In 2008, a performer named Runaround Sue told me she made a call to 150 burlesque artists in NYC and got Jonny Porkpie, Legs Malone, and Nasty Canasta to join her for a raunchy romp: tassels spinning from every body part, stripping down past the bikini line, peek-a-boo fan dancing, and serious body contorting illustrating that sound business advice from Gypsy: "You Gotta Have a Gimmick." Remember, Mama Rose resisted the degradation of her child vaudeville act into burlesque. Now, a new documentary directed by Leslie Zemeckis, Behind the Burly Q, reveals a history of this corner of show business.
Gypsy Rose Lee gets a moment or two in this film, noted for her oratory skill, but the film's real stars are the flaming red-head Tempest Storm, the demure Blaze Starr, Kitty West who was in her heyday Evangeline the Oyster Girl performing on the half shell, Sherry Britton, Margie Hart, Rita Grable, Lili St. Cyr, and Dixie Evans, billed the "Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque."
Alan Alda speaks about his childhood as a form of child abuse -- for what he was exposed to behind the scenes, as the son of Robert Alda, a "straight" man who warmed up the audience for the steamy acts to come. Burlesque comes off as a sociological event, offsetting the poverty of the Depression era, in a pre-feminist world, where, as one star put it, "Nothing is sexier than a woman crawling, if she knows how."
Sharon Stone introduced a special screening this week, saying she had this in common: nudity and sex. That got a laugh from the crowd at MoMA who remember her crotch flashing moment in Basic Instinct. In fact, co-star Michael Douglas joined the celebrants for dinner at the legendary 21 along with Brian Koppelman, the producer/director of his new film A Solitary Man. In homage to the stars of her film, Leslie Zemeckis and her producer wore glamorous gold lame gowns. Thanks to the superb seating skills of Peggy Siegal, our table had a high concentration of documentarians including Kate Davis whose Stonewall is soon to open, Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker, who reminisced about the stripper he worked with in the 50's: "Ah Gyps, I miss her."
St. Tropez may be far away from early 20th century America, but the fabulous Cagelles in the Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles at the Longacre Theatre certainly took their cues from burlesque. In the musical's denouement, Jean-Michel's future mother-in-law (Veanne Cox), a prude in French twist, lets her hair down as a dancer to avoid the gendarmes; burlesque-like, her silver skirt is snatched as she bumps and grinds, and a long glove is sexily cast to the side. She is having The Best of Times, as is the audience. Kelsey Grammer (Georges) and Douglas Hodge (Albin/ Zaza) make for a gorgeous couple. Albin appears to be a mere scene-stealing drama queen at first, but her cunning saves the day. When Georges and Albin kiss, ooh la la.
And last night, after the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of the docufantasy, Arias with a Twist, burlesque met camp with the flamboyant entertainer, Joey Arias, who performed at Dominion. Pal Sherry Vine sang, "I Just Shit My Pants," and Raven Oak, "Fly Me to the Moon." Then Arias performed "Don't Explain," accompanied by Alex Gifford on piano and the dazzling, elegant puppetry of Basil Twist. Pulling off her jacket and leathers down to black lace, Joey took some deep crotch flashing bends for the joyful crowd.
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