Jersey City’s censoring of a burlesque show set for March 28 may lead to the revision of an ordinance prohibiting “obscene” entertainment.
Two days prior to the performance, the city’s law department warned FM, a new nightclub on Third Street, that the owners faced a $2,500 fine for the show – so the owners canceled it.
“The general consensus is that contemporary community standards would interpret a burlesque event as obscene entertainment,” the warning said.
The ordinance embodying those standards was adopted in the early 1980s and revised in the early 1990s. It was designed to prohibit the opening of strip clubs. But city officials now admit closing the burlesque show clearly did not meet the same standards.
“The city is planning to revise the ordinance,” said Hannah Peterson, spokesperson for the city. At the City Council meeting for this Wednesday a revision to the ordinance may be introduced.
Lillian Bustle, a local performance artist, was to be the star of the show. She holds Bachelor of Science degrees in both psychology and theater.
Bustle got introduced to burlesque at a bachelorette party in 2007 in New York and took a course in burlesque at the New School. She later went on to develop an act with a prominent New York City performer in the East Village.
She said the closing of her show at FM was based on a complaint the city had received from a resident.
“The person who complained called it a ‘Filipino burlesque show’,” Bustle said. “I don’t have a problem with that. I would love to see that. I’m all out for it.”
But she said she disagreed with the city’s ruling that the show was obscene.
“This is just entertainment,” she said.
“The city ruled without knowing what the act was actually about.” – Lillian Bustle
An activist and a performer
Bustle, according to an article published in Jersey City Magazine in 2016, is a self-described “outspoken fat girl,” and described herself as passionate about self-esteem.
Bustle said she doesn’t believe in body shaming, and is an advocate for self-acceptance. In addition to herself, she said the show features a number of people with different body types.
“This is an art form,” she said. “But some people do not want this in their backyard. They don’t seem to understand that this is all done in good fun.”
Determined to stand up for her rights, Bustle said she was willing to fight the censorship in court. She is, however, glad the issue has been resolved amicably.
“This isn’t about me,” she said. “This is about freedom to do your art.”
She called the initial closing of the show by the city, “an arbitrary decision.” She also disliked the threatened fine made against FM.
Bustle said she would have defended herself in order to protect her ability to perform and create.
“The city ruled without knowing what the act was actually about. You can go over to New York City and there find full nudity in the strip clubs. But what I do is art,” she said. “If they can do this to me, they can do this to other artists.”
Bustle calls herself “The Jazz Jewel of Jersey City.” She is very involved with local arts and recently appeared at the Art House Snow Ball in February, where she dressed up, but did not take off anything.
“This burlesque is about pasties and g-strings but no nudity,” she said. “My show features all sorts of body types on stage.”
Bustle and Mae West together
Bustle finds it funny that the same city that shut down a Mae West production in the 1920s, shut down her show, too.
“I think it’s ironic that city officials dragged out Mae West from a place across the street from City Hall,” she said.
West, a star of film and stage, was one of the most provocative performers of the 1920s, and later ran afoul of questionable film obscenity rules.
She was arrested during a performance of her play “Sex,” at the Majestic Theatre located across Grove Street from City Hall. The theater had become part of the vaudeville and burlesque circuit in 1925. Among the performers were Mae West, Al Jolson, W.C. Fields, George Burns, Groucho Marx, Fanny Brice, and George M. Cohan. Later developed by the Silverman brothers into condominiums, the building’s lobby functions as a gallery for local artists.
The mayor of Jersey City at the time of West’s show, Frank Hague, an Irish Catholic, did not approve of what he called “immoral shows,” and shut down several productions including West’s play “Sex” in mid-performance.
Bayonne also shut down West’s play, “The Drag” at the Bayonne Opera House, saying the “sex play” was “not fit for public presentation.”
Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop apparently doesn’t intend to make the same mistake his predecessor made.
In a Tweet, Fulop said, “This (ordinance) will be amended/rescinded to fit the times. There are lots of laws on the books that are just outdated.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.