Lydia Thompson

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Lydia Thompson, ca.1870

Lydia Eliza Thompson (born February 19, 1838 in London ; † November 17, 1908 there ) was a British dancer and a "theater legend" during her lifetime.


Thompson was the second and youngest daughter of the innkeeper Philip Thompson and his wife Eliza Cooper. She had an older sister and a younger brother named Alfred. In 1842, when she was four years old, her father died and her mother soon married Edward Hodges, a tapkeeper who worked at the Canonbury Tavern in London. When she was about ten years old, Lydia was sent to dance classes. In 1852, at the age of fourteen, she was already working as a revue dancer in "Her Majesty's Theater".

The first public appearances followed with the children's dance group “Living Marionettes”, which performed in the Linwood Gallery. Her first major appearance that attracted attention was the role of "Little Silverhair" in the pantomime "Harlequin," which was performed at the Haymarket Theater in 1853 at Christmas time. In 1854 she danced as a soloist in the Haymarket Theater in the show "Voyage Around The Globe". This was followed by a season at the St. James Theater in which she appeared in a burlesque show for which she would later become famous. At this theater she danced the role "The Slave of Love" and in Thomas Selby's "The Spanish Dancer". In the latter piece she became known for her parody of the eccentric Spanish dancer Perea Nina . In the scene that made her famous, she featured a parodied sexual act aimed at Perea Nina.

A three-year tour through Europe followed in 1855. Lydia Thompson's dances had a reputation for showing talent mixed with sensuality and sex appeal. Stops on her journey were u. a. Berlin , Vienna , Moscow , Saint Petersburg , Copenhagen and Stockholm . She appeared in the prestigious Königsberg City Theater ; in November 1857 with a farewell performance. Back in England , she immediately got a job as principal dancer at the Drury Lane Theater in London. In 1860 she performed at the Lyceum in London. Her specialties were oriental burlesque themes such as Ali Baba and the forty thieves and their famous “Sailor's Hornpipe” dance. In 1861 engagements followed in the burlesque shows "Woman or Love", "Against the World", "The Fetches" and "Little Red Riding Hood".

In 1863 Lydia Thompson married John Christian Tilbury and was on hiatus because of her pregnancy. In that year their daughter Agnes Lydia Tilbury was born, who later became successful as a film and theater actress under the stage name Zeffie Tilbury. Fifteen months after their wedding, her husband died in a carriage accident. At this time Lydia Thompson was already performing again in "The Alabama". Several engagements followed, especially in burlesque shows all over England. In 1868, after her successful engagement in the show "The Field of the Cloth of Gold" in the Strand Theater, she resigned from the engagement before it was officially terminated and left for the United States three days later . Her manager Alexander Henderson, with whom she was probably already married at the time (there was no marriage certificate and she was buried as "Lydia Tilbury") and a group of English burlesque actors and comedians accompanied her. Her arrival in America was already announced by the press and so her first appearance on the show "Ixion" on September 28, 1868 in New York was a resounding success.

With her extraordinary sensuality and her sexually overemphasized performances, which never had a vulgar character, the originally six-month commitment turned into a stay that was to last six years. Literally overnight, Lydia Thompson became the "Queen of Burlesque". With her troupe, the "British Blondes", she toured America and performed a. a. the shows "Ixion", "The Forty Thieves", "Aladdin", "Robin Hood", "Kenilworth", "Mephisto", "Sindbad", "Robinson Cruso", "Ivanhoe" and "La Princesses de Trébizonde" on.

Even if the trademark of the "British Blondes" were skin-tight tube dresses and stockings and the dancers were said to have little talent, some of these women later made quite respectable careers, such as B. Pauline Markham , Rose Coghlan , Alice Altherton , Camille Dubois , Carlotta Zerbini , Eliza Weathersby and Alice Burville . Well known male members of the Lydia Thompson Company included a. Willie Edouin and Lionel Brough . Even an inflammatory article in the Chicago Times couldn't stop the popularity of the Lydia Thompson Company . This article reported about the Company members' lack of chastity and rumor that Lydia Thompson was having lesbian affairs.

Since it was forbidden to show bare skin on stage at that time (even the dancers 'arms had to be covered to a certain extent) the dancers' skin-tight tights caused a sensation, as one could see the female leg. There were also certain skirt lengths that could not be undercut. Therefore, the dancers appeared in tightly woven tights, which allowed them to show their legs without having to show bare skin, which at the end of the 19th century caused moral indignation and a great sensation despite the opacity of the stockings.

In 1874 Lydia Thompson returned to England with the "British Blondes" and performed her famous burlesque shows all over England, which were repeatedly interrupted by short visits to America. In America, despite her return to Europe, she remained a current star and personality of the stage.

Her first career break was in 1887, in the performance of Alfred Cellier's comic opera "The Sultan of Mocha". Her voice sounded brittle and even in the vaudeville operet "Babette" she was not successful. Engagements were now less common for the now almost fifty-year-old. In 1904 Lydia Thompson appeared in public for the last time on a stage.

Although she was just one of many burlesque actresses in her native England, Lydia Thompson is still honored in America. She was the first woman to use a mixture of humor, comedy and girlie show to help the burlesque show become known and successful. Lydia Thompson died as Lydia Tilbury in London in 1908.