This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

Mademoiselle Fifi

28 July 2017

All she wore were
flowers, balloons, and a smile.
That's all you need to know.
The rest is best left
to the imagination.

 Her smile greets us
on a large 8"x10" glossy.
The standard publicity passport
of the theater world.
Being a clever girl,
she signed it too.

“Just for remembrance”
Jan 4th  1923
Scranton, Pa

Sincerely Yours
To Violet

The back of the photo also
has an address:


Perm address
817 N 25th St.
Phila. Pa.

Poplar 677W -

Summer address
Clementon N.J.
La Fifi Villa

And one more name:

Ned Ruddy
716 Monroe Ave
Scranton Pa

I bought Fifi's photo with a small lot of other vaudeville promotional photos that came from an estate sale in Scranton, Pennsylvania. It's a fun flirtations image, but it's not really musical so it's outside my usual acquisitions. I just liked her smile.

But there are a lot of good clues with this photo. A date, a place, and names.

Let's start with the date – January 1923,
the place – Scranton,
and a name – Fifi.

Scranton PA Republican
06 January 1923

On January 6, 1923, Scranton offered all kinds of amusements for the first Saturday of the year. The Strand theatre showed a children's matinee of a Harold Lloyd comedy "Grandma's Boy", plus Man vs Beast, Views of the Jungle. The State had Mabel Normand in "Molly O", a  Mack Sennett production. The Regent feature was Tom Mix in "Arabia" with Will Rodgers in "The Ropin' Fool". Josef Rosenblatt, the greatest Cantor Tenor would be singing the following Wednesday at the Y.M.H.A auditorium. The Capitol, Scranton's Vaudeville Palace, listed a variety of acts beginning with "Eight Perfect Fools", a Whirlwind of Merriment, and the famous Curzon Sisters, sensational and novelty aerialists. Frank Van Hoven, the Mad Magician, headlined Poli's theatre, along with Charles Ray in "Gas, Oil, and Water", a Thrill and a Laugh a Minute. Over at the Liederkranz Casino there was music and dancing every Saturday. And at the Majestic, Scranton's Fun Center, "Real Burlesque" with Harry Fields and his Hello Jako Girls - and held over another week "Fifi".  

Scranton PA Republican
03 January 1923

A couple days before, Scranton's newspaper ran a review of the Majestic theater's show. It attracted big crowds over the New Year weekend. The versatile Harry Fields was backed by a capable ensemble, "The Hello Jake Girls".  The Majestic's manager, Louis Epstein, also retained for a second week, the striking sensational dancer, "Fifi". The latter a card worth while and has made so good an impression that patrons of the house will be delighted to know she continues at the house.

* * *

Mr. Epstein must have been impressed with her star quality because 12 months later, Fifi, "The One and Only" returned as the headline for the December 1923 New Years Eve show – "Flirts and Skirts". The girl in the advertisement's illustration wears a headband similar to the one in  Fifi photo.

Scranton PA Republican
31 December 1923

The name "Fifi" was surely a stage name, but show business names have always been like trademarks, valued as brands that sell tickets. So when did "Fifi" first appear in burlesque? In May 1917 she was the Dance Sensation of the Season at the Trocadero theater in Philadelphia. The advertisement in the Philadelphia Inquirer displayed her picture. Mlle. Fifi in the big hit, Danse de l'Opium.

Philadelphia Inquirer
27 May 1917

The abbreviation Mlle. for Mademoiselle added an exotic French quality to her name. Her style of dance may have been inspired by the popularity of the American dancer, Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), who was then a major influence on changing classic ballet into modern interpretive dance. That was how Mlle. Fifi was billed in January 1927 when she headlined Omaha's Gayety Burlesk Show. "Nite Life in Paris", positively a good snappy show. See Mlle. Fifi, America's foremost interpretive dancer.

