Television killed burlesque. All the glamour, the fans, the feathers, the tassels, the revealing peeks, the coquettish smiles, the girls fighting over top billing and who could dance to “Night Train”—all of it faded away when people started staying home to watch TV in the late 1950s. It was gone, and perhaps it would have been forgotten, too, if not for the foresight of one aging stripper named Jennie Lee.
In 1962, when there was still some of the original burlesque left in this world, she started collecting memorabilia and asking her friends and former colleagues to send her any burlesque items they wanted to get rid of. They did, and after years of displaying a growing collection in her San Pedro, Calif., bar called Sassy Lassy, she moved it all to the middle of the Mojave Desert. The collection’s new home was in a derelict ostrich farm along the stretch of nowhere between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Lee wanted to turn it all into a museum, and now she had the space.
Unfortunately, she did not have the time. In 1990, Lee died of breast cancer, leaving the history of an American folk art marooned in the desert.
Cha Cha Velour has this act where she takes to the stage wearing a flock of balloons. As she dances, she slowly pops each one, until what is left is barely anything at all. This night, March 5, she’s performing at the Beauty Bar, and an enthusiastic audience of about 150 retro hipsters has turned up to cheer. Velour, 31, is a full-time nurse, but burlesque is her favorite thing in life. “Some people think I’m nuts for that,” she says.
But many people don’t. That’s because burlesque is back—risen from the near-dead in a mashed-up new incarnation called neo-burlesque. The revival first sparked in the 1990s, when mainstream American culture offered young women nothing more sensual than grunge-era plaid shirts and first-wave feminist mothers who shunned makeup. So the young women riffled through the past, and with the help of a new technology—the Internet—stumbled upon the old glamour of burlesque. In an act of progressive nostalgia, they took the prettiest shards of the past and fused them with a modern punk rock DIY ethos to create something that looks similar to the original, only better. It started with groups in New York and L.A. And in the last 15 years, it’s grown in fits and starts while spreading to the rest of the country.
Velour is the de-facto leader of Las Vegas’ neo-burlesque scene. But there was a time, a little more than a year ago, when she thought the momentum was dying off. “A lot of people would complain that there is nothing going on with burlesque,” she says. “But you have to make something happen.”
So she started a monthly burlesque show at Boomers, a bar in a central Vegas industrial area. When that was a success, she began teaching nine-week burlesque courses to interested newcomers. “I think I started a snowball,” she says, “and it’s picking up people as it’s making its way down the hill.”
Incidentally, Velour’s one-person burlesque revival coincided with the appearance of some major reinforcements: The exiled history of burlesque was on the march—destination Fremont Street.
An aspiring starlet moves east in the early 1950s to try her hand on the theater circuit. She is a blonde with bouncy curls, a big bust and an even bigger work ethic. But most importantly, she’s willing to risk it all on a dream.
Harold Minsky of Minsky’s Follies—the very same Minsky who will later give Las Vegas the gift of toplessness—notes the girl’s striking resemblance to the ingénue-of-the-moment, Marilyn Monroe, and asks her to do a bit as Marilyn. “But Mr. Minsky, every girl in Hollywood looks like Marilyn Monroe,” she counters. He says it doesn’t matter; they’re not in Hollywood. And because her trip east hasn’t left her enough money to return west, she does Marilyn. It’s a hit. And so the “Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque” is born. A lifetime later, this faux Monroe has retired to Las Vegas. She’s now a burlesque star in her own right, having quit playing Marilyn shortly after the actress died. Her name is Dixie Evans, and her trailer home looks like what would happen if the backstage of a vintage nightclub invaded your grandmother’s house. The effect is both oddly comforting and exhilarating.
Evans’ living-room walls are lined with black-and-white publicity photos of golden-age burlesque dancers. They stare down at you enticingly while you sit on the couch and Evans tells the story of how she saved the heritage of burlesque from being forgotten a second time. She tells of how she contacted Jennie Lee’s widower after her death in 1990, and with his help, took over the 40-acre ranch and burlesque museum. She raised bulls as a way to pay for the upkeep of the museum. When that wasn’t enough, she started the Miss Exotic World pageant in 1991 as a fundraiser and as a way to bring people to the museum.
It worked. And as neo-burlesque bloomed, a new generation of acolytes made the pilgrimage to the distant mecca. Over the course of the burlesque museum’s 17-year desert exile, the pageant grew every year, and the museum collection grew to fill the entire farm. But the harsh desert weather was destroying it.
Laura Herbert is strikingly smart. Growing up in New York, the 39-year-old wanted to have the mind of feminist congresswoman Bella Abzug and the body of Playmate Barbi Benton.
