Hollywood Burlesque Theatre in San Diego

There was once a time that burlesque boomed in San Diego. Located in what was once called “The Stingaree” at 314 F Street in downtown San Diego, The Hollywood Theatre offered a stage to many striptease artists like Tempest Storm and Betty Rowland. Owned and operated by the dedicated Bob Johnston and his wife Fanny Myers, the Hollywood Theatre was re-opened as such after the Exposition at Balboa Park ended the original Liberty Theatre.

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Prior to and during World War II, the theatre flourished when an influx of service men into San Diego made for regular patrons. Downtown San Diego became packed with military attendees waiting to see the shows.  At the height of the theatre’s attendance, they were doing six shows on a Saturday and five shows on a Sunday. They were lucky to be the only “Big Girl Revue” in the city. The show featured a chorus line of thirty women, singers, dancers, strippers, comedians, magicians, and more. The show itself changed every two weeks along with the headliner. During this time, the theatre was incredibly successful and afforded Bob and his wife many luxury items that were very much appreciated after the Great Depression.

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In the beginning of her career, Lil St. Cyr was a regular cast member and was mentored by veterans such as Janne “Irish” Cafara.  “Irish” began dancing as a feature when her son was tragically killed by a drunk driver. In an attempt to grieve in San Diego, she took the part at the Hollywood Theatre. The theatre proved to be an effective measure to remedy the grief while teaming up with old friend Claude Mathis, and mentoring budding performers like Lili. “Irish” proved to have an emotional attachment to the Hollywood Theatre and stood by it’s side even as burlesque entertainment faded.

Many cast members came to work at the Hollywood Theatre for the ability to settle down in San Diego, raise families, and enjoy the material comforts their jobs afforded. As “Irish” once put it, I think I played every state in the United States, the big theatres in all the big cities. When I got to San Diego I just don’t know, I just never wanted to leave here.”

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There were many headliners who passed through the Hollywood Theatre, but Big Bobbi “Texas” Roberts remained a favorite in-house feature. She was tall with brazen redhair, and was referred to as a “tree-topper” because of her height in both heels and a head dress. She was billed as “6 Feet 1 of Texas Fun” and always stood out from the others. Even after her death, fans reminisced about the statuesque beauty.

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By the mid-1950’s, the burlesque industry was falling apart. Top burlesque stars took their craft into nightclubs, radio, film and television. Although the Hollywood theatre survived longer than most due to San Diego’s military bases, the prosperity of the theatre finally came to an end in the 1960’s.  As ticket sales stalled, the production quality of the show diminished. Finally, with the movie houses taking attendance from classic, live, burlesque striptease, the Hollywood Theatre, and for awhile the burlesque art form became obsolete. The decision to close the Hollywood in 1970 was difficult but necessary.

For a time, the Hollywood Theatre was at the center of downtown and gave a home to many performers and attendees. For decades, the theatre was recognized as the only place in San Diego that was exclusively dedicated to presenting classic American burlesque.

 

 

 

References

Furlonger, Jaye. San Diego’s Bygone Burlesque: The Famous Hollywood Theatre. https://www.sandiegohistory.org/journal/v51-1/pdf/2005-1_hollywood.pdf

Zemeckis, Leslie. Goddess of Love Incarnate: The Life of Stripteuse Lili St. Cyr. Counterpoint Press 2015.  Page 119-120.

Photos Pulled from https://www.facebook.com/Vintage-San-Diego-181625028554101/