Things were chaotic in the graffiti-covered storeroom at the Three Clubs lounge, and Bootsy Sterling, private eye, was drinking in as much as she could. Standing between cases of beer and piles of bar supplies, Bootsy was watching a group of women finish their hair and makeup, adjust their costumes, and make sure their pasties were firmly attached. Under different circumstances, these women might easily be mistaken for members of a very different profession, but on this night in October 2013, they were getting ready to perform in Los Angeles’ longest-running weekly burlesque show. The Monday Night Tease was about to begin.
This was Bootsy’s first time on stage as a professional burlesque dancer and she was trying to learn as much as she could from the other performers. I was there to provide moral support. Strip clubs have always felt cold, impersonal and dirty to me, but I knew burlesque was different and I wanted to see for myself what it was all about.
Three Clubs is an old-school lounge at the south end of Hollywood. When you walk through the red door you are blinded by the darkness, which gives you a few moments of anonymity while you decide whether this is your kind of place. The juke box pours out classics by Sinatra, Bennett, Martin, and Ella. The bartenders pour lots of martinis. The “back room” at Three Clubs has a small stage and seats about 80; a perfect place for a girl to take her clothes off in front of strangers.
Bootsy is a professional actress, a member of the Screen Actors Guild and some other well-known actor’s groups, but she was still a tad nervous. She arrived hours early so she could practice her routine a few more times before the show, and she ended up going through her moves in the poorly lit parking lot of a strip mall a few doors from the club. She saw students from a martial arts class upstairs stop to check her out. They seemed to enjoy the show. And who could blame them; burlesque has been a very popular form of entertainment in the U.S. for over a century.
Bootsy Sterling might be LA’s sexiest private eye, a vision Raymond Chandler would appreciate. Unfortunately, she isn’t very good at blending in; she sports a bright red trench coat, black four-inch platform pumps, black leg warmers and a black fedora. Under the trench coat was a frilly black mini skirt, a black cincher corset, a snap on collar and tie, and cuffs. Dressed to kill, you might say.
Her song, “The Silencer” by Vicki Carr, started to play and Bootsy stepped confidently onto the stage. She high stepped and strode through her routine with barely a hiccup. The coat and various bits of this and that got tossed aside effortlessly. The only sign of nerves was a brief tremor in one leg as she reclined on stage and tried to roll down one of her leg warmers.
The last thing to come off is her fedora, which she tossed frisbee-style out into the audience and then just happened to land in my lap. Coincidence? I like to think not. The crowd clapped and cheered wildly as she made her way off the stage.
My first taste of the Burly Q was good. The environment was upbeat, the dancers were enjoying themselves, and the crowd was having a blast. Burlesque seemed naughty, but not nasty; it was sexy without being slutty. It’s respectable, more or less, but still a bit edgy. This burlesque thing clearly aims to do more than reveal tits and ass.
Burlesque can be defined in many ways, but according to my American Heritage dictionary, it is a “literary or dramatic work that makes the subject ridiculous by treating it in an incongruous way, as by presenting a lofty subject with vulgarity or an inconsequential one with mock dignity.” The dictionary adds that burlesque can be “a variety show characterized by broad ribald comedy, dancing and striptease.”
That latter description is how we usually think of burlesque. It is the continuation of a tradition of entertainment for the masses that has always relied on irreverent humor, biting satire and sex to sell tickets. Lili VonSchtupp, an entertainer and producer of the Monday Night Tease for the last 10 years, describes it this way:
“It’s a telling of the journey of the tease on the stage. It tells a story from start to finish, with many layers and with some kind of exposure at the end that is exciting or stimulating or fantastic in some sort of way. It has a flow that carries the audience along, and at the end there is the ‘reveal.’ “
“Burlesque is based in parody, comedy, and it slowly evolved into striptease,” according to VonSchtupp. “Shakespeare was burlesque. It is a parody of politics and morals and of what the upper class was doing, created for the lower classes in a way that is blue and humorous. And hopefully, it’s a little cheeky and a little sexy.”
And popular, I might add. During its peak in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, audiences were massive. The 2010 Leslie Zemeckis documentary, “Behind the Burly Q,” tells a story about how the famous Minsky family claimed to have made a million dollars in one month by showing burlesque shows to huge audiences at fifteen cents per ticket.That’s a lot of tickets. Many of the top burlesque performers of bygone days were so popular, they became national, even international celebrities. TV producers were convinced that burlesque had a big enough following that they gave Gypsy Rose Lee her own TV talk show in 1958. Before that, her life had been chronicled in a Broadway musical called “Gypsy.” A star doesn’t get more mainstream than that.
A lot has changed since Gypsy Rose Lee was a TV celebrity. In the ‘60s, television and feature films syphoned away the audiences, and attitudes about sex and women’s rights changed, and burlesque, like vaudeville had before it, started to fade away.
