What was the name of the burlesque house that used to be on Diamond Street (excuse me, Forbes Avenue) between Smithfield and Wood? What do you know of its history? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

What was the name of the burlesque house that used to be on Diamond Street (excuse me, Forbes Avenue) between Smithfield and Wood? What do you know of its history?

Question submitted by: Rick Hannegan, McCandless

You're referring, I believe, to the Casino Theater, located on the 300 block of Forbes, which I first learned about from a Rick Sebak special. I can't remember which one, since I don't think he did an Adult Entertainment Venues That Aren't There Anymore. (Although that would be a great concept. Rick, call me! City Paper is a natural partner!) 

Anyway, the Casino was the last -- and for much of its life, the only -- Pittsburgh burlesque palace. Built for vaudeville acts in 1911 and known as the Harris Theater, it had seating for 1,800 people. In the mid-1930s, though, it was bought by George Jaffe and reborn as the Casino.

Jaffe was something of a character: Born in Russia, according to a 1951 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette bio, he ran a handful of other burlesque theaters before acquiring the Harris. (Judging from a theater-gossip column item, he also apparently considered a city council run in 1935 ... but obviously decided to stick with a more respectable trade.) Jaffe had national standing in the industry, and much of the Casino's talent came from dancers touring the national burlesque circuit -- often called the "Peel Wheel." 

The Casino offered multiple shows daily, including an early-morning "milkman's matinee" and a midnight performance every Sunday. And the talent was diverse ... so much so that in 1949, a local theater writer could plausibly ask "if George Jaffe, the local burlesque baron, has heard about Zenana yet? She's the newest thing in peelers -- uses a monkey to disrobe her." 

I'm not sure whether Zenana ever graced the Casino stage, but I did spend an enjoyable couple of hours sifting through old newspaper clippings, scanning the names of performers who did appear here 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s: 

Tempest Storm. June March. Betty Percy and her "Parade of Puppets." Curvy Lane. Marion Morgan, the "Sophisticated Lady of Disrobe." The "Tallahassee Tantalizer," Bonnie Lee. Sherry Shannon, the "Irish Colleen." Georgie Sothern, the "sizzling tornado" of burlesque. Not to mention the "Beef Trust Beauties," described as being a "chorus of 'hefty' girls, each weighing 300 pounds or better."

But it wasn't all about the girls. The dancing was interspersed with comic sketches and other vaudeville acts. For example, when Miss Jessica Rogers and her "disrobing dance of the 'seven veils'" graced the stage in September 1945, she was accompanied by:  contortionist Al Stryker; roller-skater King Johnson; "85-year-old bell-ringer" Billy Hess, and the dance team of Girard and Lawrence. 

Comedian Billy "Cheese 'n' Crackers" Hagan was a local favorite. So was Happy Hyatt, the "fattest comedian in burlesque." And on Dec. 6, 1941, while the Japanese were preparing to attack Pearl Harbor, Pittsburgh awaited a visit by the famous conjoined tap-dancing "Siamese" twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton. No wonder America slept: One wishes for a simpler era, when the phrase "Hilton sisters" was associated with nothing more unusual than a pair of tap-dancing conjoined twins.

Jaffe retired in 1951, at age 73 -- "after 37 years of watching twisting torsos, and listening to thousands of male voices shout 'take it off,'" as a newspaper account put it. So it was like being a city councilor after all. But by then, the theater was interspersing the dance acts with short movies instead of live vaudeville acts, and Jaffe could see the writing on the wall. "The whole show today is built around the strip teasers," he told a reporter. "In the old days, it was the comedians." 

Jaffe died of a heart attack two years later. The Casino ran for another few years under the control of a national burlesque operator, but by the mid-1960s, the form was passé, even in Pittsburgh. A 1989 reminiscence, by retired P-G reporter Vince Leonard, recalled the theater's once-proud interior lacking air-conditioning and being colored in "grime gold or soot green." (Leonard also recalled seeing a former high-school classmate on stage once: "Her yearbook [entry] never even hinted at theater work," he wrote.) 

The Casino was torn down in April 1965, replaced with a parking lot which is still there today. The only grinding that goes on there now is the sound of commuters putting their cars into gear ... wondering why there's so little to do Downtown after hours any more.

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