Radio and "talkies" both played a role in vaudeville's demise, but the last, crushing blow was the onset of the Great Depression. Rose Hovick had always reassured her daughters that vaudeville would survive because "there was no substitute for flesh," and the axiom was true — but it applied to burlesque, not vaudeville. Vaudeville, with its sense of sunny, mindless optimism, no longer spoke to the country's mood. Burlesque did, loudly and directly.
The Depression affected female workers to the same degree as men, and thousands of them, out of work and other ideas, applied at burlesque houses across the country: former stenographers and seamstresses and clerks, wives whose husbands had lost their jobs, mothers with children to support, vaudevillians who finally acknowledged the end of the line. Compared to other forms of show business — compared to any business — burlesque enjoyed a low rate of unemployment, and 75% of performers had no stage experience at all. Pretty girls were finally available at burlesque wages, and the supply equaled the demand.
Gypsy never spoke much about 1929, that limbo period after June fled but before she really became Gypsy Rose Lee. Throughout 1929 she was still Louise Hovick, the awkward girl with brains but no talent, and she and her mother were floundering. She subsisted on sardines and dog food and gigs at burlesque houses where men held newspapers over their laps, masturbating to every bump and grind. She was forced to do things against her will, and decided the only way to "climb out of the slime," as June later put it, was to become someone else.
By the time a producer named Billy Minsky discovered her in Newark, New Jersey, the transformation had begun. He noticed she was shy — ironically, most stripteasers were — but this girl had a way of teasing her own trepidation, mocking it, turning it out like the fingers of a glove. Stripteasers rarely spoke two syllables on stage, but this one couldn't not talk, as if each twirl of the wrists, every stride of those legs, deserved narration. She wielded a powder puff on a stick and swiveled her strangely exquisite neck like a periscope, seeking a secret hidden somewhere in the crowd. "Darling! Sweetheart!" she exclaimed. "Where have you been all my life?"
At the finish, when other "slingers" invited the audience to come closer, Gypsy pulled away and looked down, as if shocked to see so much of her own skin. Backing up against the curtain, standing tall and regal and unobtainable, she gripped its velvet edge and made herself a cape. "And suddenly," she whispered, like the end to a fairy tale, "I take the last… thing… off!" She hurled her dress in the air, a vivid velvet flag of surrender. Billy knew he had never seen anything like her, and never would again.
At Minsky's Burlesque in New York City, Billy dedicated each new season to a girl, and 1931 belonged to Gypsy (although he immediately disliked her meddlesome, nitpicky mother, and thought her "river did not run out to the sea"). She wasn't "hot" like Georgia Sothern, whose strip was akin to an epileptic seizure, nor overt and busty like Carrie Finnell, who affixed fish swivels to her pasties — contraptions that allowed her to pinwheel her tassels in any direction, from any position, at any speed. Gypsy was an original, a Dorothy Parker in a G-string, savvy enough to perform a burlesque of burlesque, to make performance out of desire. "Seven minutes of sheer art," Billy told her, and the rest of New York agreed with him. She managed to be at once highbrow and low. One night, she attended an opening at the Met wearing a full length cape made entirely of orchids; the next, she invited her burlesque friends to her dressing room, where she performed very naughty tricks with her pet monkey. She was adored by everyone: longshoremen and literati, Columbia professors and New York politicians, members of the Algonquin Round Table and the city's most formidable gangsters — one of whom decided that he, too, should have a hand in creating Gypsy Rose Lee.