It never completely disappeared, however, and in the mid 1990’s a group of women in Hollywood were sitting around drinking one night and said, “Let’s put on a show!” They became “Velvet Hammer,” one of the early neo-burlesque troupes that started to bring back the art form and they rocked stages all over Hollywood for more than a decade.
Burlesque is definitely adult entertainment and still gives audiences a sense of stepping out toward the edge and doing something a little bit naughty. It is not slick, corporate cookie-cutter entertainment, like the 2010 movie “Burlesque” that starred Cher and Christina Aguilera. Real life burlesque in Los Angeles is grittier, has dirtier jokes and more boobage.
“To me, it’s old school entertainment,” said Von Crockett, a patron of a recent St. Patty’s Day burlesque show at El Cid in Hollywood. “The whole point is about what you don’t see, which is different from other kinds of entertainment.”
Von and his wife Brenda go to four or five shows a year, they said, just because it’s more fun than other types of grown up entertainment.
“If you went to a strip club as a couple, the girls aren’t enjoying themselves much, its kind of awkward,” said Brenda. “But at a burlesque show, it’s not awkward for the girls.
“For me, burlesque is fun because the girls are actually out their enjoying it,” said Von, “versus going to another type of entertainment (strip clubs) where it seems like they’re not really having fun. Here the girls are enjoying it, the crowd is enjoying it, everyone is having a lot of fun.”
Other fans I spoke with feel the same way. While the audiences I saw weren’t big, they were very enthusiastic and diverse; younger hipsters, couples, groups of women, and, of course, the occasional dirty old man. At El Cid, a landmark club on Sunset Boulevard east of Vermont in Hollywood, I also met Sara Thomas and her friend Kimmie Fadem who had come together to catch the show.
“The fun thing about burlesque is that, unlike a strip club scenario, which is a sketchier environment, burlesque is a place where you can get rowdy and have fun, but without that invasive element that you get at other types of places,” said Thomas, who lives near El Cid. “The guys at burlesque shows are more the kind of guys I want to be in the same room with, where guys at a strip club are guys I’m not interested in spending time with. Now that I’m thinking about it, I didn’t worry about what I wore here tonight (a veryshort skirt), whereas if I was going to a strip club I would worry more about what to wear. I would dress down more, I would be more covered.”
I asked Sarah’s friend Kimmie what she thought about the St. Patty’s Day show: “It was a very fun show. I enjoyed it. It’s kind of intimate and personal. For me, this is very different. The woman who is up there, she is completely in control. She says how much. There is no contact with the men. No exchange of money.”
Lili VonSchtupp, talks about the economics of burlesque:
“When burlesque evolved into gentlemen’s clubs and strip clubs and full nudity it became heavy and oppressive and terrible and awful. Even the feminists didn’t like what we were doing. In strip clubs, there is commerce happening. Women come out, and show their wares, and they get a few tips, and then they sell lap dances. There is a sexual fantasy exchanged for money.”
But with the re-emergence of burlesque things have changed.
“Burlesque can be very empowering. There is something fantastic about standing in front of a room full of people almost naked and having them applaud you and you don’t have to be perfect,” she said.
Nope, you don’t have to be perfect. Every burlesque show I have seen has had great diversity in the types of women who go on stage. You have amazons and pixies. Some are elegant and beautiful by any standard, with graceful moves long lean bodies and amazing costumes. And then there are women who don’t have classically beautiful bodies and yet they still get great reaction from the fans. In today’s burlesque, it is mostly about the attitude.
The reason for that, I believe, is that so many fans are women. Women really respond to it. In “Behind the Burly Q” they tell the story of one theater operator who began doing shows for women only, and always had a packed house.
At the St. Patty’s Day show at El Cid, I spoke with Dolly Danger, a dancer for about six years. “It’s a women’s sport and the women involved put more love and effort and energy and passion into this than strippers could ever dream of. We put more energy into our costumes, more money, more love, more passion, more sex into our costumes and into our dancing, into our hair!”
In Penny Starr Jr.’s “Velvet Hammer” documentary, a performer named Ming Dynatease explained women’s interest this way: “A guy’s version of burlesque is a little bit of teasing and then let’s cut to the chase. A woman’s version involves insane amounts of feathers and rhinestones and the perfect lighting and beautiful moves. Women really respond to burlesque. Men are there to see the titties.”
Maybe we are, but burlesque offers more than just mammaries.
Starr, who produces the Victory Variety Hour burlesque show, calls herself the “P.T. Barnum of Burlesque” because “I’ve found that my heroes are often the show people.” And that includes her grandmother, the widely-known burlesque star of the ‘40s and ‘50s, Penny Starr.
Grandma Starr lives back east and is 80 years old today. She and Jr. have actually performed together on a few occasions recently and Grandma recently did her first solo gig in more than 40 years. “We are the only grandmother-granddaughter striptease act. And now she’s started doing things on her own.”
I had to ask, who goes to see an 80 year old stripper? “Anyone who remembers that time period,” Jr. said. “A lot of gentlemen walk up to her and say I remember you from your heyday.” Grandma does not go down to pasties. Jr. built her bras with pasties built in.