Herbert found a way to unify those seemingly contradictory desires through the art of burlesque. “My mom and the women of her generation rejected girdles and everything as the tools of the oppression,” she says, recalling her amazement when she first discovered “hyper-feminine” women in old Technicolor musicals on TV. “And my generation is taking them back and saying that femininity is part of our dialogue, and we’re allowed to use that language. I can be everything and be super feminine and super sexy.” Enthralled by the aesthetics of the 1930s-50s, Herbert started collecting vintage magazines. She then graduated to reading biographies of burlesque legends Gypsy Rose Lee and Lili St. Cyr. By the time she was in her late 20s, Herbert battled on a then-new eBay for St. Cyr memorabilia. She had her heart set on a Silver Slipper program signed “Best of Luck, Lili.” And she would have won it if her friends hadn’t taken her out to lunch for her birthday.
That night, Herbert got an unexpected phone call. A breathy voice sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” in the style of Marilyn Monroe. When the voice was done singing, it said, “Watch your mail for something signed by Lili St. Cyr from your mother, who loves you very much.”
Herbert hung up, thinking it was a cheap singing telegram. She called her mom to find out what was going on.
“Oh, it must have been Dixie.”
“Dixie who?” Herbert knew her mom had no friends by that name.
That’s when Herbert freaked out. “The Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque just called me? Oh my God, give me her number. I have to call her back to apologize.”
Herbert called, and she talked on the phone to her idol for about four hours. The conversation ended with an invitation to the ranch in the desert.
During her next business trip to the West Coast (at the time, she was working for Nickelodeon as a website producer), Herbert made a side trip to the desert museum. She ended up staying for two days. “I just fell in love with her and the place,” she says. “She had no website or anything, and it was in the middle of nowhere.” There was one thing Herbert believed: “More people should know about this.” So she built a website and answered e-mails for the Burlesque Museum (originally called Exotic World), all the while absorbing the history of burlesque through Evans. As Evans got older, Herbert and her boyfriend, Luke Littell, helped her more and more. Herbert assisted with the museum side, and Littell helped produce the Miss Exotic World Pageant.
Herbert and Littell moved from New York to Las Vegas in 2006 to help Evans relocate the museum to Las Vegas. Today, the Burlesque Hall of Fame is housed in Emergency Arts at Fremont and Sixth streets, and Herbert is its executive director.
Even in its heyday, the Las Vegas burlesque scene never rivaled that of bigger cities. It still doesn’t. At the same time, the history of this inherently nostalgic art form belongs here. It belongs among its sister stories of sequins and showgirls and Rat Pack glamour. And it belongs in a place where the masses can see it. Fremont Street seems just about right.
Last June 4, the redheaded burlesque legend Tempest Storm attended the ribbon-cutting for the Burlesque Hall of Fame Museum Grand Opening alongside Mayor Oscar Goodman, Dixie Evans, Miss Exotic World 2009 Kalani Kokonuts and Holly Madison. It was just one of the many events of Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend, but the ceremony, with its mix of old and young stars, symbolized the long-awaited return of burlesque to Las Vegas, the coming together of generations and genres, the unifying of the art form.
Storm is a true Old Vegas gem; she’s the former headliner of Minsky’s Follies at the Dunes, and she dated Elvis Presley in the process. Today, Storm is happy to be an inspiration to the neo-burlesque dancers. However, it did take her awhile to be won over.
“The new generation of burlesque dancers, I did not think much of it until I saw the show at MGM Grand, Crazy Horse Paris,” she says. “That’s the closest thing I’ve seen to burlesque the way I did it in my day. It is classy and sexy, and I was quite surprised.”
Storm, who moved back to Vegas in 2005 from Los Angeles because it had more excitement, spends some of her spare time coaching the next generation. Currently, she’s mentoring retro beauty and Playmate of the Year Claire Sinclair. The 20-year-old has twice guest-starred in Crazy Horse, and Storm was there to coach her.
“[They] used to say I had the most sinful act in Las Vegas,” Storm says of the vintage aesthetic she is teaching Sinclair. “I guess it was a little risqué at the time, but it was classy. You just use your imagination; you don’t do it the way they do in the clubs now. They say that burlesque died. It never left; they’re just doing it a different way now.”
Storm has hit upon one of the biggest debates in burlesque: What defines it? There are as many different definitions as there are burlesque dancers. There’s original burlesque—which Storm calls “classy and entertaining, a fantasy”—and the playful, self-aware neo-burlesque that followed in its footsteps. There are the strippers at strip clubs, which some say are direct descendants of burlesque, but they are not burlesque now. And finally, there’s the mainstream, commercialized version, which also isn’t necessarily burlesque (see the movie Burlesque as an example).
There’s a slew of shows on the Strip that fit that last category: X Burlesque, Peepshow, Fantasy. And the Pussycat Dolls Burlesque Saloon opens June 4 at Planet Hollywood. But many in the burlesque scene are skeptical of the Strip’s efforts, which they see as too commercialized, too serious, too uniform. Burlesque involves an element of comedy and individuality, and it’s hard to keep those ideals when there’s intense pressure to make a profit. Burlesque boosters are caught in the eternal tug-of-war: They want the art form to become popular, but they know it might lose its soul if it does.
