Director Leslie Zemeckis (wife of Robert Zemeckis) puts us up front and center in an homage to the vanished institution of stage Burlesque. Burlesque which burgeoned in the mid-1800s, along with it’s big sister Vaudeville, shared some of the stars of Vaudeville, flourished during the depression, and ultimately died due to radio and movies.
The film briefly touches on Margie Hart’s act, which led to Mayor La Guardia’s 1937 decision to close New York’s burlesque houses. Herbert Minsky labeled Burlesque an American art while civic and religious leaders across the county pushed politicians to close the “vice” places. The film charts the progress towards raunch as other forms of entertainment edged out the venerable live show.
Posed midway between Vaudeville and the tent, cooch or mud shows of traveling carnivals, Burley Q was often both family entertainment for the poor working class, and erotic sustenance for the lonely male. Dog acts and magicians mixed with some “skin”. Depression-era acts could pull thirty-five dollars a week headlining strippers and top bananas, even more. Bed and board ran about ten dollars. That left twenty-five to send home.
Like Vaudeville there were comedy acts (top bananas and second bananas) and specialty acts, headliners and gaudy production numbers. Alan Alda recalls his dad, leading man Robert Alda, a onetime straight man and “tit singer” before he made it in the movies. Alda traveled to shows with his dad, unless he was bumped by the pig that co-starred in the act.
Chris Costello, daughter of comic Lou Costello (Abbott and Costello) and Sean Rand, son of Sally Rand, add amusing anecdotes.
Old time curvaceous “ecdysiasts” take some of the Bump out of the Grind with their sassy stories. Beguiling, and often surprisingly modest, these gals can really pitch a story. A septuagenarian (that’s a 70 -year old to you new timers) Tinker Bell got work at Disneyland, sliding down a cable suspended from her teeth! Blue laws in Green Bay prohibited stripping onstage. Dancers would leave the stage, remove an item in the wings and come back onstage, ad infinitum.
Miss White Fury, camera shy Blaze Starr (Governor Earl Long’s mistress) and Tempest Storm (“Teaserama.” 1955 with Bettie Page) contribute poignant stories or life on the road. Economic hardships of the depression motivated many of these performance pioneers, in an era before Woman’s Lib. Daughters of sharecroppers, minors and cotton pickers, some turned to drink or drugs, many married over and over. One of the burley queens ended up a Baroness then committed suicide.
Kitty West (aka Evangeline the Oyster Girl) describes emerging from her legendary shell. Tempest Storm outs her affair with President Jack Kennedy. Lili St. Cyr (who maintained a Hollywood Lingerie store until she died) is shown in interview with Mike Wallace on an old kinescope. There are archival shots of fan dancer Sally Rand of Chicago’s 1933 World’s Fair fame and legendary Rosie La Rose.
Gypsy Rose Lee gets dished by her colleagues. Social climbing Lee (whose life was triumphed in “Gypsy) hung with the likes of W.H. Auden and Pablo Picasso. Her novel “The G-String Murders” was filmed as “Lady of Burlesque” starring Barbara Stanwyck.
Even with all this Dixie Evans,” The Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque” steals the show. As the conservator of Exotic World (now the Burlesque Hall Of Fame in Las Vegas) Evans, who curates the collection of retired exotic dancer Jennie Lee, works year round keeping the fame of Burlesque alive. She also knows all the dirt and isn’t afraid to sling it, as she details Rose La Rose’s penchant for setting her pubic hair on curlers between shows. Modest Evans covered her own patch with a fur g-string until her boss complained.
Rapid-fire stories clustered around various topics are linked with posters and other colorful memorabilia in some fast-paced editing by Evan Finn. The film relies on talking heads and archival still because of the paucity of filmed performances.
Rich in detail, Zemeckis’s tribute adds to the history of an oft-reviled forgotten art form. The working class review form, which celebrated the tease, seems tame and quaintly endearing in the face of today’s onslaught of porn sites.
Since the Neo-Burlesque revival of the 1990’s (which takes on gender issues in a comic performance context) burlesque fans and new practitioners have sought out the remaining stars of burlesque, many of whom are featured in this film. Annual conventions such as Tease-O-Rama, New York Burlesque Festival, The Great Boston Burlesque Exposition, and the Miss Exotic World Pageant have spread the creed, showcasing a new generations of bawdy dancers.