Jr. says it still works because burlesque isn’t just about showing your body. We all know what naked people look like, she says, there is no mystery about that. But in burlesque you show something more.
“The audience needs to see your soul,” Jr. said. “There are certain performers who are technically perfect, they are gorgeous to look at, but they are not there with you. The audience could leave and the act would be the same. For me, there is a connection with the audience. They share it with me, I share it with them.”
She adds that “burlesque is one of the few art forms where there is no fourth wall. (The fourth wall is the imaginary “wall” at the front of the stage in a traditional theater.) “We are all in it together.”
I definitely felt that sense of togetherness and community. After the shows, performers mingle with the audience, take pictures, chat about upcoming shows and just relax. It’s one of the things that helps keep the burlesque world spinning.
And that is important because it is not an easy business. As elsewhere in the entertainment business, there is always more talent available than there is room on the stage. And while that is great for producers, it is hard on the talent. Neither producing nor dancing in burlesque is likely to make you rich, so a lot of the work that gets done depends on the psychic rewards..
I met Mercy Beaucoup in December while she was relaxing near the edge of the Three Clubs stage waiting her turn to dance. “I’ve been doing this three years now, and I absolutely love it,” she said. “I’m a legacy; my grandmother was a true burly performer in Dublin, Ireland.” Mercy’s grandmother eventually moved to the states, met her husband, a chef in Brooklyn, and moved with him to Las Vegas. Mercy’s mother was born and raised in Vegas and became a show girl at Caesar’s Palace.
Even with burlesque in her blood, Mercy still has to earn a real living, which she does by managing the finances of her father’s San Francisco Bay Area farming business. Because she’s good with money, she has a keen awareness of how much it costs her to be a “professional” dancer.
“After 3 and a half years I’ve made enough money to break even,” she said. “I think I’m ahead about 25 dollars. Yeah! I can have lunch!”
Mercy has about 13 different costumes she performs in, each one a labor of love, made by hand. “I start with an idea and start with the costume, and then it starts to come together with the music, that’s my moment. No one can get near me until I’ve got it all done.”
She performs with troupes in San Francisco, and Phoenix, among others. Between travel and costumes, it is an expensive hobby. But as she says, “if you’re doing it for the money, you’re in the wrong profession. You do it because it’s your passion, it’s what you love, it’s a drive, you really don’t have a choice.” Mercy drove to Los Angeles from San Francisco to participate in the first Hollywood Burlesque Festival last December. Given gas prices these days, it is easy to imagine that she didn’t break even on that trip.
“It is clearly not the money that drives burlesque today,” Mercy says. “It is the experience. The performers and the audiences find it rewarding.” Watching burlesque in Los Angeles is a great value, she says, because the shows are not very expensive and you will generally have a lot of fun. “For the dancers and the comics, it is a way get on stage and to be part of a grand old tradition that goes down to the deepest roots of show business.”
There seems to be a deep respect for those roots. “I feel an obligation to the audience. They hand me 15 dollars and expect me to entertain them,” says Von Schtupp. “I owe it to the audience, not just to myself and the art I want to create.”
Mercy Beaucoup is also a fan of her fans. “It’s amazing that people will pay money to sit in a chair and watch me,” she says. “I can’t believe that anyone shows up, it just amazes me that they come to see what I do. It’s empowering for me.”
Most of her fans are women, and she thinks she knows why. “All women have a burlesque performer in them. When I was just an audience member, I remember thinking: I’d like to try that.”
And now she does.
Want to know more about burlesque?
Try these books:
- THE BURLESQUE HANDBOOK – by Jo Weldon, Headmistress, New York School of Burlesque
- Burlesque and the New Bump-n-Grind Paperback – by Michelle Baldwin
- Striptease: From Gaslight to Spotlight Hardcover – by Jessica Glasscock
- Behind the Burly Q: The Story of Burlesque in America – Leslie Zemeckis (Author), Blaze Starr (Foreword)
Or watch these movies:
- Burlesque(2010),written and directed by Steve Antin, starring Cher and Christina Aguilera. It’s not the kind of burlesque you see in Los Angeles, but it’s a nice movie to look at.
- Behind the Burly Q (2010), written and directed by Leslie Zemeckis. Zemeckis tells the story of burlesque in America by interviewing former dancers and people who knew the business from the inside.
- The Velvet Hammer Burlesque (2004), by Penny Starr, Jr. It documents the creation and success of Hollywood’s neo-burlesque groundbreaking burlesque troupe.
Or go see a show:
Article Written By Rick Ruiz
Rick Ruiz is a writer, former journalist and owner of Zenvironment, a Conscious Communications consulting firm. A native Southern Californian and graduate of Cal State Fullerton, he now lives in Santa Monica. He has studied and written about martial arts, spirituality, personal growth and the southern California lifestyle. He can be reached at email@example.com.