Built in the aftermath of the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, the Gayety Theatre opened on February 5, 1906—making this building the oldest remaining burlesque theater in Baltimore. While the theatre interior was subdivided into three separate spaces in 1985, the Gayety still boasts an elaborate, eye-catching, and fanciful façade (designed by architect John Bailey McElfatrick) that is a wonderful example of the exuberance of theater design in the period.
The Gayety is the venerable keystone of “The Block” on Baltimore Street long known as a destination for adult entertainment. “The Block” is somewhat of a misnomer, as the area of arcades, bars, burlesque houses and adult bookshops extended east along Baltimore Street from Calvert Street for approximately eight blocks in the middle third of the 20th century. Due to various cultural forces, and particularly to a concerted “anti-smut” campaign during the mayoral tenure of William Donald Schaefer in the early 1980s, most of this extensive commercial sub-cultural landscape no longer exists, and “the Block” is, in fact, a small representative of a once-thriving red-light district.
The Gayety began after the Great Baltimore Fire destroyed the offices of The German Correspondent. While some downtown theatres moved to Howard Street after the fire, The Gayety, Lubin’s Nickelodeon and Vaudeville “duplex” directly across the street, The Victoria (later known as The Embassy) and The Rivoli all remained in the area and defined this stretch of Baltimore Street as a “popular entertainment” center, with an emphasis on burlesque and vaudeville. Despite the connotations acquired later, burlesque and vaudeville were mainstream forms of entertainment aimed at the working and middle classes.
By World War I, the Gayety’s neighbors had made the switch to showing movies. In the 1920s and 1930s, cinema began to supplant burlesque and, especially, vaudeville as the chief form of low-cost popular entertainment across the United States. Burlesque houses, such as The Gayety, promoted more risqué acts in the effort to give the public something that they couldn’t get in movies, especially after the adoption of the Hayes production code in 1932, which not only banned nudity but placed Draconian restrictions on sexual content and references in film.
From its heyday in the 1910s and 1920s—when The Gayety’s bill included nationally prominent comedians such as Abbott and Costello, Phil Silvers, Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton—the Gayety was a “top-of-the-line” burlesque house. In this period (just before and after World War II) iconic strippers such as Gypsy Rose Lee, Blaze Starr, Sally Rand, Valerie Parks and Ann Corio performed there. Following the Second World War, more arcades, as well as adult bookshops, peep shows and show bars cropped up to fill in the vacant spaces and gradually redefined East Baltimore Street as a “red light district,” analogous to New York’s Times Square, Washington, DC’s 14th Street and New Orleans’s legendary Bourbon Street. By the 1960s, The Gayety no longer hosted headline performers, and local news features surrounding the cataclysmic fire in 1969 tended to emphasize nostalgia for its decline. In this sense, The Gayety Theater Building encapsulates the history of burlesque as an entertainment form and its interaction with civic form in the 20th century United States.
Nostalgic descriptions of performances at The Gayety and its peers indicate that, by today’s standards, the performances were quite modest. However, the aura of taboo was a large part of what sustained burlesque in general, and The Gayety in particular, through the mid-twentieth century.