by Richard von Busack
It’s clear, from the sad procession of obituaries that closes the hasty but fascinating Behind the Burly Q (showing at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center, Jul 22-25) that director Leslie Zemeckis didn’t have a moment to spare. This hodgepodge of elderly but spirited performers tells irreplaceable stories about the rise and fall of burlesque, 1920-1970.
Zemeckis, wife of the film director Robert (who himself included a memorable strip-tease sequence in my favorite of his movies, Used Cars) must be quite an interviewer. The dozen or so ladies here neither glamorize or downgrade the special profession they were in.
Here, Rachel Shteir, professor and author of the book Striptease, claims that classic exotic dance began as a 1920sa melding of two acts: a rapid strip act and a slower exotic dance. From Minsky’s in New York to the Hollywood Theater in San Diego to the Old Howard in Boston—“you can’t graduate from Harvard until you go to the Old Howard”—to the tent shows of prairie state fairs: it was everywhere. It wasn’t just men who attended. One interviewee describes having to serve tea and cakes at regularly scheduled lady’s matinees on Wednesday.
The strippers’ backgrounds were often rural and poor. (Tempest Storm grew up picking cotton, for example.)It’s arguable that the feathers, satins, sequins and furs these dancers chose were a method of reinvention. The management of these theaters certainly stressed class. (One marquee seen here reads “On Our Stage! A Big Fun Show Headed By A Society Debutante!”)
The stars were big enough to attract upper-crust fans: Rozell Rowland, famous for her gold-painted nudity, married a German baron. (Not everyone who did that kind of act fared as well; Goldfinger fans will be surprised to learn that it truly is possible to die of skin suffocation.) Tempest Storm herself may or may not have spent a night with JFK; asked what she’d discussed with the president by a reporter, she responded, “It certainly wasn’t politics.” Blaze Starr (ABOVE) was involvedwith the flamboyant Louisiana governor Earl Long—a story recorded in the A. J. Liebling book The Earl of Louisiana, and sweetened up way too much in Ron Shelton’s film Blaze—demonstrates that big-name strippers were hardly creatures of the shadows.
The passage on the dancers’ gimmicks surpasses the humor of S. J. Perelman’s playlet on the subject, “A Girl and a Boy Anthropoid Were Dancing.” One “White Fury, The Girl With the Twin .44s” did a flaming tassel dance that, in one ill-starred rehearsal, burned off her eyebrows. Another dancer was famed for her ability to pop her bosom in and out of a low-cut gown without using her hands. The director notes the rivalry between two dancers who arose out of a giant clam and a giant oyster, respectively.
Problems facing the dancers surpassed just the matter of having their acts stolen; on tour, they had to know how far certain cities would allow them to go. “We called Detroit `The Vatican’,” remembers one former performer, regarding the censorship in the Motor City.
The most famous 20th Century stripper was Gypsy Rose Lee, the subject of the musical Gypsy, who represented burlesque in minor movies and television appearances. Her fellow strippers didn’t care for Lee much; “Couldn’t dance, didn’t have a great body,” they concur. From what we see, though, it must have been force of personality that made many a dancer’s career—few were traffic-stopping beauties.
More forgotten (and more chemical) figures than Lee, such as Ann Corio and Sherry Britton, get a new turn in the spotlight here. So does Sally Rand, once a household name for her fan dance. In one touching tribute, Rand is remembered by her son Sean. He tells us that his mother explained to him that her trademark dance symbolized a pair of heron flying over the bayou. (That’s the trouble with 2010—too much Ayn Rand, not enough Sally Rand.)
Alan Alda, whose father was a burlesque comedian, remembers growing up backstage with some tenderness and some unhappiness. Early TV was a reprieve from the end of burlesque for some of the baggy-pants comedians, such as Pinky Lee and Lou Costello.
Subjects like Dixie Evans and the lively, witty Beverly Arlynne are two reasons to see this documentary; Arlynne went on stage because she wanted to sing, and she always did a number before dancing. “They wanted to see my body, they had to listen to my voice.”
The dancers look back in some anger here. The business was exhausting, there wasn’t an exit plan for many of them, and the casualty rates were high. Lili St. Cyr, one of the most famous strippers (we see her interviewed by Mike Wallace) ended up a heroin addict. Other performers recall suicides, broken marriage, alcoholism, disorder and rape.
But it was ever thus in the performing arts. Behind the Burly Q celebrates a special type of showbusiness. That celebration is, of course, going to be the trouble for some: anything less than a condemnation isn’t going to please certain people. (I was amazed to see an on-line review of this film decrying the “degradation” of women involved in burlesque. The District Attorney’s office lost good prosecutors when some people decided to become movie critics.)
It’s curious, however, that Zemeckis didn’t touch on the revival of burlesque, persisting today in every town with a nightclub in it. That burlesque survived, even in a sometimes campy, sometimes derivative form, says something about the unkillable appeal of this kind of dance, for performers and audiences alike.