Omaha NE World Herald
20 January 1927

In this era, Burlesque Theatres, or Burlesk Theaters in Americanese, operated just like the vaudeville circuits had done for decades. Entertainers traveled from city to city, following the rail lines, playing theaters for a week or two and then moving on to the next booking. Agents handled acts from classy artistes to crass comedians putting on the latest musical comedy. And there always had to be chorus girls. American Burlesque was an art form that took away any pretense of artistic refinement and catered to the baser instincts of the American audience. Get them in the door, then show them what they want to see. As much as possible anyway.

In 1928 at the height of Prohibition, Fifi was the headline at the Embassy theatre in Altoona, PA.

Internationally Known Star
Midnight Show
tonight at 11:30

You may have seen dancers but you must
see Mll. Fifi if you want to see how they
dance in the orient.

Altoona PA Mirror
31 December 1928

So it would seem Mlle. Fifi's stage career lasted at least 11-15 years. I found notices of her appearance in New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Omaha, Portland. But newspapers wouldn't reveal her real identity. The obvious clues could only lead to a dead end.

Until I looked for her address in Clementon, NJ.

Cincinnati Enquirer
09 July 1950

In the 1950s, newspapers around the country regularly printed syndicated Hollywood and Broadway news. A short filler ran during the summer of 1950.

Mlle. Fifi is perhaps the best known name in burlesk. She's retired to her La Fifi Villa at Clementon, N. J. She manages her daughter's bubble-dancing career now. Daughter is Dolores Dawson, who just wound up 60 consecutive weeks in Greenwich Village.

Evidently the daughter, like her mother, worked the burlesk stage too. That seems like a familiar story.

* * *

Camden NJ Courier-Post
13 November 1973

The house in Clementon even showed up in a 1973 real estate classified as a 2 bdrm bungalow in a unique wooded setting high on a hill. Former home of Show Business personality & known as "La Fifi Villa".  Priced at only $7000.

* * *

Now I had to find out who she really was.
With the names Dawson and Fifi it didn't take long.

Her stage persona was Mademoiselle Fifi, but her full name was Mary Elizabeth Dawson.  A native of Philadelphia, Mary Dawson was born in 1890, so she was age 33 in her balloon photo. Bearing in mind that having a Wikipedia page is not the same as being listed in the Dictionary of National Biography, truth is sometimes open to interpretation, but at least there were a few collaborating references. One was at the University of Maine Library, which incredibly has a Mary Dawson Collection.

Source: University of Maine Archives

There I found a postcard with an image of Mary Dawson nearly identical to the one shown in the 1917 Trocadero Theatre advert. The printed caption reads:

M'lle Fifi
"The Dancing Venus"

Extra Added Attraction with
Moore & Scanlon's
"Garden of Girls Company"

A handwritten note on the edge reads:

1910 –
Real Snakes

They do indeed look like snakes around her wrists, and on closer examination, in the image on the Trocadero's advert, she is wearing them!

And though I'm no herpetologist, I don't think they are garter snakes as described in her Wikipedia entry. 

* * *

Another postcard shows Mlle. Fifi hiding behind a Japanese parasol.
The printed caption reads:

Just arrived for the Summer

Fifi from Paris
The One Only & Original
Now Playing
Savoy Theatre
Atlantic City
, N.J.

Source: University of Maine Archives

Written on the card is:
Season 1928-29

Source: University of Maine Archives

The use of the phrase "The One Only & Original" which was similarly used on the 1923 advertisement may indicate that Mlle. Fifi had a dancing competitor who also went by Fifi or some name that was vaguely French. Here is another image from the University of Maine collection, an undated photo of Mary Dawson, aka Fifi, standing in front of a poster advertising Jack Lamont and his Pretty Babies with The Original Fifi from Paris, International Shimmy Dancer.

* * *

In 1960, LIFE magazine ran a "story" on the history of the Minsky Brothers Burlesque Shows. It included this image of Mademoiselle Fifi, a celebrated soubrette of their productions doing "The Dance of September Morn."  She is barefoot and adorned with flowers and lace but no snakes.

