Gypsy Rose Lee in the Northwoods

Feb 5, 2020

Burlesque is a form of entertainment that has become synonymous with exotic dancers. What does burlesque, fishing and the Northwoods have in common? Gary Entz tells us in this week’s Northwoods Moment in History.

Burlesque is a form of entertainment that has become synonymous with exotic dancers, but this isn’t entirely accurate.  The term “burlesque” refers to a form of variety show that was similar to what one would experience in a Music Hall or Vaudeville theater.  The difference, of course, was that in addition to the musical and comedy acts, a burlesque show would also feature some form of female striptease.  Many dancers made a name for themselves in 1930s burlesque, but with one exception few people remember them today.  That exception is Gypsy Rose Lee.

Gypsy Rose Lee was perhaps the most famous of all burlesque dancers.  Like other burlesque performers, she gained notoriety with her dancing, but she transcended all others and gained lasting fame when the hit Broadway play “Gypsy” was first produced in 1959.  Nevertheless, when Gypsy Rose wasn’t performing, she liked to relax with a fishing rod.  In a profile from the June 6, 1949, edition of “Life” magazine, it was reported that “Gypsy, who loves to fish, carries an elaborate angler’s kit, and whenever the show plays near a river, goes out and hooks fish just as ably as she does customers.”  Among her favorite places to hook fish was the Northwoods of Wisconsin, and in particular the town of Three Lakes.

In August 1946, General Dwight D. Eisenhower took a break from his duties as Army Chief of Staff and came to the Northwoods for a little fishing.  Gypsy Rose Lee just happened to be in Three Lakes at the exact same time.  While the two did not meet, Gypsy Rose at least was very much aware of Eisenhower’s presence and made the snarky comment that she was the better fisherman and had caught the bigger muskie.  Local game wardens tripped over themselves to be her guide, and when she later departed for a show in Cincinnati, she teased those following her around that her employers were not going to be happy with how she had sunburned her legs in the Northwoods.

In July 1947 Gypsy Rose Lee returned to the Northernaire Hotel in Three Lakes and gave a private showing of her own home movies to special guests at Marty’s Showboat.  Immediately before the showing, Carl Marty, owner of the Northernaire and Showboat, presented Miss Lee with the mounted head of the 17-pound muskie she had caught the year before.  Lee loved the gift and immediately announced that she would have to catch another, and have it mounted so she could use them as bookends.  After the presentation, Gypsy Rose showed her home movies, but they weren’t what anyone might imagine from a famous striptease artist.  They were vacation films of her family fishing and her own instruction guide on how to land a muskie.  Gypsy Rose Lee may have earned a living as an exotic dancer, but when in the Northwoods she enjoyed the outdoor life no differently than anyone else.