Coincidence. Here I am still in the midde of Carnivale, working my way through the first series on DVD. The last few days I’ve been particularly interested in its depiction of carny cooch, being, ah, rather taken in by Rita-Sue. This week I also met historian Robert Allen from the University of North Carolina, out in Australia on a whistle-stop lecture-tour. (He gave an extraordinary paper on cinema history yesterday, which will perhaps form the subject of a future post). And here, in his 1991 book, Horrible Prettiness, a cultural history of American burlesque, is a chapter on cooch and carnival.
From the 1890s, Allen tells us, circus sideshows regularly exhibited freaks and cooch shows, often accompanied by a band of black musicians. By the 1920s, however, the circus was a waning theatrical form, losing out to movies and amusement parks. It was during that decade that the more mobile, cheaper-to-run carnivals began taking its place. They essentially took the circus sideshow and rides and dispensed with the big top and expensive equestrian display (trick riding being the most distinctive element of the circus as an entertainment form). “By 1937, 300 carnival units toured the US”, Allen tells us, and they were still working small-town America in the 1960s.
The freak show was always “an important if not central attraction” in the carnivals. And so, of course, was the cooch. Actually (so far as one commentator in the 1960s was concerned) it was the cooch that the boys really came to see:
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise… Carnivals that hit the rural South or the Pennsylvania Dutch country … have to carry as many as three girl shows to handle customers who spend the whole night going from one to the other and returning to the first and starting it all over again.
The smaller and more cash-strapped the carnival, the “stronger” the cooch show. In metropolitan clubs in the 1920s, performers had segued from the cooch to the shimmy, a dance set to jazz rhythms, all frenetic movement, fancy costumes, bright lights. The carnival shows were much more up-front, so to speak, about the fact that it was nudity that the marks came to see. “This is a dance that you don’t tell your mama about’, says Stumpy in Carnivale. Most other talkers of the era advertised the strongest cooch dances as something the marks “would never see at home”.
Such acts didn’t necessarily just end with the blow-off, when the dancer took off her G-string for the gawping multitudes. Some ended with the rubes coming forward with flashlights to really get a good clinical look between the splayed legs of the dancer. By that time, the sequin-studded satin-and-fringing routine had been reduced to fumbling with a torch in the halflight, a gynaecological exhibit got underway.
Robert Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of Nth Carolina Press, 1991), pp. 232-36