When burlesque was on trial

follies "Minksy's," the new musical comedy wrapping up its run at the Ahmanson Theatre this week, is a delightful evocation of burlesque in the 30s. Based on the the 1968 film, "The Night They Raided Minsky's," the musical examines past efforts of the police to curb raunchy entertainment. Although "Minsky's" follows the fictional lives of show business denizens in New York, Los Angeles police raided a real burlesque theater at 337 S. Main Street in 1939 with comical results.

In October 1939, the New Follies Theater introduced a new show, which it advertised as a "daring, spicy burlesque...see the thrills before they are eliminated," starring "Red Headed Ball of Fire" Betty Rowland, Marcia, Frances E. Dahl, Jo Ann Dare, June March, Gay Knight and Rita Cummings. Apparently, patrons got such an eyeful that the police shut the show down for lewd and indecent acts on October 5th. Five strip tease dancers and four comedians went on trial in Municipal Judge Arthur Guerin’s court on November 21, 1939. A "shockproof" jury of nine women and three men heard testimony from undercover police personnel about hearing smutty dialogue and seeing racy choreography in the show. Deputy City Attorney Dave Hoffman also shared photographs of suggestive dances taken by undercover police photographer, George T. George, at performances prior to the raid.

The trial sounded even more amusing than the burlesque show. A courtroom packed with onlookers erupted in laughter when, as the Los Angeles Times reported on November 24, 1939, "Jerry J. Uhlick, the husky 200-pound police officer who participated in the raid on the theater last Oct 5, demonstrated to the grinning jury imitations of strip-tease dances and bump routines. He confessed under questioning that the burlesque "queens" performed the gyrations and wriggling more authentically."

Policewoman Cheryl Goodwin's testimony followed Uhlick. The Los Angeles Herald Express reported the officer's reaction when asked to testify to seeing indecent acts, scenes and dialogue in a "statue scene":

“Identify the girls in the picture,” said the deputy D.A., as a picture showing five of the Main Street glamor girls in a “statue scene” was displayed on screen. Policewoman Goodwin, who is a comely blonde herself, craned her neck and took a closer look. The jury of nine women and three men also rubbered intensely at the screen.

“Well—er—I—er” the witness hesitated and looked again. The picture showed the girls only from the rear.

After a second look the witness managed to pick out Jo Ann Dare, one of the house’s headline strippers as the “second from the end.” She admitted there was nothing distinctive enough about the others as that she could identify them without a frontal view.

The "statue scene" included comic byplay between the show's comedians about classic figures of history and mythology. As the Los Angeles Herald Express put it, " Such old stand-bys as Cleopatra and her asp, Caesar and March Antony figured in the comedy crossfire. Aphrodite was brought in as “queen of the waters” and Pluto, deity of the underworld, as just a king.”

Betty Rowland, ace strip teaser of the Follies, provided a stirring defense of her art. She described her act as the dance of the golden chain. It was an interpretive dance, she explained, of the Prisoner of Love. She's the Prisoner of Love held in his golden chains, which she starts to unwind to the accompaniment of "appropriate steps, undulations and movements." You get the picture.

Follies defense attorney, George Stahlman, presented a different view, offering magazine photos as evidence that the stage depictions were community standards of decency. Indecent jokes were explained as boisterous bits from vaudeville, a family entertainment.

The jury found the defendants guilty.

And Los Angeles has been free of smut and indecent entertainment ever since...

If you'd like to learn more about the Follies and the ribald history of Main Street, once L.A.'s Times Square and Bowery rolled into one, check out the Esotouric's downtown double feature "Hotel Horrors and Main Street Vice," scheduled for March 21st.

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