The magnificent classic window shown in last week’s blog is on the Trocadaro Theatre building, home of the old burlesque shows. In high school, it was always the “Troc”—we never heard of the “Trocadaro.” The joke was that TROC stood for the Trenton Royal Opera Company. We would often mention “going to the opera,” but we did not mean the Metropolitan. Now, I know some of you ladies are sneering at what kind of low life boys would go there. I remember very well a good many who went, and you would be surprised. Many were your boyfriends. Bet they never told you, did they? What happened at the Troc stayed at the Troc.
In those days, theater-in-the-round was just becoming popular and my parents dragged me several times to St. John (pronounced “Sinjin”) Terrell’s Music Circus in Lambertville to hear light opera like “The Student Prince.” My mother would go on and on about how wonderful the performances were, when I knew the burlesque comics like Billy Hagan had more talent and stage presence than anyone we saw at the Music Circus.
While researching the Troc, I found an article in American Heritage magazine by Ralph G. Allen, author of the Broadway musical “Sugar Babies,” who patronized the Troc just a few year’s before we did, and our memories are similar.
“I paid my first visit to the Troc on a February evening in 1949,” says Allen, “a month after my fifteenth birthday. Several eager classmates joined me that evening, there being no R rating for shows in those days to deny us entrance. The female performers were disappointing. The chorus of 10 was a bedraggled crew; none of them were younger than my mother, while the star strippers had seen better days, and their disrobing was both perfunctory and tediously protracted.
“However, between the musical numbers a group of hardy but aging comics performed sketches lasting 8 to 10 minutes. Of the comics, Billy “Cheese and Crackers” Hagan, a sad-faced, droll clown then in his late sixties, was particularly engaging. Hagan had a high-pitched voice that he could quickly transform into a steamy basso profundo when he wanted to simulate lust. He wore baggy pants and no makeup and had the ability to take any innocent word and give it an obscene connotation:
“BILLY: I had a strange experience on my way to work.
STRAIGHT MAN: Really?
BILLY: You know that hotel at Thirteenth and Market? Well, it caught fire. I heard someone holler, “Save me. Save me.” There was a woman on the fourth floor standing on the sill. I looked up and saw her predicament.
STRAIGHT: Through all that smoke?
BILLY: You’d be surprised how far a man will go to spot a predicament.”
Allen points out the comics never used four-letter words or direct reference to the anatomy. It was all double entente delivered in innocence, exactly as delivered today by Mrs. Slocombe on the British comedy “Are You Being Served?” The audience, not the actors, had the dirty minds. I remember an entire sketch based on misunderstanding the word “European.” (“What nationality are you?” “European.” “No, I spilled soup on my pants.” )
Allen continues, “The Troc in 1949 was 79 years old. It was shopworn and musty, its paint peeling and its stock scenery badly in need of refurbishment. It had been built in 1870 as the Arch Street Opera House. For several decades it had offered minstrel shows; then, around the time the first big burlesque circuits were organized in the 1910s, it changed its policy and became the home of the traveling companies of the Columbia Amusement Company, also known as the Columbia Wheel. The Columbia shows were the burlesque equivalent of big-time vaudeville. . . .”
The curtain had huge letters across it that spelled “Asbestos,” old-fashioned even then. We usually paid an extra quarter for side box seats in the balcony, but there was no aisle to get to them. The only way was to climb over the seats themselves, as everyone did without complaint. From there we could laugh at the bald-headed men below sitting in the front row with binoculars. Seedy? Of course, but that was the life we were learning about.
An important part of every show was the intermission where a pitchman in the aisles would hawk boxes of ancient, stale candy. But the candy was not the point. Each box, we were assured, contained a prize so revealing, so tantalizing, that it could only be sold this way to avoid the blue laws. One prize was a pair of clear dice that when held up to your eyes and slightly rocked would reveal action scenes unimagined in our 15-year-old minds. We spent hours—days!—turning them every possible way, but never saw anything but pale blue glass.
