The Burlesque Troupe

1:41 PM

The Victorians loved burlesque. The word then meant something different than it does now. The Victorian burlesque didn’t involve amply endowed women revealing pulchritudinous flesh while a baggy pants comic waited offstage.

No, the Victorian burlesque was a theater of satire and parody, often lampooning already existing songs and plays. The Victorians made fun of everybody. Shakespearean burlesque was enormously popular, but there were also burlesques of operas, melodramas, folk tales, and popular dances.

Although these burlesques proved to be very popular in New York, and eventually throughout the U.S., they seem primarily to have been an English creation, and reflected certain British sensibilities regarding performance. One of these is comic cross-dressing, a staple of the pantomime (where it was typically men who took female roles). There was also a long tradition of women appearing in male roles, both in mainstream theater (where it was called a “travesti” or “breeches” role) and in the music hall, which had a number of successful male impersonators.

Victorian burlesque seemed to borrow from all this, and I offer all this as an abbreviated explanation as to how a troupe called Lydia Thompson’s British Blondes, led by an actress who had done drag acts in England for years, and featuring scantily clad young actresses pursued by male impersonators, came to Omaha in the 1870s, and wound up leaving one of their own behind.

Firstly, we should introduce Lydia Thompson. She was a London native, the daughter of a bar-owner, and she left home to become a professional dancer at age 14. She quickly became a star, touring Europe. In 1859, The Times declared her “one of the most eminent of English dancers," and, as her career progressed, she found increasing success playing the “principal boy” in burlesques – the lead male juvenile character.

By 1864, Thompson was working with Alexander Henderson, a successful theater manager, and, after a series of lucrative collaborations, married him. The two relocated to New York in 1868, and here began to adapt British burlesques for American audiences, rewriting dialogue and song-lyrics, as well as incorporating songs that were then popular in the United States. They put together a small troupe of women, eventually calling them the “British Blondes,” and the resulting show was a sensation during the 1868-69 Broadway theatrical season. It was meant to run six months, but, including tours of the U.S., it ran for six years.

The show was not without its critics. The use of female performers in male roles drew the ire of some writers, including Wilbur F. Storey, owner of the Chicago Times. In response, Thompson horsewhipped him.

It’s impossible to find any local news coverage of Thomson’s troupe when they reached Omaha – perhaps the intrepid newsmen feared they might likewise be horsewhipped. But thanks to an issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, we know when they were in town. On Saturday, July 16, 1870, the New York newspaper ran this item: “The Lydia Thompson Troupe will begin a season in Omaha July 14th.” Follow up items in the same publication show that the troupe performed through early August.

The same publication also identifies the show, and the cast. It was called “The Bronze Horse,” a burlesque of what was already an opera comique by French composer Daniel Auber. The story is a fantasia set in China, and, according to Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, the cast included Edith Bland, Mrs. De Bar, and May Preston. I mention this because one of those names will prove to be important to this story.

While there are no local references to Thompson’s performance here, we do know about one of her audience members. Her name was Ellen E. Griffin, she was 25, and came from a wealthy New York family. She followed Thomson around the country, and she was desperately in love with her. We know this because the Nashville Union and Democrat documented it, publishing a number of Griffin’s love-struck letters to Thompson, including this one from the Metropolitan House in Omaha, a hotel:

“Well, here I am, my little divinity; at least what is left of me. Now I suppose that you think that fatigue and excitement – sometimes fright – of this trip, will deter me from taking another one; but you are very much mistaken. You know that I love you.”

Later, Griffin wrote Thompson this poem:

“I love you, I love you,
Let Henderson dare
To chide me for loving
Your golden hair.

“I love you, I love you,
And cost what it may
Will follow you again
At some future day.”

Alexander Henderson, Thompson’s husband, did not seem to appreciate Griffin’s affections for his wife. In another letter, Griffin wrote the following: “To Mr. Henderson:--Miss Thompson informed me this morning that you intend shooting me.”

At the start of this story, I mentioned that the troupe ended up leaving one of their own behind. It was Edith Bland, one of the principals from “The Bronze Horse,” and she stayed with her mother, who must have been touring with her. Bland was six foot tall, pretty, and, according to a letter to the Omaha Bee from 1883, had an aristocratic bearing.

It’s unclear why Bland chose to stay in Omaha, although she was offered a job with our first stock company, run by Henri Corri, and that may have influenced her decision. She stayed on for several years, appearing in soubrette roles at the Academy of Music. The Bee recalled Bland and her mother in this way: “These two lived together in rooms in the third story of Caldwell block, the same in which the Academy is situated. They always appeared well dressed, and the taste which Edith used in her toilettes was always particularly spoken of.”

“Edith Blande (sic) was a very ambitious girl,” the Bee continued. “During her residents of about five years in Omaha she worked hard and used all the money she could earn to improve her acting and her wardrobe, for she was aiming to be a star.”

Bland partnered with a local photographer, Frank Currier, to produce a series of photographs of her, which she sent about to agents.

Her diligence paid off. In 1873, Bland received an offer “from an Eastern manager to join a troupe whose destination is Europe,” according to the Sioux City Journal.  On January 13 of 1834, an ad in the Washington Evening Star lists a one-week engagement of a comic opera called “Land of Gold.” Included in the cast is the following: “First appearance of the charming burlesque actress Edith Bland.” By November of 1883, when the Bee wrote their memories of the actress, she had already attained one of the first signs of stardom: she was the subject of gossip. “The rumor that she married the son of a duke in Newcastle is not true,” the Bee informed its readers.

In 1893, the Oamaru Mail claimed that Bland had been in Sydney, Australia, where she attempted to accompany a lion-tamer into his den, but that authorities stepped in and stopped the performance.

She went on to have a successful career in theater, frequently appearing on New York stages, and her private affairs continued to be the subject of public scrutiny. An 1895 article in the Denver Post accused Bland of having been the mistress of Edward Solomon, the English composer, and claimed Solomon had abandoned his English wife to run away to America with Bland. A Daily Illinois State Register story from 1883 had substantially the same information, but added to it claims that Bland paid Solomon’s bills and he beat her. This, however, may be a different Edith Bland – a publication called “Fact, Fancy, and Fable: Ready Reference on Subjects Commonly Omitted from Cyclopedias” from 1889 lists them as two separate women.

In 1896, Bland was sued for divorce by her then-husband, Austin Brereton, for what the Omaha World-Herald described as “her unfounded jealousy of him.” In 1897, the Boston Journal offered the conclusion to the case: dismissed for want of proof. They did summarize his charges against his wife. She was “cruel, had a bad temper, and had abandoned him.” The World-Herald also hinted at a story that I have found no further documentation for, saying that Bland returned to Omaha when a male acquaintance of hers was preparing to marry, and made things difficult for him.

It’s hard not to wonder if a horsewhip might have been involved.

About the author

Max Sparber is a playwright and historian who lives in Omaha, Nebraska.