LIFE Magazine
02 May 1960

The reason that exotic oriental dancer, Mary Dawson, aka Mademoiselle Fifi, is remembered today is because of a 1968 musical comedy entitled The Night They Raided Minsky's, which starred Jason Robards and Britt Ekland. It was based on a book of the same name by Rowland Barber which was published in 1960. Supposedly the storyline is based in part on how Mary Dawson, aka Mademoiselle Fifi, got her big break in a Minsky Brothers burlesque show, by having, let's say, a wardrobe malfunction on stage during her performance. A crazy ruckus ensues that leads to her arrest for public indecency. But as every show business agent knows, even bad publicity is good publicity.

According to the Wikipedia entries on Mary Dawson, the movie, and the Minsky's Brothers, as well as several books on the history of the burlesque theater, this legendary showbiz event takes place on April 20, 1925. Yet it's strange that by 1925, Mlle. Fifi was a veteran trouper with over 15 years of dancing experience on the burlesque circuit. And I could not find her name connected to any of the Minsky Brothers shows for 1925 or any other year. It's a puzzle.

But let's Mary tell us the real story herself.

Elmira NY Star-Gazette
30 December 1975
In December 1975 newspapers around the country ran a photo and a heart-warming story of Mary Dawson, now age 85, recounting her dancing life in burlesque. "I never did anything risque, although I worked with a lot of strippers," she remembered. The episode of the raid on Minsky's Theatre was a myth, a showbiz legend begun by a writer who "just put all in that book to make it better." Now a grandmother, she tried to teach her 12-year-old granddaughter some of her old routines. "I can still move every part of my body," the former Mademoiselle Fifi boasts as she twirls a green snake around her neck and shoulders.

Mary Dawson, aka Mlle. Fifi, died in 1982 at age 92.

* * *

It's unusual for me to find so many useful references on a subject in my photograph collection. Usually the few records I can find make only a sketch of a person's life, so it's a thrill to be able to make a proper profile. Mary Dawson clearly became a successful entertainer in her chosen field, dancing in burlesque, the toughest stage of show biz. Yet there is a lot about her life that is left to our imagination. What was it like to be a woman traveling on the burlesque theater circuit? What kind of treatment did she receive from rough audiences, crooked agents, and licentious managers? Why did she let her daughter go into the same tawdry business? Perhaps it wasn't so vulgar as we might think.

On April 20, 1925, when supposedly Mlle. Fifi revealed a little too much at a Minsky Brothers Show, Mary Dawson claims she was somewhere else, working a convention she says. During the winter and spring of 1925, Mlle. Fifi, was associated with a national tour of show called The Greenwich Village Follies, headlined by Gallager and Shean, two vaudeville comedians. The show had over 20 skits with songs and dances, and of course, lots of chorus girls. It started on the east coast and headed west. By April 1925 the company was in California. The San Bernardino  newspaper promoted the upcoming show on April 26. The two comic stars were assisted by Mlle. Fifi, a celebrated French music hall artiste who was especially engaged for this number as well as prima donna in support of these artistes.

San Bernardino CA Daily Sun
26 April 1925

It's possible that this Mlle. Fifi was Mary Dawson's unoriginal competitor. Maybe in April 1925 Mary was playing a show for the Acme Novelty Company convention in New Jersey. But because she was a well-known name in burlesque, I think it's likely she was part of this show, at least in a few cities. In any case, she was not part of that indecent Minsky show.

Moreover for the entire year of 1925, much less April, the newspapers of America made no mention of any scandal at a Minsky Brothers Show. No nip slip, no torn skirt, no nothing. The authors of books on burlesque say Mary Dawson was there, even though they note a lack of evidence for which they have no explanation.

At the time, the Minsky Burlesque theater was called the National Winter Garden theater on Houston Street in New York City. It was advertised as "Burlesque As You Like It – Not a Family Show." The producers knew their audience and put together shows that imitated the Parisian Folies Bergère and Moulin Rouge by having girls strut their stuff on a runway built out from the stage. The show had loud music, rude jokes, and risque skin. It was naughty, even bawdy humor. But the Minsky Brothers knew how to toe the line on New York's codes on indecency in a theater.

