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Bump & Grind Beneath the Big Top: Burlesque in Carnivals, Circuses, and Fairs

From its late 19th century beginnings in the United States, burlesque thrived both in the theaters and nightclubs of major urban centers and as a midway attraction at circuses, carnivals, and fairs. What circuses may have lacked in glamour and big-city sophistication, they made up for with crowds, big ones.

And big crowds meant big money. Top names like Sally Rand and Gypsy Rose Lee could make as much as $10,000 a week working a circus, but even the B- and C-listers could make thousands in a season on the road – and during circus season, there was plenty of work to be had.

The list of performers who found a home on the road, working circuses, fairs, and carnivals, reads like a Who’s Who of 20th century burlesque: Ricki Covette, Blaze Fury, Bonnie Boyia, Betty Howard, Val Valentine, Rita Cortes, Tirza, Mitzi Sinclair, Jennie Lee, Tubby Boots, Hedy Jo Star, Divena, Evelyn West, Faith Bacon, Rosita Royce, Margo, Georgia Sothern, Carrie Finnell, Zorita, and many more.

In this online exhibition, we explore the world of the girl show and the lives of the dancers who called the road “home”, at least for a little while.

Bump & Grind Beneath the Big Top

  • July 21, 2020 - July 31, 2022