Columbia Amusement Co. Building, Manhattan, in 1917
|Formation||12 July 1902|
|United States and Canada|
|Leader||Samuel A. Scribner|
|Subsidiaries||American Burlesque Association|
The Columbia Amusement Company, also called the Columbia Wheel or the Eastern Burlesque Wheel, was an industry organization that arranged burlesque company bookings in American theaters between 1902 and 1927. The burlesque companies would travel in succession round a "wheel" of theaters, ensuring steady employment for performers and a steady supply of new shows for the participating theaters. For much of its history the Columbia Wheel advertised relatively "clean" variety shows featuring pretty girls. Eventually the wheel was forced out of business due to competition from its rival, the Mutual Burlesque Association, cinemas, and cruder stock burlesque companies.
The bottom three floors of the Columbia Amusement Company's building was the Columbia Theatre NYC, a show piece and great hall known to burlesquers and vaudevillians as "The Home of Burlesque Deluxe".
In 1897, the burlesque producers and theater managers incorporated the Traveling Variety Managers of America (TVMA)--with the purpose of bettering the business of traveling variety managers and for benevolent, literary and fraternal purposes. The directors were Thomas E. Miaco, Henry C. Jacobs and Thomas E. McCready. Among the incorporators were Gus Hill, Phil Sheridan, Frank D. Bryan, George W. Rice and Fred Irwin. The idea was that approved shows would progress from one theater to another in succession, round a "wheel".The vaudeville and burlesque producer Gus Hill claimed credit for the concept.The theaters would not have to compete for shows, and the burlesque companies would have guaranteed work. The TVMA soon split into two wheels, one in the west and the other in the east.However--the two wheels EMPIRE and COLUMBIA would later merge  under the name Columbia Amusement Company.
Sixteen managers and producers incorporated the Columbia Amusement Company on 12 July 1902. They had left the TVMA to set up a more stable operation. The lead was taken by Sam A. Scribner. Other principals were William S. Campbell, William S. Drew, Gus Hill, John Herbert Mack, Harry Morris, L. Lawrence Weber and A. H. Woodhill. The circuit had headquarter in New York and included the larger cities east of the Missouri and north of the Ohio such as Philadelphia and Pittsburg. It included Montreal and Toronto in Canada, and Boston in the east. Since the theaters were in the east, the Columbia Wheel was also called the Eastern Wheel. Another circuit was formed in the west, called the Empire Circuit or Western Wheel.
The Columbia organizers at first aimed to provide affordable shows that were acceptable to women and men. They advertised "clean" or "refined" burlesque. They included lines of chorus girls and slightly risqué comedians, but did not go so far as to give offense. The Columbia Wheel's refined burlesque shows had multi-act vaudeville-style programs that included farces, comedians, skits and variety acts. In August 1905 Will Rogers signed up with Scribner for five one-week shows in Brooklyn, New York, Buffalo, Cleveland and Pittsburg.
Although the wheel system made the industry more stable, the shows became standardized. New costumes and acts were expensive, and when performers became better known they often left for legitimate theater. Performers who started in burlesque included Weber & Fields, Bert Lahr, W. C. Fields, Red Skelton, Rose Sydell, Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice, and Mollie Williams. Many of them moved into musical comedy or vaudeville as soon as they could. But the audiences still came to see the girls, and burlesque remained profitable.
The Star and Garter opened in Chicago in 1908, providing "Clean Entertainment for Self-Respecting People". On 10 January 1910 the Columbia Amusement Company opened the Columbia Theatre, "Home of Burlesque De Luxe", at Broadway and 47th Street in Manhattan. The theater was designed by William H. McElfatrick and had a capacity of 1,385. The company owned and operated it. The Columbia theater opening was well publicized and was attended by various dignitaries.
The Empire pushed the legal limits with its "hot" shows. The Columbia often lowered its standards and competed directly with the Empire. In 1913 the Eastern and Western wheels were consolidated into the Columbia Amusement Company, headed by Samuel Scribner and Isidore Herk. The combined operation put on fairly clean shows, as had the Eastern Wheel. The Columbia Wheel now had two large burlesque circuits. Another wheel started to compete with raunchier performances. In May 1915 the company transferred its No. 2 circuit, which had forty theaters and thirty-four touring companies, to a new subsidiary corporation called the American Burlesque Association. Gus Hill was named president of the new entity. The American Wheel offered rawer performances, with blue humor and suggestive dancing, and drove the competition out of business.
In 1921 Scribner insisted that shows in the Columbia circuit include their own orchestras so they resembled the more respectable vaudeville shows, and banned smoking in the theaters. He also tried to ban the comedians from using double entendres, but with less success. A 1922 report said "the companies will come to town on the same day each week to offer what is declared to be comedies with music, musical shows with chorus girls or whatever may best describe clean, wholesome offerings that should not be confused with "burlesque" as it was presented when Dad was a young chap."
The Columbia Wheel avoided runways until its final years, although the subsidiary American Wheel offered cooch dancers performing on runways. In 1922 the American Wheel was dissolved due to an argument between Scribner and Herk and replaced by the Mutual Wheel. Herk headed up the Mutual. Performers for the Mutual Wheel became the first to expose their breasts. The Mutual put on less elaborate shows with more tease, although it generally did not include stripping. The Mutual grew fast, buying up Columbia theaters across the country.
In 1923 Columbia still had thirty-eight shows, and was still the largest burlesque operation in the country. However, receipts were declining. By the mid-1920s cinemas were providing shows that combined film and live entertainment with ticket prices lower than any burlesque show. In the 1925 season Scribner authorized the removal of tights, and tableaux of bare-breasted women. Columbia continued to lose customers to other types of entertainment and to more explicit stock burlesque theaters.
Columbia and Mutual merged in 1927 to form the United Burlesque Association. Herk, President of the Mutual Wheel, became President of the new combination, with Scribner, formerly president of the Columbia Wheel, as the Chairman of the Board. The new organization comprised 44 theaters, and soon reverted to the name Mutual Burlesque.
By the 1927-28 season the combined circuit was struggling financially. This was the last season where cartoon theatricals were a significant part of the burlesque shows. In 1930-31 the combined wheel decided to revive clean burlesque. The experiment failed and the circuit closed.