For five decades, the late Milton Jacobson ran the Stone Burlesk, a legendary Detroit burlesque house that ran a mix of live dancers, vaudeville-style acts and naughty short films. When he died, his grandson Matthew inherited what amounts to a history of 20th century adult entertainment — thousands of vintage film loops, untold hours of audio recorded inside the club, ancient playbills and posters, and other sexoterica.
Now Matthew is barnstorming the country, recreating a night in his granddad's theater with the help of modern-day burlesque performers and selections from Milton's treasure trove. He'll be at The Belcourt presiding over tonight's "A Night at the Stone Burlesk" at 10:30 p.m., raising funds for a documentary on the now-defunct club. We caught up with Matthew en route to Nashville, and he was gracious enough to answer a few questions by email (and share some remarkable photos and ads) as his caravan of curvaceous comeliness wends its way toward Music City.
What would a typical night at the Stone Burlesk have been like in its glory days, and did that change over the years?
What someone would experience inside the Stone on a given night definitely depends on the era in which they walked inside. In the early days there were dancing girls, comedians, and a small rag-tag band playing the music the girls would dance to. Little by little, the comedians were replaced by more burlesque dancers, the band was replaced by a jukebox, and gradually the live girls were replaced by films of girls. In the beginning, the films were very tame and campy by today's standards and would play only during the dancer's breaks. As the years went by, the films got racier, but the girls still had to abide by strict regulations. It soon became obvious that people were coming more for the movies.
Another big part of the show, in the early days, was the giveaway of various sundry items to patrons who happened to be carrying a hard-boiled egg, a tomato from their garden, or some other random item that my grandfather would ask for from the stage. As a result, people would come to the show with bags of produce from their garden and various items from their drawers in the hopes that they would have whatever my grandfather would get up on stage and ask for in exchange for prizes. We are doing something similar for our show.
For me, the most meaningful discoveries were the reel-to-reel audio tapes. Some of these tapes are so old that they are actually made of paper! They include the voices of my grandfather, the dancers, my father as a teenager, and some other interesting characters from the theater. I still have yet to listen to and archive the majority of these. The films themselves are a daunting task — thousands of reels of 16mm movies not played since the 40s/50s/60s — and we've only begun to scratch the surface. There are certainly films in there that have not been seen in half a century and very well might be the only existing copy. And of course, as a designer, the trove of vintage advertisements that my grandfather had made to advertise the theater hold a particularly special meaning to me as they relate directly to my career and interest.
Have collectors approached you about buying these holdings? I would imagine they're pretty valuable.
Amazingly not. That said, we'd love to find a home for these somewhere where they can be properly archived and available to the public.
Tell us a little about the planned documentary. The mind boggles at the supplementary DVD of extras you could include.
My grandfather was an eccentric gentleman who sported a gigantic handlebar moustache. As it turns out, he came from a family of even bigger eccentrics. His grandfather ran a speakeasy in Detroit and, as the story goes, was murdered by The Purple Gang (an infamous Jewish mafia in Detroit). His uncle, who was widely known as Silver Dollar Jake because of his habit of throwing silver dollars around everywhere he went with his parrot in the back seat of his lavishly decorated convertible, owned a large number of theaters in Detroit. He gave my grandfather his first job in entertainment. There is so much material there alone.
In the ten years before he passed away, my grandfather began to suffer from memory loss. Fortunately, my wife Leigh made a point of interviewing him every time we saw him, and the result is a series of curiously candid interviews in which he remembered less and less, but sometimes fancied himself still at the theater or confused my wife for one of his dancers. Toward the end, we never knew what might come up during an interview. I remember on one of the very last occasions we interviewed him, he said, "I don't recall what it is I used to do, but I know it had something to do with sex." As a result, the theme of memory loss has figured into the overarching theme of the film in a rather significant way.
In terms of the nitty-gritty, the film will be a patchwork potpourri of performances, music, reel-to-reel audio clips, 16mm film footage, and interviews with former patrons and employees of the theater.
The proceeds from this performance will go toward post-production for this documentary.
What lessons have you learned from your grandfather about putting on a Stone Burlesk show?
Unfortunately my grandfather passed away (at the age of 98!) this past September, but his distinct vaudeville showbizzy persona is something that I grew up with my entire life and it has influenced me in many ways. That said, while growing up I was never actually allowed into the theater. Tomorrow night, I will be recreating what I've been told it was like by my grandfather (who ran the Stone Burlesk for 50 years), my grandmother (who made the dancers' wardrobes and managed the theater when my grandfather was in the Army), my father (who worked at the theater off and on throughout his childhood and adolescence starting at the age of 5, when he would get up on stage and say, "The more you applaud the more they take off!"), and other employees and patrons who we have interviewed for the documentary over the past few years.