The New Burlesque of Las Vegas
BY MICHAEL SHULMAN AND SUSAN MICHALS
Lulu Lollipop, of Philadelphia, at the 2011 Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend
Burlesque’s thrill and air of fantasy have earned it a categorical home in our town, whose history is rich with the stories of stage stars with witty characters, the most fantastic costumes and acts that defy the imagination of the “girls’ ” adoring fans. Throughout its decades-long evolution, be it the various incarnations of the nouveau burlesque or the tried-and-true traditionalists, the salacious dance form has always had a place here on the Strip.
As that evolution continues, however, burlesque goes through ups and downs right along with its bumps and grinds. But for such a tantalizing art form, the drama just adds to the allure. And nowhere is that coming to a head as robustly as in the entertainment capital of the world, where burlesque is proudly celebrated and revered in ways you won’t find in more mainstream communities.
“Burlesque is the ultimate expression of American subculture,” says burlesque star Dirty Martini, “not unlike the punk movement of the ’70s.”
But all is not perfect behind the velvet curtain. There’s currently a custody battle of sorts unfolding around Las Vegas’ most beloved star, Dixie Evans, deemed the godmother of burlesque. Evans has since dubbed the ordeal the West Side Story of the burlesque world, for its dividing effects on the performers. Burlesque roars on, however, keeping the behind-the-scenes madness hidden for the most part from its devoted audience.
|The Bluebell Girls from the Lido nightclub in Paris perform on suspended platforms above the audience at the Stardust hotel, 1958|
|Tempest Storm at the Sahara|
|Performer Rose la Rose|
While we certainly can’t trace Vegas’ fascination to one particular moment in time, the late Frederic Apcar, the storied producer of Casino de Paris and Vive les Girls at the Dunes, undoubtedly had a great deal of influence. His was a lifelong passion for dance, as he himself started out at just 16 years old performing in the sexy, scandalous Folies Bergere (home to the seminal Josephine Baker) in his native France, before eventually moving to the United States. Once he set up camp in Vegas, Apcar produced some of his now-legendary revues. These Parisian-inspired productions were essentially modernized programs of “polite vaudeville,” with acts featuring a motley crew of singers, dancers, comedians, acrobats, animal trainers and even magicians.
“Now, Vegas may be a town known for its decadence,” Martini says. “But its showgirl tradition had less to do with American striptease and more in common with the Paris shows such as the Lido and Moulin Rouge.”
Burlesque as we know it hit its peak between the 1920s (when striptease took over for less profitable acts at individually owned theaters in post-vaudeville America) and the 1960s (with the explosion of readily available pornography). In putting more emphasis on the tease as opposed to the strip, and going the way of wit and persona, many a dancer was catapulted to more mainstream stardom, the most famous of them all being Gypsy Rose Lee. Some others who broke the mold included Sally Rand, who was best known for her work with fans and her bubble dance; Blaze Starr, for her bawdy humor; and Lili St. Cyr, for her memorable acts like “The Flying G” and “The Chinese Virgin.” Of course, one cannot leave out the likes of Tempest Storm, who packed a room with her natural red hair and her “moneymakers”—aka her 44DDs, which were insured in the late ’50s with Lloyds of London for $1 million.
Dixie Evans Takes the Stage
The self-proclaimed “Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque,” Dixie Evans was an enormous star on the burlesque circuit in the ’50s, as she was fortunate enough to bear an uncanny resemblance to the blonde bombshell of Some Like It Hot and Niagara. Evans’ greatest asset was a fantasy one: She could give men what they couldn’t get from the real Marilyn—a bird’s-eye view at what’s really underneath the dress—especially since they happened to share the exact same measurements. Unfortunately for Evans, when Marilyn died so did her career. That all changed in 1990, when Evans took over what would eventually become the Burlesque Hall of Fame from her friend Jennie Lee. Initially it was just a small space off Route 66 on a goat farm in Helendale, California, filled with props and costumes from what was now becoming a bit of a bygone era.
Back then the project was known simply as Exotic World—an homage to all things bump and grind. Like all things with just the right amount of risqué, it quickly gained a cult following.
Beyond a stop for random tourists passing by on road trips, Exotic World became a hub for the grandes dames of burlesque, where they could hang out and have a reunion of sorts (while at the same time a pageant was slowly building steam, which would come to be known as Miss Exotic World). These burlesque artists typified the original edict of burlesque—style and wit over sex. In the events going on at Exotic World, these doyennes of dance imparted all they could to the new generation of dancers who had admired them for so long. Jennie Lee succumbed to cancer in ’90, but instead of throwing in the marabou-trimmed towel, Evans and Jennie’s husband, Charlie Arroyo, redoubled their efforts. By the year 2000, Evans had come to be recognized as the godmother of burlesque, giving first-hand narratives and tours through Exotic World to larger crowds than she or Lee could have ever hoped for.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LEILA NAVIDI (LOLLIPOP); GETTY IMAGES (DUNES, STARDUST, EVANS, KOKONUTS); COURTESY OF BURLESQUE HALL OF FAME (ROSE)