Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The naked truth behind Neo-Burlesque

Annie Weinert, 31, has just spent the day powdering doctors’ noses. Life as a freelance makeup artist means that weddings and TV commercials dominate her daily schedule. Come nighttime, however, she’s not just Annie – she’s Red Hot Annie, Chicago’s fiery red-haired temptress who gracefully bumps and grinds for a cheering audience as she strips off one article of clothing at a time.
Kelly Williams of GTB

Weinert is one of the city’s nearly 120 professional burlesque performers who are part of a growing global Neo-Burlesque revival. “It’s a style of doing dance,” explained Weinert, founder and CEO (or, rather, C.E.Oh!) of burlesque troupe, Vaudezilla. “At some point in a tap routine you’re going to shuffle. At some point in a ballet act, you’re going to go on pointe. At some point in a burlesque act, you’re going to take your top off.”
Burlesque, which was first popularized in New York by Lydia Thompson and the British Blondes in the 1840s, continues to gain momentum, thanks to a group of women and men who infuse tradition with a dose of modern humor. From ‘Glee’ to ‘Lord of the Rings’ burlesque shows, no cult favorite is too precious for performers at the Gorilla Tango Burlesque (GTB) troupe who are clearly having fun while poking fun at beloved icons of pop culture. “We’re not trying to be smutty,” said Kelly Williams, GTB’s executive producer, marketing and PR director. “We’re trying to be cheeky, irreverent, entertaining, sexy and fun.”

A disappearing act
Despite the growing burlesque following in Chicago, performances today often take place in front of smaller audiences in basic black box theatres – a far cry from an era when acts were held in the city’s majestic theatres. Burlesque was the epitome of glitz and glamour when nearly everyone in the industry came across club regulars such as Frank Sinatra and Orson Welles.
Leslie Zemeckis
“Chicago was one of the major hubs,” said Leslie Zemeckis, director of ‘Behind the Burly Q’ a documentary on the history of burlesque, which will be screening at the Chicago History Museum in February 2012. “Everyone worked there because they had all the big theatres and clubs.”
According to Jane Briggeman, author of ‘Burlesque: A Living History,’ the State-Congress Theatre, the Star and Garter Theatre and the Rialto were just some of the places where legendary performers made their mark. “Kitty Marlowe was a popular performer and the very last exotic dancer to perform on stage in the final burlesque show at the Town Burlesque Theater in Chicago in 1970,” explained Briggeman, who’s working on the second edition of her book due for release in December. “After that performance, the theatre reverted to running skin flicks; it bore little resemblance to the day when it flourished as a prominent vaudeville house.”
“It was really sad,” recalled Doris Kotzan, who’s also known to fans as Bambi Jones. Now 80, the Las Vegas-based veteran used to dominate the stage at the Gem Follies Theatre in the 1950s. Burlesque at that time, she said, was already on its way out. When the popularity of television delivered the final blow, performers scattered to find jobs at nightclubs, supper clubs, and in some cases, taking up non-showbiz jobs that required a completely different lifestyle.

Everybody sweeps burlesque under the rug – it’s like a black eye nobody wants to admit they were associated with,” said Kotzan, laughing. “I was in and out of the burlesque closet constantly. I had to deny it because people look at you funny because right away, they thought you took your clothes off and that’s all you knew how to do.”
Sigrid Spangenberg, whose stage name was Lillie Marlene, is now retired and living with her husband in South Carolina. She also recalls the stigma surrounding burlesque during her days in Chicago. “If you asked some clubs if they had “exotics” booked there, they will deny it to this day,” she said.
'Burlesque: A Living History by
Jane Briggeman

