Monday, November 1, 2010
Charm of burlesque stars endures decades later
A thousand patrons — some having paid as much as 40 cents for a front-row seat — would be shouting. The pit orchestra would be playing, brassy and loud.
Listen carefully, and you can almost hear it still.
Yes, the Empire is fallen, gone for more than half-a-century, turned into another Washington Street parking lot. The ancient baggy-pants comics and their even more ancient jokes have faded away. Most of the dancers retired decades ago.
And yet this sexy yet strangely innocent entertainment still lives — and even thrives.
Ironic "Neo-Burlesque" shows play trendy theaters, featuring a new generation of performers. An upcoming feature film, "Burlesque," dramatizes the art with born-for-the-part divas Cher and Christina Aguilera.
Books like "Burlesque: A Living History," a multitude of websites and nonprofit social organizations like the Golden Days of Burlesque Historical Society allow veteran entertainers to keep in touch with each other, and their fans.
And an affectionate documentary, "Behind the Burly Q," opening today in Manhattan, captures it all, including those years when, outlawed in New York, the art took off in Jersey, providing, as director Leslie Zemeckis says, "a big show for very little money."
Wrapped in glamour
"Everybody thinks, oh burlesque, it’s just stripping," says Zemeckis. "But there was a chorus line, there were novelty acts, there were singers — in its heyday, it was a big show for very little money. Of course, there were the strippers, too. That was the attraction — ‘You’re gonna see stuff!’ But you really didn’t see that much."
The real raunch? That came later, towards the end of the ‘60s — the bottomless bars, the brass poles, the twenties tucked into G-strings. It wasn’t real dancing anymore, and the real dancers got out. But for a time there was a kind of glamour to the art, or at least a working-class idea of glamour — sequins, feathers, marabou.
And for years a lot of it was in Jersey theaters — the Empire and the Adams in Newark, the Hudson in Union City, the Globe in Atlantic City.
"When Mayor LaGuardia closed the burlesque theaters in New York (in 1937), the casts and crews just crossed the river," explained in an e-mail Jane Briggeman, author of several histories and founder of the Golden Days of Burlesque Historical Society. "When the society first started, I had a whole group who came from New Jersey."
Their fans crossed the Hudson too. New York might still have the Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall and the Great White Way, but only New Jersey had "Peaches, the Incomparable Queen of Rhythm" or those "laffy daffy fun stars, Bob Ferguson & Max Coleman."
"The New Yorkers had to come to Jersey," said Nat Bodian, a Newark historian and veteran journalist who remembers going on the free passes that once papered newsrooms. "The tube practically brought them right to the Empire. . . . And when someone like Georgia Sothern came — the greatest stripper who ever lived — they filled the place."
Accident Became Act
By that time burlesque itself was already old, with roots in the cuckold farces of commedia dell’arte. According to legend, striptease was added in 1917 when a dancer at one of Minsky’s New York theaters started removing her costume before leaving the stage. The audience went wild, the accident became an act and modern burlesque was born.
It was still, though, more than stripping. In fact, remembered dancer Bambi Jones, 80, "you were never characterized as a stripper. You were a ‘character dancer,’ ‘exotic dancer,’ ‘interpretive dancer’— never stripper."
The striptease acts — or simply "strips" — were only part of the show, too. Sometimes there would be "a specialty" — for a while, Daisy and Violet Hilton, the conjoined twins of "Freaks," traveled the circuit. And there were the singers and comics, many of whom — Robert Alda, Phil Silvers, Lou Costello — went on to bigger careers.
"My dad started out as a ‘dancing juvenile,’" said Chris Costello. "He was supposed to warm up the audience before the top bananas, but he was so funny no one wanted to follow him! That’s where he met my mom, in the Ann Corio show. He was smitten — he’d just stand in the wings watching her in the chorus. Ann told her, ‘You know, you should go out with Lou, he really likes you.’ And my mom said, ‘Go out with a burlesque comic? If I want to starve, I can starve on my own!’"