On June 4, the Burlesque Hall of Fame marks its first anniversary in Emergency Arts. The space is small, and only a tiny portion of the collection can be displayed at any one time, but until the museum can move to its own building, it’s a start. The celebration unfolds June 2-5 at The Orleans, where the museum’s major fundraising event, Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend, features the Miss Exotic World Pageant. The weekend has grown to be one of the biggest annual events in the world of burlesque, with four nights of shows, plus vendors, autograph sessions, cocktail hours, burlesque classes and an oral history project.
Evans, who worked so hard to create the pageant, won’t be there. (It’s a long, complicated story, involving the breakup of Herbert and Littell and a subsequent business lawsuit.) Instead she’ll run an event at the Plaza on June 3-4, The Dixie Evans Burlesque Show. Tempest Storm, Kitten DeVille, Angie Pontani and other big-name burlesque stars will perform with Evans, who will return to the stage after an absence of more than 10 years. Echoing the variety format of old-school burlesque, Evans’ show will also feature Kaiju Big Battel, a “live monster-wrestling spectacle.” Even though she won’t be participating in the Hall of Fame Weekend, Evans is still the soul of the Hall of Fame.
“I still created it,” she says. “I still own everything in it.”
It’s late April, and Las Vegas’ Ms. Redd is about to compete in the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender’s annual burlesque competition. The curtain pulls back to reveal her chained to railroad tracks in a wedding dress, and the sold-out crowd holds its breath in anticipation. There’s the chug and whistle of the approaching train, but suddenly Redd is off the tracks and out of her dress. Underneath is a sparkling blue number swathed in crystals, revealing a voluptuous figure of almost cartoonish proportions. The blue plays off her long red hair, and she looks like a cross between Jessica Rabbit and Ariel, the Disney mermaid.
Redd, whose real name is Jennifer Affronti, cleared out her savings to look like that. “We call it ‘burlesque broke,’” says the cocktail waitress and pinup model, who has been dancing for two and a half years. “You do it for the love of doing it and the love of the art form. You invest a lot of money in it, and unless you’re Dita Von Teese, you’re not going to make that kind of money back.”
Her investment paid off (albeit not financially) when she was named runner-up to Seattle-based dancer Inga Ingénue (who will perform at the Hall of Fame Weekend’s “Movers, Shakers and Innovators” showcase on June 2). It was also the first time Redd’s mom had ever seen her perform.
“She cried,” Redd says. “I could hear her from the stage screaming, ‘That’s my baby girl!’”
In a display case at Evans’ house sits Marilyn Monroe’s beaded hat, the one she wore in Some Like It Hot, with the initials “M.M.” written in marker on the inside. Evans will take it out of its wrapping to show it to you, along with the movie still of Monroe wearing the hat.
Although Evans never met Monroe, their connection, like the connection between neo-burlesque and its original, is undeniable. Evans breathlessly tells the story of how she once received a telegram from Monroe. And she shifts into Monroe’s soft voice whenever a particular story demands it, which is more often than you’d think.
Throughout it all, Evans is a passionate keeper of the roots of this American folk art. “The girls have all bestowed on me that I started all this,” she says. “And I’m most grateful to them because they don’t realize what they did for me. They’ll say, ‘Oh, you did so much for burlesque.’ And I say, ‘No, it’s the other way around. You’re keeping me going.’”
It’s a Tuesday night in Boomers’ Boom Boom Room, a name that’s more enticing than the place itself, and a crowd of about 60 people has gathered for the graduation recital of Velour’s burlesque class. The graduates range in size, shape and skill level, but the energy is the same for each of them: high. Very high. Friends, family and burlesque regulars hoot and holler as these latest additions to the burlesque community take off their clothes. In a sense, they seem connected by an invisible string to the first burlesque dancers, who performed in the now-forgotten nightclubs on Boulder Highway back in the 1930s.
One graduate, Ivanna Blaze, takes the stage for a seemingly ordinary routine. But when she inches off the first satin glove, instead of a delicate finger, she reveals a cartoonish, furry paw. As the strains of The Cramps’ “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” play, every item that Blaze removes further transforms her from a regular girl (in this case, a manager at a skate shop in need of a break from being just-one-of-the-guys) into a sensual wolf-woman howling at a homemade moon in furry pasties and fangs. The crowd howls its approval.
Ever the proud teacher, Velour marvels at Blaze’s homemade costume and says that her act really could be developed into something special. It certainly has the comic value she’s always saying separates burlesque from the mind-numbing repetition of generically sexy girls taking their clothes off.
After the event ends, the wolf returns to her original form: April Campbell, 24. “I was so nervous,” she says, her face flushed. “I thought I was going to throw up before the show.” She can’t wait to do it again.