Making a comeback
According to former performers and members of the Burlesque Historical Society, burlesque died when theatres and big clubs closed, giving way for other forms of entertainment. “Every one of them says “Go-Go” killed burlesque,” said Briggeman.
Go-Go was eventually replaced by strip clubs in the '70s when strippers and poles became the main attraction. Ironically, it was the same technology that spelled the end of burlesque that would bring the art form back into the public consciousness. TV miniseries such as ‘The Josephine Baker Story’ in 1991 took a curious look at the industry and brought burlesque back in the spotlight.
Yet, not everyone in the industry is thrilled with the modern representation of burlesque and the misconceptions that continue to be perpetuated. When asked about the 2010 movie ‘Burlesque’ (starring Cher and Christina Aguilera, Weinert rolls her eyes. “Oh god, it’s expected,” she groaned. “Although there was one clever striptease act, it was mostly a great cabaret movie but I think they just didn’t have that title left.”
Briggeman is also hesitant to join the burlesque bandwagon, claiming that the term is being used far too loosely. “For me, unless a club creates a full show with comics and scenes, emcees, variety acts, and even includes a small chorus line, only those clubs that include all of this, besides the feature dancers, are putting on a (real) burlesque show,” she stated.
Zemeckis agrees. “It’s two different art forms, really,” she said. “We’re more sophisticated in our sense of humor and our sense of what we (are allowed to) see. There was a time when you couldn’t see nudity – now it’s everywhere.”
Some adaptations of the new burlesque movement have left even veterans such as Spangenberg taken aback by performances, which she describes as “pretty raw.” When asked if she had any advice for new performers, she said, “Don’t show it all – leave something to the imagination, it’s always nicer.”
Like Spangenberg, Kotzan bemoans the amount of tattoo-covered skin shown on stage. “As far as neo goes it’s because they don’t know (about it) – who’s there to teach them?” she asks. “What about those tattoos? We wouldn’t dare have a tattoo back in the day.”

The return of burlesque
Whether the industry will be able to recapture its former glory is still up for debate. However, the growing interest in burlesque has been instrumental in helping the community in other surprising ways.
While researching material for her book, Briggeman discovered that “everybody wanted to find old friends.” The result was ‘The Golden Days of Burlesque Historical Society,’ a website maintained by Briggeman and relatives of veteran performers. “We’re rapidly losing these legendary performers; they will all be gone before we know it,” she stated. “With them (will) go their stories and this history – that’s why these books are so special; it’s part of them.”
As for Kotzan, the release of her memoir ‘My Journey Burlesque: The Way It Was’ has forced her to step out of the burlesque closet for good. These days, she does presentations on the history of burlesque, teaches burlesque at senior centers and performs at conventions where she meets today’s rising stars. “I like anything that’s keeping burlesque alive, no matter what,” she states. “These girls look up to us the way we looked up to our trailblazers in our day such as Rita Hayworth and Yvonne de Carlos.”
Weinert, who also teaches burlesque classes at Vaudezilla Studios, has seen an influx of students interested to learn about the craft. “I always tell my students that it’s a very creative striptease,” explained Weinert. “It’s very female-centric so it’s a lot about what women find sexy.” She also states that unlike the gentlemen’s club atmosphere of original burlesque, today’s diverse audiences include women and members of the city’s gay community. “It’s awesome and they’re really outgoing,” she said. “It’s a pretty young crowd, too.”
In the meantime, Weinert and her troupe, Vaudezilla, are in the midst of rehearsals for the upcoming December 3 performance of “TRIM! An Xmas Burlesque Craptacular” – Weinert is set to appear as Frosty the Snowman.
Across the city at Gorilla Tango Theatre, the GTB group will continue to don Super Mario and Luigi costumes for their hugely successful weekly performance of “Boobs and Goombas: A Super Mario Burlesque.” The show, which parodies the 1985 video game hit, has already been extended due to popular demand. While Williams admits that the show is a loose interpretation of burlesque, its appeal is quite simple.
I think what we do is successful because it is silly, campy and fun,” she explained. “People love a good time – even more so with boobs.”
  • 'Boobs and Goombas: A Super Mario Bros Burlesque' showing on Fridays and Saturday at 11pm at Gorilla Tango Theater, 1919 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, tickets $20, (773) 598-4549,
  • 'TRIM! An Xmas Burlesque Craptacular' showing on Saturday, December 3 10:30pm at Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont Avenue, Chicago, tickets $18,
  • 'Behind the Burly Q' screening on Sunday, February 12, 1:30 p.m., Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St., Chicago, IL 60614, (312) 642-4600,
  • 'Burlesque: A Living History' (second edition) by Jane Briggeman, to be released December 2011.

The Great Bambi Jones from Rylee Jean Ebsen on Vimeo.

No comments:

Post a Comment