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So Who Was Miss Livingstone? Burlesque

So Who Was Miss Livingstone? Burlesque

Madame Rentz’s Female Minstrels was a blackface minstrel troupe composed completely of women. M. B. Leavitt founded the company in 1870. Unlike mainstream minstrelsy at the time, Leavitt’s cast was entirely made up of women, whose primary role was to showcase their scantily clad bodies and tights, not the traditional role of comedy routines or song and dance numbers. The women still performed a basic minstrel show, but they added new pieces that titillated the audience. John E. Henshaw, who began his career as a stage hand with Madame Rentz’s Female Minstrels, recalled, In San Francisco , we had advertised that we were going to put on the can-can . Mabel Santley did this number and when the music came to the dum-de-dum, she raised her foot just about twelve inches; whereupon the entire audience hollored [sic] “Whooooo!” It set them crazy. The company was a success, and by 1871, at least eleven rival troupes of female minstrels had sprung up, one of which did away with blackface altogether.

Ottawa Daily Citizen

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada 08 May 1875, Sat  •  Page 4

That spring of 1875 the Rink Music Hall, down on Slater Street by the Canal, temporarily became Ottawa’s only theatre. It was far too cold in winter, and sweltering in summer, but until Feb. 1, 1875, it brought both “the Bard” and burlesque, to the rapidly growing city. On that date “The Music Hall” was relegated to the background with the reopening of the Grand Opera House, on Albert Street. A fiasco — Despite the attendance of a vice-regal party from Government House, the opening night at $5 a seat, was a fiasco. Management quickly adjusted the price scale and the opening week ended to packed houses and loud applause.

The roof was a slanting one, broken In two parts, the lower part covering the curling rink. It was Just a step from the ground to the lower roof, and at the comer of the building stood a large puncheon, half filled with water. Five little girls. “Divllsklns”‘ an Irishman called them, determined to hear the -opera of “La Sonnambula” in the music hall.

They climbed upon the roof, where they hung by their hands from the window sills. The sleep walking scene was on, and the thrills were great, but suddenly the atentorian voice of Chief Langrell was heard, saying, “Down out of this, every one of you; I put the boys down, and down you will have to go, too.” Great was the scrambling, and one could imagine the noise inside the theater. All cleared the roof, with nimble steps, but slow Sally Hurd, who, never looking, plunged heavily into the water puncheon while the rest, never waiting to haul her out, ran for their lives. The good natured constable had to stop and laugh, but be helped the sobbing, sopping little maid out.

There is no report that these pioneer leg-shows, played Ottawa but our citizens were not denied the excitement for long. By the summer of 1870 the reporter for the Ottawa Times wrote that Miss Lisa Weber and her girls offered the best burlesque show that he had ever seen, indicating that even at that early date Miss Weber had been preceded by other similar travelling beauties. The Queen of Burlesque, as she was billed, opened at the Ottawa Music Hall on July 21, 1870. It was an old skating rink on Slater Street at the canal and if there, was any ice left, it melted when Lisa and her girls sang and danced “The Grecian Bend.” The gentleman of the press noted, unforgettably, “you never saw such exquisite ankles.” For three nights the old rink was filled to the very rafters as the town ‘dudes’ caught up with this form of entertainment.

In 1875, on May 10, Madame Rente’s “Female Minstrels” appeared at the Music Hall and for the occasion as a special added attraction Mile Marie Delacour presented her “French Can-Can Dancers.” The two-day engagement must have been something! The local press contented itself with reviewing a production of ‘Macbeth’ at the new Opera House, merely mentioning in passing that the show at the Music Hall was very good if you liked that sort of thing. The photograph of Miss Livingston above is probably a souvenir of the event. It turned up in the 1971 exhibitions of pbotograpni ; “Reflections on a Capital”, that was such a success earlier this year at the Public Archives Building on Wellington Street The only details available considering the actual photograph are that it was taken about 187S. If so, then Miss Livingston must have been one of those female minstrels that beguiled the community for two evenings in May. The photo of Miss Annie Blake is equally mysterious. In the Canada of 1870, the year “the picture was taken, her costume would have been considered daring in the extreme. The permissiveness of the 1870’s rapidly disappeared as Victorian manners and morals took hold. Burlesque entertainment vanished from the Ottawa scene and it was not until 1912 that lusty Ottawans had an opportunity to once more ogle the chorus girls. It was quite an occasion. To make up for lost time the mob carried the doors away trying to gain admittance to the old Colonial Theatre on Albert street. The show was considered to be pretty Trot stuff and although The Journal found no fault with the songs and dances they decidedly drew the line at the jokes and at the flashes of near-nudity. 

On the front page the paper called for the Chief of Police to see to it that the show was cleaned up, and quickly. In a matter of days the promoters changed their plans, wisely, and quietly left town. Nickel-movies returned to the theatre. After that withering blast the belles of burlesque remained out of sight and out of town for nearly a decade. But by 1920 the girls were back in “one-act musical comedies” at the little Casino Theatre on Sussex Street, right across the street from the present Grand Hotel., Fred Leduc, a pioneer Ottawa showman brought the ladies back to town in September, 1920. The newspaper ads for the adventure were cautious but the audience knew the real thing when they saw it, and “Ben Rosenberg’s Rip Roaring Girls” quickly caught on with the Ottawa public. In fact they were such a hit that they stayed all that fall, winning the audience with “Yes, We Have No Bananas” and other-vintage songs of the period.

In the spring of 1921, Graham and Randall’s Rainbow Girls moved in, complete with their famous “beauty chorus,” if the ads are to be believed. And all for 10, and 20 cents in the afternoon; 15 cents in the balcony at night! The girls were a ‘hit’, and, in fact that delightful spring a chorus line danced out on the stage of no less than five local theatres. The ultimate seal of approval on this type of enter tainment came in May, 1921, when the Shubert organization in New York brought “The Follies” to the old Russell Theatre, then the town’s leading legitimate ‘house.’ The Ottawa Journal attended, and the headline read “Stand ing Room Only.” “While the average girl show is still frowned upon by many, this reporter came away greatly pleased with the performance. The showgirls were above average in appearance and the audience expressed their keen appreciation each time they appeared.” . Meanwhile, burlesque continued, at the Casino throughout the decade, with occasionally a season of French-Canadian vaudeville.

But as time went on the novelty wore off; the management and even the name of the theatre, changed they called it the Capital and by the end they were showing silent films only. The ‘talkies’ arriving in 1929, brought the era to an end and the little theatre reluctantly closed its doors. The building was converted to a hotel. This, in turn, has now been demolished. ( In this permissive age ‘burlesque’ has become a lost art. A century ago, when Lisa Weber and her London Blondes came to the Music Hall, the press raved, concentrating, for the sake of modesty, on her ankles! Fifty years later, in 1920, burlesque was still ‘hot stuff.’ Today, however, although the heat has long since cooled, many an old Ottawan well-remembers those Rip-Roaring Girls of the Casino Theatre of 1920.

The Ottawa Citizen
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
14 Mar 1925, Sat  •  Page 2
The Ottawa Citizen
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
13 Mar 1926, Sat  •  Page 2

David Jeanes12 hours
The Rink Music Hall existed in 1875 and 1878, 30 years before the 3rd Dey’s Arena. It was on the site of the later Roxborough Apartments, while Dey’s arena was built in 1907 further east, close to the canal. The first two Dey’s Arenas were in other locations.

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