BY MICHAEL SHULMAN AND SUSAN MICHALS | August 17, 2011 | People
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.
Dita Von Teese with other Crazy Horse Paris performers at MGM Grand
|Legendary burlesque artist Dixie Evans poses with dancers from MGM Grand’s Crazy Horse Paris in 2007|
|Performer Kalani Kokonuts|
|Las Vegas chorus showgirls at the Dunes, 1955|
“No one has done more to preserve burlesque history than Dixie,” says Martini, who was crowned Miss Exotic World in 2004. “For myself, meeting Dixie was like coming home. Many people feel the same.”
That sentiment is echoed by Dita Von Teese, the industry’s biggest star and regular guest star of MGM Grand’s Crazy Horse Paris. “Dixie and the other surviving stars from the golden age of burlesque are a testament to what burlesque was back then, and it’s good to have them there to speak up for it.”
It was really the annual reunion and Exotic World pageant weekends that drew the largest crowds—not simply of onlookers and voyeurs, but the neo-burlesque performers who wanted to meet those who had blazed the trail before them, and those who would perform in competition to acquire the title of Miss Exotic World. Eventually it was time to leave the goat farm behind, and in 2006 Evans packed up and headed straight to Vegas, where it currently resides in the Emergency Arts Building (at Fremont and Sixth).
The move to Las Vegas was a no-brainer for many. “It’s a perfect fit,” says Angie Pontani, Miss Exotic World 2008. “Las Vegas is burlesque.”
A Bump in the Burlesque Road
The industry’s matriarchs would find out there was more drama in Sin City than on the goat farm. This year Evans, now in her mid 80s, became part and parcel of a “custody battle” between Laura Herbert, president of the Burlesque Hall of Fame, and former Hall of Fame board members and event producers Luke Littell and Frederic Apcar, scion to the late, great Dunes producer.
It all centers on the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend (which raises funds for the BHOF museum) and a lawsuit filed by Herbert and the BHOF against Littell and Apcar, along with Frederic Apcar Productions.
When the two sides parted ways, after 2010’s BHOF Weekend at the Plaza, Littell and Apcar decided to launch the Dixie Evans Burlesque Show in 2011—on June 5 and 6, the very same time as the BHOF Weekend. Since Frederic Apcar Productions already had a contract in place with the Plaza, their event was held there, while Herbert and the Burlesque Hall of Fame and Miss Exotic World pageant relocated to the Orleans.
The question became: Would Evans perform with the Hall of Fame, her baby, or its competition, which bears her name?
In the end, Evans aligned with Apcar and Littell and performed at the Plaza, with the Dixie Evans Burlesque Show, (missing her Miss Exotic World for the first time), as did Tempest Storm, Angie Pontani and others. Kalani Kokonuts and Dirty Martini were just two of the many performers who remained with the BHOF. By all accounts, both shows were enormous successes, and Frederic Apcar Productions is producing September’s 85th birthday show for Dixie at the Royal Resort.
The burlesque community is a tight-knit group; tradition and passing down information from generation to generation are hugely important parts of the process. Immodesty Blaize, for one, hopes that things get sorted out sooner rather than later, as she feels Evans and the Burlesque Hall of Fame are critical to maintaining the essence of the art form.
“With any genre that experiences waves and tides of popularity over the decades, things get lost in translation,” Blaize says. “It would be a travesty to lose the links with the original performers and a sense of the true genre. Burlesque Hall has been a great community for bringing together both modern performers and the original American burlesque striptease heroines from ’50s and ’60s. It’s a treasure for the new generation of burlesque performers to be able to learn from the past masters.”
Ultimately everyone involved—dancers and their audience—wants that escape from everyday life, if only for a fleeting moment. Where better to do that than Vegas?
“I dream of Las Vegas not only being a place to see some hilariously incongruous images of glamour mixed with Middle American values, but also a place that thrives with counterculture and high production values,” Martini says. “I love Jubilee and Siegfried and Roy! But I believe that real burlesque—that is, a variety show featuring real burlesque artists, who honed their craft through trial and error on many a small stage—should take its place among these shows, and I believe that I will honestly see this during the course of my career.”
We’ll drink to that, Ms. Martini.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LEILA NAVIDI (LOLLIPOP); GETTY IMAGES (DUNES, STARDUST, EVANS, KOKONUTS); COURTESY OF BURLESQUE HALL OF FAME (ROSE)