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.
"I 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 Publishing, $24.95).
Over 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.
"It 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..
When 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.
Burlesque 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.
"As 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.
"Alexandra [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.
"Behind 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 lives.
Beverly 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.
Anderson 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.
People 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 doing it."
Feminists or not, the women of burlesque possessed a strong sense of sisterhood and an even stronger sense of self worth.
"None 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 pretty great."