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October 31, 2014

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‘Behind the Burly Q’ brings the history of burlesque back to life

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Scott Harrison/Retna/HarrisonPhotos.com

Dita Von Teese in “Strip, Strip, Hooray” at House of Blues in Mandalay Bay on Thursday, May 17, 2012.

Burlesque Hall of Fame

Click to enlarge photo

Leslie Zmeckis.

Long before there were the outrageous stage outfits of Madonna and Lady Gaga, the beauties of burlesque were the performers who teased and shocked. They were America’s original entertainers decades before strip clubs popped up with lap dances.

It was an early era of striptease with stockings, garter belts and spinning tassels. Once considered wicked, burlesque eventually went mainstream, and pinup queen Bettie Page became the first of her kind posing for provocative pictures. Today, Dita Von Teese has kept burlesque alive and in the spotlight.

Its origins began in Europe and became a wildly popular art form here in the early to mid-part of the 20th century. But because of the barely there costumes and the sexual innuendo, it was largely kept out of history books.

In the beginning, Blaze Starr was the equivalent of Lady Gaga. She’s written the foreword to a new book that will celebrate the art of the tease and its veteran performers who are at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender at The Orleans this weekend.

Award-winning documentarian Leslie Zemeckis is the author of “Behind the Burly Q: The Story of Burlesque in America.” It’s the definitive history of burlesque as told by the stars themselves. Leslie, her book and her film will be front and center all weekend during the Las Vegas festivities. Her book is a fascinating exploration of America’s original entertainers — not just the strippers, but also the comedians, singers and variety acts.

Leslie, who is married to Academy Award-winning director Robert Zemeckis, visited Las Vegas and then traveled the country with producer Sheri Hellard interviewing performers and bringing their stories to life. The duo tracked down and recorded dozens of interviews with little-known performers to the last of the living legends. They also spoke with relatives of deceased stars. It’s still shocking, unbelievable, heartbreaking and funny.

The Burlesque Hall of Fame relocated from California to Las Vegas in 2006 and is the only permanent space with its one-of-a-kind collection. Information about the four days of Hall of Fame activities this weekend can be found at BHOFWeekend.com.

Here is my Q+A with Leslie:

Why did you write “Behind the Burly Q”?

“Back in 2006, I was doing a one-woman cabaret show with elements of burlesque, and I realized I had no idea what burlesque was. So I started researching and could find out very little about the performers themselves. I read or saw some documentaries that described the more famous comedians and some of the strippers’ acts, but little on who these men and women were. I wanted to know why they got into burlesque, what their families thought. I found some former performers and from interviewing them, it grew and grew until I said I would sponsor a reunion in Las Vegas in May 2006 at the Stardust. We spent a weekend filming and interviewing these performers for a documentary.

Behind the Burly Q

Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend 2012

Inga Ingenue of Seattle performs in the Movers, Shakers & Innovators Showcase during Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend at the Orleans in Las Vegas on Thursday, May 31, 2012. Launch slideshow »

“I then spent the next two years flying all across the country finding anyone who was still alive who had performed in burlesque during its heyday, the 1920s through 1950s, really its heyday was through the 40s. I garnered so many great stories from so many who had never before talked about it, I knew I had to do a book, and in the book I would include the long-dead performers whom I had since researched. I wanted to make a comprehensive history of burlesque — an art form I discovered to be important and rich in our American pop culture. And with a huge neo-burlesque resurgence, it was timely.”

Where does your fascination with burlesque come from?

“I had none prior to doing the documentary. I knew nothing about it, I thought it was just a strip show, I had no idea it was a big variety type show “with a little more spice” with comedians, dance teams, novelty acts, animal acts, singers, 20 chorus girls, straight men, talking women. The shows were huge. What I discovered and how many people worked in burlesque and how many thousands more it entertained — especially in tough economic times is what ultimately fascinated me. And wanting to preserve a very American — solely American — art form.”

It really is an art form, isn’t it?

“Absolutely. All our great comedy comes from it. Think Carol Burnett spoofing ‘Gone With the Wind.’ Johnny Carson, a frequent guest at the burlesque shows, performed skits on his show directly from burlesque. Many of the women spent hours and hours crafting beautiful artistic acts, hand sewing amazing elaborate costumes and creating their seats. They were truly in charge of their own acts.”

What’s the most common misperception people have of burlesque performers and that era?

“That they were second rate, couldn’t make it elsewhere, and the women were prostitutes. Not at all true. Some of the comedians chose to stay in burlesque and never wanted or tried to go into movies and TV. They loved burlesque and were so sad when it died. But everything has its time, and times changed. Burlesque as it was is no longer.”

Was it difficult to track down some of the performers?

“No. Once a couple felt I was OK, respectful and interested in them, they would tell a friend, and it grew and grew. We have all kept in touch; they are my friends. Sadly, I’ve seen so many of them pass, at least a dozen. They were honest, forthright, generous people who shared their lives with me. I was honored. It took a good two years to do it, and I still haven’t stopped researching; my next book is burlesque related, too. As is my current documentary ‘Bound By Flesh,’ about Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who briefly were in burlesque after their huge vaudeville careers died. That film has been doing the festival circuit and winning quite a few best doc awards. I can’t get out of the era.”

Dita Von Teese in 'Strip, Strip, Hooray' at HOB

Dita Von Teese in Launch slideshow »

In reading the book, most of them seem very proud of the time they spent onstage. One calls it “the best time of my life.” Was that sentiment shared with all of the former performers?

“Not all, but most. Burlesque gave these performers an opportunity to see something of the country, to make a living and a name of sorts for themselves. Not all, but a lot came from tough backgrounds, not a lot of education and much abuse. A lot of poverty. Burlesque afforded them steady work, fun, a crowd they felt safe and accepted in. One or two despised it. Some said it wasn’t burlesque. Well, it was. But, in general, they loved it, even though many of the women felt shamed and didn’t tell their families they were stripping. Understandable.”

It wasn’t all about women, though was it? Men, particularly male comedians, played a prominent role, didn’t they?

“At the start of burlesque, it was all about the comedy and the comedians. Girls were added to compete with movies and other art forms. But the men were king. It was the satire of life. In New York where it essentially started and the larger cities with a huge immigrant population that didn’t speak English, couldn’t afford a fancy Broadway show, they could understand and appreciate the broad humor onstage. A pretty girl walks by, a comedian’s tie rises. It was humor for the common man, for everyone.”

Was Las Vegas an important part of the burlesque culture?

“Huge. The comedians and strippers and theater impresario Harold Minsky all came to Las Vegas. Stripper Lili St. Cyr was supposedly the first stripper brought to the El Rancho and worked there for years. And opposite Joe E. Lewis. A former velvet-throated singer, who after refusing to renew a contract singing in a Chicago club run by a Capone lieutenant, had Joe E.’s throat slashed and his tongue partially cut out! It took him two years to learn to talk, and he became a comedian in burlesque. The Dunes, the Silver Slipper, many, many performers played in Las Vegas, comedians and strippers. And it was glamorous at the time. Many remembered Las Vegas being a quaint small town, and the performers hung out, saw each other’s shows.”

Events starting Thursday include a burlesque bazaar, poolside burlesque yoga, a finishing school, a bowling challenge, a naked girls reading session and a dazzling array of original acts with established performers and introductions to up-and-coming talent. The shows run through Sunday at The Orleans.

“Behind the Burly Q,” with its stories of Stage Door Johnnies, performers being courted by royalty and New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia shutting down burlesque clubs, will be released by Skyhorse Publishing and also available as an eBook next month.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow VDLX Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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