ANGELES — Alexandra the Great "48," Blaze
Starr, Tempest Storm, Lili St. Cyr, Candy Cotton, Sunny
Dare, Gypsy Rose Lee: The names are as exotic as the
performers themselves. They belong to women who bared
skin in burlesque shows, long before the practice
evolved into modern-day stripping.
don’t think today’s stripping is sexy, but back then
it was. They were very much into the ‘tease,’
figuring out how little they could show," says
Leslie Zemeckis, the author of a new book on the history
of burlesque called "Behind the Burly Q" (Skyhorse
lunch in the polished dining room of the Belvedere in
the Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel, Zemeckis recounted
the more than two years she spent criss-crossing the
country interviewing the forgotten stars of the 1930s,
‘40s and ‘50s. Their stories were often tragic and
sometimes uplifting, and most of that history was in
danger of disappearing along with the aging performers.
was an interesting art form, and I think it’s a shame
that most of these artists had to live with shame and be
dismissed," says Zemeckis, an actress who once
performed her own burlesque-inspired solo show, and the
wife of director Robert Zemeckis. Creating her own show
led to her fascination with the back story of burlesque.
So from 2006 to 2008, she conducted more than 100 hours
of interviews and edited them into a documentary, which
ran on Showtime in 2010 and is now available on DVD.
American burlesque came of age in the early 20th
century, showing too much skin was taboo. The bikini
wasn’t introduced to the masses until 1946, and
Playboy wasn’t published until 1953. Prior to that,
burlesque shows were one of the few places one could see
exposed flesh, and it became a rite of passage for high
school boys to sneak into such shows. These shows, which
often traveled, reached their height of popularity
during the Great Depression when, as one dancer says,
there was nothing much to smile about.
followed a formula that lightened hearts: They were
bawdy variety shows with comedians, chorus girls,
acrobats and novelty acts. Spice was added by a coy
striptease or two. The women choreographed their own
acts, picked their own music and sewed their own
elaborate costumes — sequined dresses and
Southern-belle gowns with hats and parasols. They often
incorporated animals and rudimentary pyrotechnics into
their dance routines: Starr would set a couch on fire;
St. Cyr cozied up to a parrot.
we became a more permissive society, you start to see
that burlesque can’t compete, so it started to get rid
of its chorus girls and comedians in favor of more
strippers who are getting away with as much as they
can," says Zemeckis, adding that the neo-burlesque
revival that began in the 1990s with troupes such as
L.A.’s Velvet Hammer and later with performers such as
Dita Von Teese came about in large part out of nostalgia
for a lost subtlety of sexuality and the level of care
that went into the ribald performances.
(the Great ‘48’)’s gimmick was stripping to ‘Flight
of the Bumble Bee.’ She would rotate muscles with bows
on certain parts of her body in black light,"
Zemeckis writes in a chapter titled "You’ve Gotta
Have a Gimmick." And "Princess Lahoma was
billed as an exotic ‘Indian’ dancer with a white
teepee" and "Lili St. Cyr was known for her
bubble baths — onstage," she continues.
the Burly Q" is at its most revealing when the
women discuss their motivations for getting into
burlesque, and talk about what they did later in their
Anderson, who stripped as Beverly Arlynne, came from a
conservative family in the Bay Area and wanted to get
into show business. But her hands were twisted from
rheumatoid arthritis, so she hid her infirmity by
stripping with gloves on. She was always shy and
slightly ashamed — she didn’t tell her adult son
about her past until a few years before Zemeckis
interviewed her. At that time, she was running a
theatrical talent agency in midtown Manhattan.
was a rare exception, in that her young life was fairly
trouble free. Many burlesquers came from poor, abusive
families. A surprisingly large number of them, including
Starr and Storm, had been gang-raped at an early age.
They came to burlesque as a way of transcending their
circumstances, in search of money and a way out.
often think of burlesque dancers as early feminists,
says Zemeckis, but they didn’t see themselves that
way. "They were surviving, whether they liked it or
didn’t like it, but none of them ever talked about
being empowered," she says. "Some said they
liked the attention, but that’s not why they were
or not, the women of burlesque possessed a strong sense
of sisterhood and an even stronger sense of self worth.
of them ever talked about their bodies disparagingly,
ever," says Zemeckis. "That really struck me
later, because they had all kinds of different bodies,
and they were not perfect bodies. They were really
accepting of their looks, and they thought they were