“Between 1905 and 1935 the Troc played host to all the subsequently famous performers who served their apprenticeships in burlesque: Bert Lahr, Leon Errol, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, W. C. Fields, Red Skelton, Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason, Barbara Stanwyck, Rags Ragland, Red Buttons, Bud Abbott, and Lou Costello.” Yes, the Barbara Stanwyck!
Allen mentions one stripper that I can never forget. “The biggest female star in 1949 burlesque was a stripper named Virginia “Ding-Dong” Bell. She was a slight woman who, before the time of breast-enhancing surgery, had a 48-inch bust. I asked Hagan to describe her act. ‘She crawls out on the stage and tries to stand up.’ You can understand the bitterness of the comedians. Bell could earn thousands of dollars a week and Hagan only $300.”
Surprisingly, even Virginia Bell was not sexy, despite being jaw-dropping amazing. Her claimed dimension of 48 inches was conservative. She must have grown some since 1949. Hagan was only kidding about her act. Her main performance was leaning forward and swinging her pendulous bust back and forth. This was the clue for the audience to yell in unison, “Ding dong, ding dong!” Not sexy, not politically correct, but funny. In those days men normally pretended they did not notice boobs and women pretended they did not noticed men noticed. This flaunted both. As Allen says, the strippers were all our mother’s age and their prancing around in pink feathers and pom-poms was nothing we could relate to. Many of you girls we saw everyday in school were far more sexy. Virginia Bell led me to a life-long observation that is a revelation to most women. Big boobs are attention-getters for men, but this is not the same as sexy. Far from it. My neck will snap around at a passing well-endowed girl just like any other man’s, but this does not mean they are something we long for. For most of us they are just noticeable, like when passing a car wreck, but not desirable.
(The Internet lists Virginia Bell’s birth year as 1934, which may or may not be true, but she appeared to be only a little older than us who were born in 1936. No wonder we liked her. The Internet has many clips of her performances. She died in 2010 of pancreatic cancer.)
The strippers danced to live music from the Troc’s orchestra pit with at least two crucial musicians, one on trumpet and one on tom-tom. Maybe even a piano player. A common tune was “Blue Moon.” I still love that song, just as they did it. Blue moon, (boom, ba-boom, boom) I saw you standing alone, (boom, ba-boom, boom). The strippers were the initial draw, but the comics kept us coming back.
“For three years I went to every change of bill,” says Allen, “usually at the first show on Saturday. The only constant in the shows was Hagan. He was the house comedian and had to perform his sketches every week with a different traveling straight man. . . . In 1955, I started haunting the Troc again. The choruses had been abandoned, but my favorite comedians were on the bills, now providing brief interludes between the ubiquitous strips. . . . Billy Hagan was no longer in seasonal residence at the Troc. He was now on the road and appeared in Philadelphia about once every 15 weeks.”
This was as I remember it in 1952–4. Hagan appeared only rarely. I can’t remember any of the other’s names, but Allen summarizes them all perfectly—
“The clown in burlesque was never a pathetic figure. He was not the tearful tramp of Chaplin. In most sketches he was represented as a child of nature, the slave of stimulus and response. A girl with obvious attractions appears. He is obviously attracted. The straight man attempts to demonstrate love-making techniques to the comic by massaging the girl’s stomach, whereupon the comic forgets the girl and kisses the straight man. The burlesque-show tramp represents man stripped of his inhibitions, of restraints of all kinds, free of moral pretense, innocent of education, and above all lazy and selfish. He frequently appears to be a victim, but never a pathetic one, because almost always at the end he blunders into some kind of dubious success. Of course, on some occasions he does fail, but even when the comic is left with egg in his hat or pie on his face, the audience feels no pity for him because it senses his infinite resilience.
“The burlesque show appealed to our inner passion for anarchy [but] anarchy in burlesque seemed always exhilarating, never threatening.”
The Troc was a positive experience of no regrets for me. To have missed it would have missed the end of a cultural icon that helped define the times. If you missed it, too bad for you.