Thursday, September 30, 2010

Burlesque Days Again for the Feather Boa Crowd. Part II

Outside, civilians and buffet lines. Inside, cherry vodka, rich desserts and stories about tassel applications and acts with animals. “I worked with this little girl, and she had parakeets,” Nocturne remembers. “Parakeets in her purse.”
Nocturne, 79, who drove up from Texas with her husband, is alone in saying her burlesque days were her darkest. She found stripping to be a lucrative humiliation, and she detested the pressure to mix with customers so they would buy a club’s overpriced liquor.

But that is all behind her now, she says. Thirty years ago she found Jesus and has not had a drink since, “Praise God.” She has come to Baraboo to see old friends and to remember the one aspect of burlesque she adored, those glorious costumes.

Bambi, also 79, is Nocturne’s opposite: she left Holyoke, Mass., as a young woman and never looked back. Yes, some strippers would sabotage the outfits of their competitors, and yes, there was that abusive second husband, the one who forced her to flee. But one of burlesque’s many charms is its service as a kind of witness-protection program; for a few years, then, Bambi became Holly Simms. Of burlesque over all, she says, “I loved it.”

It is deep into the second day of the reunion now; time for a show. The coffee table has been moved aside, some chairs arranged. The Irish Mist will strut for a while, Bambi will grind that coffee bean, and a young burlesque star named Orchid Mei — who has been listening to the stories with undergraduate earnestness — will do an act that makes many in the room wish for 1955.

Another knock on the door. Is it Bones?

No: Pat Flannery. And what an entrance she makes: seated in a chariot of a wheelchair pushed by her elder daughter, Bekki Vallin, and wearing a pink sweatshirt, white socks that match her hair, and teal slip-on sneakers.

Her one-liners come out fast, most of them at her own expense. When she cannot remember the name of some Wisconsin town, she assumes a stage mentalist’s pose, with a hand against forehead, and intones, “The mind has left the body.”

Ms. Flannery watches the three women dance, one after another. She laughs at Bambi’s wisecracks. She admires the fluid grace of Orchid Mei. And when the show is over, she is wheeled to a place where she enjoys a cigarette while looking out upon some grass.

How do you do.

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