Burlesque History XII: Georgia Sothern

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Georgia Sothern, The Dancing Dynamo.

No one embodied the frenzied beat of burlesque the way Georgia Sothern did. Born to an impoverished family in Atlanta with the real name of "Hazel Anderson," Georgia was literally raised in vaudeville. By the time she was able to walk she was performing onstage with her uncle's vaudeville act, and for a decade traveled the country. But by the early 1920's the young teen was beset by personal tragedy; her father had abandoned the family, her mother and uncle had passed away, and she was on her own. To compound problems the era of vaudeville was coming to a close and she was without a way to earn money to survive.

Alone and only 13 years old, Hazel turned to burlesque and became a striptease performer. She produced a fake birth certificate that said she was 17, found herself an agent, and joined Minsky's in New York City. She declared herself "Georgia Sothern" in honor of her home state, but whether through ignorance or nervousness she misspelled the name.

Georgia during her Minsky's days.

Sothern developed an extremely unique dancing style; fast and furious! Her signature song "Hold That Tiger" was an upbeat number which showcased her wild dance steps. Sometimes she would get so carried away with performing she would remove clothing items and then put them back on again to continue her striptease. Within a few years Sothern was a sensation along the entire Eastern wheel of burlesque, headlining shows in Miami, New York, Boston, and Buffalo.

A hugely popular entertainer in New York, Sothern eventually joined with another burlesque great, Gypsy Rose Lee, on Broadway in the 1940's for productions of the musical "Star and Garter" which was a phenomenal success.

Star and Garter featured Georgia along side stars like Lili St. Cyr and Gypsy Rose Lee.

Of course, not everyone was a fan of burlesque and Sothern was arrested a few times for her enthusiastic stripping, most notably in Manhatten for "lewdness in a tent." Although burlesque dancers felt the pinch of law enforcement in New York City, Sothern continued to perform and even was instrumental in getting rid of the "police card" which was a corrupt means of extorting money from dancers. It was not her first brush with the law; Sothern had a rough and tumble life, even witnessing a Mob murder early in her teen years. She had a tumultuous personal life as well, including an on-and-off relationship with actor Errol Flynn.

She also makes a featured appearance in the burlesque film, "Hurly Burly," along side comedian Joey Faye. The film is a raucous mix of comedy, bump and grind, music and variety acts in a hodge-podge of film clips from the 30s and 40s.

The poster from the 1940s burlesque romp fest, Hurly Burly.

In 1952 Sothern was the featured performer in Phil Silver's Cavalcade of Burlesque. Silver was a master of comedy in the 50s most known for his Sgt. Bilko character. One thing that stands out about the projects Sothern chose, she had great comic timing and in addition to her dancing style being a one of a kind, her sense of humor was an equal portion of what made her a great performer.

1952 front cover of the Cavalcade of Burlesque.

Sothern continued to perform well into her 60's and recounted her 50 plus years of burlesque experience in her autobiography "Georgia: My Life in Burlesque." Georgia Sothern passed away in New York City in 1981 at the age of 72.