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April 20, 2014

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Dixie Evans is memorialized and ‘Peepshow’ closes, but the art of burlesque lives on

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Kalani Kokonuts performs during a benefit show in honor of burlesque pioneer Dixie Evans on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, at the Plaza.

Dixie Evans Burlesque Benefit

Aya Fontaine performs during a benefit show in honor of burlesque pioneer Dixie Evans Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013 at the Plaza. Launch slideshow »
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Angie Pontani performs during a benefit show in honor of burlesque pioneer Dixie Evans on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, at the Plaza.

The cast of “Peepshow” was still breathing hard from its final-final number late Sunday night when Nick Kenkel took the mic to say a last farewell.

The man who helped direct the performers in “Peepshow” talked of the spirit and ambition of the show inspired by New York theatricality but built for Las Vegas.

“We sought out, many years ago, to create a really sexy, contemporary show with contemporary movement and contemporary song,” said Kenkel, “but yet, bringing in the magic of burlesque, intermixed with everything.”

Earlier that day, the magic of burlesque was celebrated with a different sort of passing, the memorial tribute to the great Dixie Evans. A few dozen friends and members of Evans’ family — her actual family and her vast burlesque family — gathered at Palm Mortuary on North Main Street to spin tales about the woman dubbed the “Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque.”

“Dixie and I shared many stories, and I don’t know whose were worse — hers or mine,” Tempest Storm said in eulogizing her friend for decades and fellow godmother of burlesque.

"I think of all the stories we shared, we shared a story about Walter Cronkite. I said, ‘Were you first, or was I second?’ I think we liked the same kind of men.”

The crowd laughed, and Storm talked of Evans’ inspiration and verve for life. “She never gave up,” Storm said. “That’s why she lived as long as she did.”

Evans was less than a month from her 87th birthday when she died Aug. 3 in a Las Vegas assisted-living facility. She had suffered a stroke in January. On Saturday night, those in that extended, tight-knit burlesque family filed into the Plaza Showroom for a tribute to Evans.

The emcee was the esteemed Kitten on the Keys, the terrific cabaret performer from San Francisco who is quick-witted and accomplished on the piano. Kitten is famous for her theme song, “Salty Meat Girl,” in which she sings in her lilting voice, “I’ve slammed 50 cans of ham; that salty meat’s gone right to my can.”

The burlesque culture is at once sexy and funny. That’s true of those practicing the art in Las Vegas and around the world. This family knows how to kick it up (Kitten lifted her otherwise sullen black dress Sunday to reveal black-cat leggings).

The show on Saturday was filled with humor and lovingly conceived dance segments, all assembled swiftly but not hastily after Evans’ death. That event, and other performances that were part of “Dixie Evans Week” at Yost Theater in Santa Ana, Calif., near Evans’ hometown of Long Beach, were held to honor Evans and also to help offset some of her lingering medical bills. Money also was raised to pay for her internment at Westwood Memorial Park, also the final resting place of Monroe.

Final ‘Peepshow’ at Planet Hollywood

Cheaza, Coco Austin, Josh Strickland and Nick Kenkel after the final performance of Launch slideshow »

Evans moved to Las Vegas in 2006, hoping to find a permanent home for the Exotic World Burlesque & Striptease Hall of Fame. Storm helped persuade Evans to move to the city for its history of adult-friendly entertainment and topless productions.

Many of the top performers of past and present turned out in tribute, including Miss Exotic World 2008 Angie Pontani, Miss Exotic World 2009 and featured performer at Sapphire Comedy Hour Kalani Kokonuts, and the first Miss Exotic World in 1991 Toni Alessandrini (who won the title at age 41).

Many of those artists turned out for Evans’ memorial service. So did one of the stars of modern burlesque, Melody Sweets, the Green Fairy in “Absinthe,” who has recorded a CD titled “Burlesque in Black,” which is a stylish and smartly performed ode to the art form.

Without Evans, and such contemporaries as Storm and Blaze Starr, the art of topless dance might look a lot different today. There are a few traditionalists around. Sweets is one.

So is Dita Von Teese, the oft-returning guest star in “Crazy Horse Paris” before that show closed at MGM Grand. Claire Sinclair’s move to pasties in “Pin Up” at the Stratosphere was to evoke a more burlesque-ian feel to that late-night production.

The “new burlesque” performers are carrying on the tradition put in place by the original stars, who have always focused on the “tease” rather than the “strip.”

Kenkel, who is “Peepshow’s” original Big Bad Wolf and the man who trained Holly Madison in her stepwork before her arrival in the show in June 2009, reminded of that oft-forgotten quality during his show-closing remarks at “Peepshow.”

“We wanted to focus on the art of the striptease, which doesn’t always exist,” he said. “Anybody can come out and take their clothes off. It’s how you take your clothes off, and why — that is the art.”

Somewhere, the woman who inspired generations of sex kittens was smiling — and maybe tugging at a string in her corset.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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