I’d never heard the term before yesterday. I had rewatched the Lawrence Welk sketch from the Betty White-hosted episode of SNL, the one with Kristen Wiig as the baby-handed Dooneese. (Yeah, that’s the character’s name, though her developmental problems make it hard to understand.) In it, Fred Armisen makes a joke about Lawrence’s occasional inability to pronounce the “TH” sound correctly and I wondered what his accent was supposed to be. Wikipedia tells me that Larry hails from not from anywhere exotic but Strasberg, North Dakota, where he was raised by German-speaking immigrants from Odessa. So that’s that. But while there, I read a bit more about a guy about whom I knew fairly little about aside from that he is still beloved by old people and that he consequently has things named after himself in Palm Springs.
I learned that Welk in 1959 fired his show’s “champagne girl,” Alice Lon, because she showed too much leg during on of her performances. He said we would not tolerate such “cheesecake” on his show. (Accounts vary about how exactly it all went down, but I can’t find a clip online. Some say Welk dismissed Lon on-air, other’s say it happened after the episode finished.) It seemed that Lon crossed her legs while sitting on a desk, exposing maybe as little as a knee. In Welk’s eyes, this turned his show down from a family-friendly hour of music and bubbles into a raunchfest. I was surprised. As far as the evolution of American sexual mores, 1959 is not really all that long ago, and yet this poor woman lost her job for showing off her legs, possibly accidentally. Still curious, I looked her up to see what kind of woman could so enrage of Lawrence Welk.
My evaluation: She’s about as desexualized a beauty as could be. It helps, of course, that she’s singing “Wonderful, Wonderful,” a song I associate with that one horrifying X-Files episode about the incest mutants who keep their multiple amputee mother-sister in a trundle bed. (Now that I think about it, Dooneese would not be at all out of place with those freaks.)
Wholesome or foully strumpetine, Alice Lon will be forever associated with the word cheesecake. I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have appreciated this legacy, but it at least taught me that the word doesn’t always refer to the fatty dessert. And just a few hours after learning this, I was reading Boing Boing and saw it used again, in a context completely removed from Alice Lon and Lawrence Welk: a clip from the 1958 movie She Demons. The clip, via Amy Crehore, is titled on YouTube as “Fifties Cheesecake Dance No. 1.”
So how did cheesecake get so wrapped up with all things vaguely smutty?
According to Online Etymology Dictionary, the term as a name for a dessert goes back to the mid-fifteenth century and as something meaning “soft” or “effeminate” back to the eighteenth. A 1934 Time magazine article defined it — hilariously — as “leg-pictures of sporty females” and apparently it’s lingered in English ever since.
Now please, no jokes, but I feel like I’m more familiar with the term beefcake than cheesecake — as in beefcake magazine or just the just the hunky guys themselves. I’d even guess that beefcake is now the more widely understood term. Online Etymology Dictionary doesn’t disagree, but it does say that this sense of beefcake came after cheesecake. It was first used in 1952 to mean “display of male pulchritude” — again, hilarious — although an actual dish called beefcake may have existed before this. We can all be thankful that the literal beefcake no longer exists.
And that’s the story with me and cheesecake. Full disclosure: I’m kind of like Lawrence Welk in that I don’t tolerate cheesecake either. It really is disgusting. Note that I didn’t use italics there. Please, no jokes.