The notorious raid at Minsky's Theater
did not happen on April 20, 1925,
and Mlle. Fifi was not part of the show.
It was actually seven months earlier on Sept 15, 1924,
and the dancer's name was Mme. Cleo Vivian.

Pittsburgh Post Gazette
16 September 1924
Court Draws No Line
on 'Girlie" Shows

Frees Burlesque Dancer
Act no more indecent than at
'High-priced Performances.'

NEW YORK, Sept 15 — "The standard of morals is no higher on the East Side than at Broadway and Forty-second street. Conceding this, I hold this dancer blameless and dismiss the complaint." With these words Magistrate Louis D. Brodsky freed Mme. Leo Vivian, 19-year-old Oriental dancer of the National Winter Garden Burlesque Company, of a charge of "doing an immoral dance while scantily clad."

Acquitted with Mme. Cleo were Nick Elliot, manager, and Walter Brown, comedian at the National Winter Garden, who were arraigned on charges of permitting the dance.

Weighing in his hand the seized costume, consisting of a pair of silk trunks, a narrow beaded girdle, belted at the waist, and two sheet-metal breastplates, the Magistrate said:

"For the official records I want to say that this dance is not indecent or immoral, as alleged.

"The audience at any of the high priced Broadway shows or cabarets would be disappointed if the star should appear in any more costume than that submitted here today."

* * *

Other reports offered more details. Oriental dancer Mme. Cleo spoke no English. Her "trunks" were tiny silk panties. She had made four encores in her costume and was about to return for another bow when a police detective,  two patrol officers, one of which was a policewoman, arrested her, along with the manager and the proprietor of the cabaret. It was reported that "Cleo wiggled so freely as to seriously endanger that little costume she had."

Don't you think
Mary Dawson laughed out loud
when she read this story?

* * *

To conclude
I can't resist offering this clip
of the 1968 musical comedy
The Night They Raided Minsky's.

It may be just a cinematic fiction,
but it gives us glimpse
of the glitzy and tacky
world of burlesque theatre
that Mademoiselle Fifi knew well.

* * *

* * *


One last thing. I don't know who Violet is, but Ned Ruddy whose Scranton address was written on the back of Fifi's photo, was Edward J. Ruddy, nickname Ned. He was then a 20 year-old young man, unmarried, and living at home while he worked in the advertising department of the Scranton newspaper. Want to bet he knew a thing or two about exotic dancers?


This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where it's all water under the bridge.


Alan Burnett said...

Mike, this is a "tour de force", a fantastic production as entertaining and stimulating as anything Mme Fifi could have ever come up with. Your blogposts go to heights unscaled by others.

Jo Featherston said...

As usual, a great story supported by fantastic research. You are nothing less than a historical private detective!

Barbara Rogers said...

What a fun post, and of course there WAS a band in the video!

Wendy said...

Gypsy Rose Lee and Mama Rose - Mlle Fifi and daughter. Yes, both great stories. But I want the low-down on that necktie contest!

Mike Brubaker said...

@Wendy - From the Scranton Republican preview of The Majestic Theater's 1924 New Year week featuring, Fifi, "one of the best known and talented of the Oriental dancers."

"There will be the usual 'nights' during the week. The first will come on Wednesday evening, when about seventy-five handsome neckties will be distributed by the members of the chorus. The Country Store night on Friday evening will draw tremendous crowds as usual. Some very valuable gifts will be handed the holders of the right numbers."

ScotSue said...

What a light hearted, entertaining post. I love seeing the old adverts as much as the photographs and you have showed us a wonderful selection. My favourite has to be "Flirts and Skirts" !

tony said...

Mike,another brilliant post.
Fifi,I think I'm in love......

Tattered and Lost said...

Perfection! A wonderful journey. My mind is racing with images of what life must have been like. The hustle and bustle backstage before going on and then off to the next town. And I wonder if she carried the French Fifi to include a faux accent for the stagedoor Johnnies? I'm guessing she was no shrinking violet. The Philly Fifi has arrived.

Little Nell said...

See what happens when you buy something just because your like her smile? You go and do some wonderful research and write a great post!


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