She married the Paterson boy, though — and he teamed up with Asbury Park straight man Bud Abbott, and went on to Hollywood. Most performers, though stayed on tour, doing a week in Newark before moving on. Those who could afford it stopped first in Weehawken, where designers Rex Huntington and Robert Lockwood specialized in peel-away costumes. The rest stitched their rhinestones on the bus.
It wasn’t an easy life, and although a star like Corio, Gypsy Rose Lee or Lili St. Cyr could make thousands of dollars a week, for most it was just a way to feed themselves, or their children. Some were still children themselves (Sothern lied about her age, and started at 13). Others were fleeing abuse. Expenses were high and, for minority entertainers, engagements were often segregated.
"No one I talked to felt exploited, but nobody ever talked ‘empowering,’ either," Zemeckis said. "Most got into this because it was the only thing they could do."
Yet many look back on that life fondly. Sigrid R. Spangenberg, 68, was a young mother when a sexy sunbathing snapshot ran in the Milwaukee Journal; within a week, she had an offer from a burlesque troupe. Only after discussing it with her family did she sign on, doing a Dietrich-influenced act as "Lilli Marlene."
"Men thought we were easy, but the truth is that all of us either had boyfriends or husbands waiting," she replied in an e-mail. "The greatest satisfaction of being in burlesque came with payday."
The old burlesque world was its own world. There was the lingo (the small girl at the end of the chorus line was the "pony"; a dancer who could handle lines was a "talking woman"). There were the rules, which varied by city ("Pants not below four fingers from your navel," Jones remembered. "No touching yourself anywhere.")
And there was — even in a backstage full of cigar smoke and unwashed laundry — a real professionalism.
Stage names would be chosen ("Candy Cotton," "Chili Pepper," "Jade Green, the Jewish Lollipop"). Elaborate acts would be devised, with trained birds or giant champagne glasses. (For a while, Jones carried a football and billed herself as "Joi Naymith.") One dancer almost started a fire when one of her flaming tassels flew into the audience.
And yet, "Burlesque was family entertainment," Hudson dancer Joan Torino insisted in Briggeman’s "Burlesque: A Living History." "Fellows brought their gals to see stars, and to still have a little naughty fun." After a Newark show, couples would get highballs at the Empire Bar or black-and-white sodas at Emma’s Luncheonette.
But then in the ’50s, to boost profits, producers began firing the variety acts and loading the shows with more "strips" — a change which gave censors an excuse for raids. Dancers were arrested en masse. New ordinances were passed. Theaters were shuttered (the Empire and the Hudson both closed for good in 1957).
Eventually burlesque came back in clubs, but the tone had changed. Now, owners expected dancers to hustle drinks. New, X-rated tastes left nothing to the imagination.
"The decline of burlesque was due to the new wave of pole-dancers, and go-gos in the nude, and open porn," e-mailed Spangenberg, who quit in 1973. "It became boring and obsolete."
"You went from gowns to pasties to nothing, from a full orchestra to a three-piece band to a tape," Zemeckis said. "Blaze Starr talks about doing her act, and they’re projecting hard-core porn on the wall. Who could compete with that? Who would want to?"
And so the dancers exited, stage left. Some went into "respectable" endeavors. Some went into politics. ("Hope Diamond, Gem of the Exotics" eventually re-emerged as Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini.) Some are still grinding away. (Jones just did a layout for Garage magazine.) Many more have died.
But those who remain have their memories, bright and shiny as a rhinestone. And a certain indefinable, indelible shimmy.
"In the early ’90s we were doing an Abbott and Costello tribute and they brought in Ann Corio," said Costello. "Well, they introduced her, they started playing ‘The Stripper’ — and she stood up and started peeling off the opera gloves again. I tell you, no one could take their eyes off her — in her ‘80s and still a knockout… But, you know, that’s what burlesque was. It wasn’t about the strip. It was all about the tease."