About the series
The Troc Burlesque Theater operated in Philadelphia from the 1940’s to the 1980’s.
During it’s glory years, all of the top burlesque acts performed there including Tempest Storm, Gypsy Rose Lee, Blaze Starr, Lili St. Cyr and Dixie Evans.
By the 1970’s however burlesque was in decline and the strippers who traveled from city to city were performing to dwindling audiences.
In 1974, Robert Adler was given unprecedented access to the theater and photographed the dancers both on and off stage, documenting the last days of burlesque.
Photographing The Series Backstage at the Troc
The Troc and the women who performed there always fascinated me. I never went as a teenager, even though most of my friends made pilgrimages there on Friday nights. I walked in for the first time when I was in my twenties after I had been given an assignment to photograph a stripper for one of my clients. The Troc was the natural spot to carry out this mission. It was only a couple of blocks from my studio, so I stopped by to talk to the manager about hiring one of the dancers to pose for me.
The manager was a Runyonesque character, physically imposing; a big man with a face that looked like it had been in too many fights. I nervously approached him with my request, but my fears were unfounded. He turned out to be a gentle giant. He was soft-spoken and very accommodating and agreed to introduce me to some of the dancers.
Walking together through the theater, we entered a side door that led to the backstage area where we encountered DiDi. She was hanging out with her boyfriend before going on stage but agreed to let me photograph her for my project. The session took about twenty minutes. Later, when she began her performance, I put my camera gear down to watch from the wings.
There she was,dancing and stripping in front of a small audience of solitary, faceless men.Disco music playing through the scratchy speakers completed the sleazy but colorful experience. I felt like I had been transported back in time to a more sexually innocent era.
As I looked around I couldn't help but notice the rundown theatrical environment. I knew I needed to come back and do a photographic series about the Troc. Before I left,I told the manager that I'd like to return and do some more shooting. He said I could come back any time and he would have his employees buzz me backstage. But I still had to work out my own arrangements with the dancers. The project was on.
I was apprehensive the first day I shot at the Troc. It had been just a few days since my first photo session with DiDi. She was still performing there when I returned, so I immediately sought her out and gave her a print of one of the shots from our first session. She really loved it and introduced me to some of the other dancers who were working there that day.
I found out from speaking to these strippers that many of them were on a circuit traveling around the East Coast from city to city, theater to theater. It was a tough,lonely life. Most of the time they traveled from venue to venue by bus, and the money they made from performing just about covered their expenses and per diem needs. They usually stayed in cheap hotels near the theater and some of them used their off hours to engage in prostitution. Others traveled with their boyfriends or hooked up with a guy when they first arrived in a town and stayed with him until they moved on. I kept being reminded of those old black and white movies where vaudeville entertainers went from town to town with sequences of steam trains flashing by on the screen.
Spending time in that theater certainly felt like being in an old movie. The Troc was built over a hundred years ago and opened as the Trocadero. In its heyday, it was one of the most elegant venues in town, offering the period's best show business and burlesque acts. Famous and legendary strippers like Tempest Storm and Gypsy Rose Lee performed there. The depression, the war years, and finally the 1950'ssaw the decline of live entertainment and high class burlesque. The theater fell into decay and disrepair.
What I noticed when I started shooting there was that the theater had never had a complete remodeling. Nothing was ever removed. Instead, improvements were made over the years piecemeal, one on top of another, so that it was possible to look at an interior wall and see elements like posters and timeworn ropes going from the present back a hundred years or more.
Burlesque was going through its final transformation at this time. Strip clubs and topless bars were beginning to pop up around the country. Old time burlesque like the performances at the Troc was dying off. Yet still these women considered themselves performers in the true show business tradition. Although many oft hem also worked as dancers in GoGo bars and strip joints, at the Troc they took their dancing and performance skills very seriously. They all had expensive custom-made costumes and some of them even played the role of"Burlesque Queen" both in and out of the theater.
The place was filthy. Layers of dust and grime covered everything and the dressing rooms were a mess. But somehow, the dancers would find a way to settle in and make these rooms into personal refuges. When I began shooting at the Troc, I noticed those doors were never closed. Watching the dancers getting ready for a performance or relaxing afterwards, I realized I was in a very different place than the predictable, safe world I was used to. The air was always thick with danger,sensuality and anticipation.
If I felt it was appropriate, I would introduce myself to some of the new performers and explain why I was there. I asked if I could photograph them and most of them agreed. The run down setting and the partially clad dancers naturally converged as I started to take my pictures. The women, exhibitionists by nature, enjoyed posing for me. But although the dancers were friendly enough, I still felt an underlying sense of suspicion.
These women lived in a world of hustling and exploitation. They made a living using their sexuality to take advantage of the unfulfilled erotic needs and fantasies of the customers. Yet their short-lived power over their audience was in direct contrast to the helplessness of their situation when dealing with management and society. As if this situation wasn't difficult enough, those negotiations were often conducted while they were naked.
I quickly realized I had to be totally straight with these women. If they thought I was trying to pull the wool over their eyes, they would see right through the attempt and refuse to pose for me. They generally viewed all men as predators who were trying to hit on them and seemed to enjoy the feeling of control they experienced in these interactions. I was not viewed any differently. I felt that by being as honest and straightforward as possible, I would be able to earn their trust.
Most of the dancers I met were loners. The men in their lives were often gangsters, pimps or drug dealers, and if they traveled with a man, it was usually for protection.Many were drug users themselves. It was a lifestyle fraught with clearly visible physical danger and risk. They interacted with the other dancers like siblings in a dysfunctional family. There was always camaraderie amongst them but also marked distrust. Like a soap opera, their lives revolved around these temporary relationships. Status in the theater was an important and constant topic of conversation, and there was always an undercurrent of gossip.
I spent a lot of time with the dancers at the Troc. We had many conversations in between photo sessions and often left the theater together to catch a bite to eat or have a cup of coffee. I found some of the women fascinating and some dull. I became friends with a few. We got to know each other and shared our thoughts about our mutual struggles to get somewhere in this world.
Over the years I've thought a lot about those women. I often wonder what they're doing now.How have they changed? How have they grown? I suspect I'll never see any of them again, but the photographs will always take me back to that seminal moment in my life when I first crossed over society's boundary line into the sexual underground of the world of Burlesque.