clevealnd Burlesque Co. and The Red Hot Headens along side with some Vaudeville Pinch and Squeal.
Sin keepd true to the signs of the past when it came to shows, booking and showcasing elaborate costumed dancers, jazz and vaudeville/ variety acts.
In the years coming Sin received praises from many papers and magazines in Cleveland even being named in 2011 One Of Cleveland’s Most Interesting People by Cleveland Magazine. There was no more Roxy for them to go to but many local bars supported the movement.
Cindy Barber from The Beachland Ballroom gave their productions a home, Owner of The Beachland Ballroom and Tavern Barber had seen burlesque come touring thru the area and desisted to give locals a chance. The Beachland Ballroom was built in the 1950s as a Croatian Liberty Home, with the ballroom and tavern comprising the original structure. In 1976 the kitchen and the back bar area were added. The liberty home was active to many social and political fronts and was a true Cleveland landmark before becoming Cleveland’s most eclectic music club in the year 2000. The name it’s self was beacuse the beach was not far from the club about ½ north from the venue. In fact it was one of the nation’s best known amusement parks-Euclid Beach- was right at the north end of the E. 185th st. it opened in 1894 until 1969 and “Beachland” became the sland name for the whole North Collingwood neighborhood in those days. Some of the areas memories still stand such as the old Euclid Beach carved archway entrance to now a senior citizen high-rise apartment building.
Cindy Barber took the building knowing it needed alot of work and care but now it’s notably the best place to go for music and food. Barber has gotten grate praise thru the years of her ownership of the venue also being named One Of Cleveland’s Most Interesting people 2011 by Cleveland Magazine.
2011 served as the greatest year in Cleveland Burlesque history, The First Ohio Burlesque Festival was held in Two locations Twist Night Club and The Beachland Ballroom with entertainers from all over the country. Earlier in the year the first memorial show to The Roxy was on New Years Day pulling in a small crown but a bast exited bunch. The First Ohio Burlesque Festival showed success to a packed house, Entertainment featured bands, vaudeville and burlesque.
Three Rust Belt Cities came together to help the festival reach success not only Cleveland was present Pittsburgh,PA and Detroit, MI we responsible for the amazing reception it held. Sin states “It was not with our trial and personal sacrificed, countless hours of work and stress when in to making the idea a reality’
The local news papers such as The Cleveland Scene and The Plain Dealer announced the festival with pride, Sponsors and vendors pored in to assist along with volunteers and a very small but solid stage crew.
To this day, Cleveland’s history is rich but that The men and woman of The Roxy and Short Vincent will never be forgotten for they are here in spirit and hearts more often then memories.
There was once a place where you could not stand with out being elbow to elbow with judges, policemen, gangsters and stars. There was once a place where a tease and a bump and grind was all the excitement needed to raise the pulse of a men or woman, There was once a great city that still stands proud to say they have seen trial, suffering and success. There is still such a place is called so lovingly -
The Rust Belt Bump and Grind-
Sources of Information:, Positively Cleveland, Cleveland State Univercity, Cleveland SGS, Cleveland Public Press, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Wikipedia
Cleveland.oh.us/wmv_news/jazz93.htm, The Beachland Ballroom, Ohioburlesque.weebly.com, Google.com, Cleveland.com
The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History http://ech.case.edu, Clevelandartsprize.org, Cleveland Magazine, The Cleveland Scene, Bellasin.com & The Bunny House.com