Behind the Burly-Q- The Golden Age of American Burlesque

Written and Directed by Leslie Zemeckis

By Alix Cohen . . .

bur·lesque /ˌbərˈlesk/

1. an absurd or comically exaggerated imitation of something, especially in a literary or dramatic work; a parody:
2. a variety show, typically including striptease:

This terrific documentary is peopled by participants, not historians. Conversations with former strippers and comedians show the artists in their heydays, then as they were when interviewed. We get up front and personal points of view, anecdotes, and recollections. A few surviving relatives also offer observations.

“At the end of your act, you backed up, the lights dimmed, you reached back and let the g-string fall…If one has morals they can’t be taken away by me or anyone else.”

The film tracks evolution of the art from the mid 1800s with Little Egypt’s appearance at the World’s Fair. When Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes brought stripping from England they introduced tights to the stage revealing a woman’s legs. Before then, “strip” acts and “tease” acts were separate entities. Burlesque, featuring an opening number, a comic and straight man, a strip, singing and/or dancing, a partially naked chorus bridging to a second production number… brought affordable entertainment to the masses.

“I had a terrible voice, but I made them listen if they wanted to see my bosoms…”

Some women had been struggling actresses or started in a chorus line. “Chorus girls got $40.00 a week. At 16, I had 3 children. My mother gave birth in the cotton fields. She was what made me want to change everything.” Others turned to the art from abused and/or poverty-stricken backgrounds. Several had been abandoned by parents “When she drank, she’d disappear for moths, then came back pregnant.” A couple followed in their mothers’ footsteps.

“She looked at me and said, you want to be a secretary with a body like that?!”

Circuses had kooch shows where women often pretended to be exotic dancers. “You’d do 10 shows a day… There was always a 9 year-old with a water pistol. “Vaudeville added strippers to keep men from going to the movies.” At first, no one was expected to show private parts. One artist was arrested for taping fur over hers. From the audience it appeared actual.

“My mother said, as long as they look and don’t touch, it’s ok… Men brought their wives. There was a midnight show for women only.” Ann Corio

We hear about straight men (the deadpan partner of a comic) One of the best, Bud Abbott, met Lou Costello on the circuit. The routines they did on film came from vaudeville. His daughter recalls Costello buying 20 pies a day from a little Italian baker who never knew they weren’t being eaten. Women sometimes married comedians in order to have someone with whom to travel. Outside, they often had multiple husbands. One got pregnant by a Baron who said, “If you have a son, I’ll marry you. If it’s a daughter, I’ll (just) support you.” She had a son and became a British lady.

“When you start to have children, you have to be careful who you tell about your career…” “All my boyfriends wanted to meet my mom, the burlesque star.”

Lily St. Cyr

While Kitty West rose out of an oyster shell, performer Lily St. Cyr was known for her bubble bath.  There were no bubble machines. She’d hire a chorus girl to lay behind the tub and blow bubbles. St. Cyr made $3000-$5000 a week. The artist’s sister married Harold Minsky, heir to a burlesque empire spanning several states. The Minsky Brothers Burlesque usually shut down over summer so owners could travel. One year, Harold kept houses open earning a million dollars. His dad retired and turned over the business.

“We traveled all the time. I learned to make spaghetti sauce with an electric percolator…”

Sally Rand

With the demise of vaudeville, burlesque moved into clubs. The ladies talk about restrictions. There were rules in some towns about bumps and grinds. “In Wisconsin, I had to leave the stage to take off even a glove.” Censors warned against swear words which reappeared when they left. ‘Sometimes they arrested you just for kicks.” Sally Rand- the fan lady- actually took it all off. “She explained to me that the dance symbolized two herons flying over a moonlit lake.” Sammy Davis Jr. paid for her funeral.

Most references to one another are admiring. Some are not. “Gypsy (Rose Lee) had no talent. She couldn’t sing or dance and she wasn’t pretty.”

Tempest Storm
Blaze Starr

Stage Door Johnnies cinematically showered some of these women with jewels, furs and cars. Several had brief affairs with young serviceman Jack Kennedy. Blaze Starr says he didn’t appeal to her- it was only a date. Tempest Storm speaks of a very different experience. In clubs, artists were required to sit with men encouraging them to buy bottles. Most of the women felt demeaned. Afterwards they went into real estate, lingerie, taught dancing, became stay-at-home mothers. No one seems to have any regrets. “I was only happy on stage.” “It wasn’t work, it was play.” “At 77, I can still kick ass.”

If only Zemeckis & Co. would make a Part II reflecting the young resurgence of Burlesque today.

This film is fascinating!

Available on www.BroadwayHD.com

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