London-based conceptual artists Sam Bompas and Harry Parr (known as Bompas & Parr) have created an immersive exhibition that transformed the Museum of Sex into an erotic fairground. Five different attractions, intended to stimulate and surprise, speak to the sexual subtext of carnivals. FUNLAND: Pleasures & Perils of the Erotic Fairground features a moon bounce made from giant breasts, a rock-climbing wall that uses phalluses and orifices instead of stones, a mirrored “Tunnel of Love,” soundscapes by composer Dom James (Burning Man and the Meaning of Life), and edible treats by the artists. Using fairground eroticism as our inspiration, we explored ten different attractions (individuals and large-scale shows) from a bygone era that teased and pleased. These burlesque performers, nude musicians, and pervy peep shows defied social conventions and bared all.
Elvis impersonators are a dime a dozen, but few have stripsational appeal and hourglass measurements. Elvira Presley, hailing from the King’s state of Mississippi, sported guitar-shaped pasties and honky-tonk swagger. She started her act around 1956 at The Near and Far Club in Los Angeles. Performing hits like “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” and “Hound Dog,” Elvira gyrated her way right out of her Levis for a stripped down, jiggle-happy performance.
Jersey girls The Ladybyrds became the first all-female topless band. After heading west, they found success in Las Vegas and clubs in Hollywood (The Blue Bunny), eventually appearing in The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield in 1968. Spinoff band The Hummingbirds formed after the women went on tour in order to fill seats in San Francisco clubs. Famed fire tassel twirler Satan’s Angel (aka Angel Cecelia Helene Walker) was a bass player for the group
Legs-A-Weigh Loreli: Sex on the Half Shell
Great gams were the focus of the George Pranath-produced revue Legs-A-Weigh Loreli: Sex on the Half Shell. The carnival girl-show appeared as part of the James E. Strates Shows in 1955, which has a history dating back to the ‘20s.
‘Peep’ Backstage U.S.A. and Girls of the Galaxy
The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair took advantage of the space exploration boom that dominated the decade. The city that became home to Boeing and the Space Needle created a futuristic setting for the Century 21 Exposition, even including an adult entertainment portion of the fair. The northeast grounds, known as Show Street, boasted several nude attractions, including ‘Peep’ Backstage U.S.A. The behind-the-scenes burlesque production teased a view of the fair’s showgirls showering and changing costumes. Customers frequently complained when the women would knit or read to pass the time. Sister show The Girls of the Galaxy allowed visitors camera access to the women in various states of undress, but the attraction was quickly shut down. Also on Show Street: a nude puppet performance and the Vegas-style revue Gracie Hansen’s Paradise International.
Photo credit: Linda Simpson
Gaiety Male Burlesque
The Gaiety in New York’s Times Square opened in 1975, run by two sisters, attracting “an interesting mix of young hustlers, businessmen, tourists, and celebrities on the DL to its pleasantly dingy, boxy room with its small stage and sparkling curtain.” Gay strip shows were still fairly new at that time, especially revues that featured full-frontal nudity and prop-savvy performances. Celebrities like John Waters, Andy Warhol, and Shirley MacLaine eventually made their way to the second floor of 201 W. 46th Street to see what all the fuss was about. Madonna even featured some of the club’s dancers in her Sex book. After 30 years of male burlesque, the Gaiety Theatre shuttered its doors due to continuous pressure from Mayor Giuliani’s administration. These photos of the Gaiety feature Mr. Fashion (aka Gerard Little), a popular personality from the Pyramid Club’s heyday.
Photo credit: Linda Simpson
Photo credit: Linda Simpson
Known as the “father of modern bodybuilding,” German strongman Eugen Sandow was a leading attraction at British music halls and vaudeville arenas during the Victorian and Edwardian era. He created quite a stir with men and women alike and became an international sex symbol. When his muscle-popping act hit the States, society women attended his shows where they were encouraged to fondle his nearly nude physique during private viewings. An 1890 review of one Sandow show says it all:
Semi delirium seized the delighted dames and damsels. Those at the back of the room leapt on the chairs: parakeet-like ejaculations, irrepressible, resounded right and left; tiny palms beat till… gloves burst at their wearer’s energy. And when Sandow, clad — a little in black and white, made the mountainous muscles of his arms wobble! Oh ladies!
For a penny, gents could peep a few of “nature’s beauties” — a group of erotic, nude stills that showed women frolicking in the flesh. In the 1930s, these coin-operated peep show devices were featured in traveling carnivals, but they also appeared in cinema houses and theaters. Eventually, peep machines graduated to the live shows we know now (also fading into obscurity).
In the 1940s and ‘50s, camera clubs were a popular place for pornographers skirting decency laws and amateur shutterbugs with cash to burn on beautiful women. The models came from all walks of life — some professional, others just willing to shed their clothes. Poses were captured behind closed doors in studios, hotels, and private apartments where the semi-nude (and rarely, nude) women would take direction from a frenzied group of photographers. Sometimes the models posed in secluded locations. Famed pinup queen Bettie Page (pictured) got her start in the business through camera clubs, which eventually led to private modeling for fetish-obsessed clients. Of course, this work eventually became the target of an investigation attempting to link pornography to organized crime, juvenile delinquency, and other “degenerate” behaviors.
The “loose women in tights” of the 1890s
Burlesque dancers in the 1890s were covered from head to toe, but their acts were considered scandalous for the day. Form-fitting clothes such as tights and corsets highlighted their curvy assets, creating a stir amongst audiences. Their performances were also meant to be theatrical, featuring extravagant and strange costumes. The shows pushed the boundaries of acceptable behavior for women.
Lottie “The Body” Graves
Lottie “The Body” Graves was Detroit’s version of Gypsy Rose Lee and Josephine Baker in the 1960s. The Brooklyn-born burlesque performer was a hit at the celebrated African-American nightclub The 20 Grand. An interview with the Metro Times revealed “she rubbed elbows with Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin, she dined with Dinah Washington and strutted alongside Billie Holiday. When she and her Harlem Globetrotter husband Goose Tatum lived in a villa in Cuba, she was chummy with Fidel Castro. And one notorious racketeer in Indianapolis was so was taken with her legendary proportions that he built an entire club just for her, naming it the Pink Poodle.” Lottie also has a strong link to Motown. Her jam sessions (Afro-Caribbean and Cuban rhythms aplenty) with Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight inspired the beats in their versions of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Fellow burlesque performer Sarah Klein (aka Sparkly Devil) described Lottie succinctly: “She was built like a double order of pancakes — sweet and stacked.”