Pasties come in different sizes. That’s just one fact of the striptease life that Tara Vaughan Tremmel’s learned making a documentary on the history of burlesque.
Tremmel, a graduate student in history at the University of Chicago, first visited the Exotic World Museum in Helendale, California, last year, while doing research for her dissertation. The museum–founded by the late dancer Jennie Lee and now run by Dixie Evans, once known as the “Marilyn Monroe of burlesque”–is the country’s only institution dedicated to preserving burlesque history.
“It sounds corny, but going there was life changing,” Tremmel says.
As soon as she got back to Chicago, she started talking about making a film. Though she’d never made one before, through friends at Women in the Director’s Chair she was able to assemble an experienced team of collaborators: Courtney Hermann, Gwen Lis, Lisa Samra, and Ronit Bezalel, director of the 1999 documentary Voices of Cabrini. With Evans and other former burlesque starlets pushing 80, time is of the essence: “How terrible it would be if, once they die, all their stories die with them,” says Lis.
Chicago occupies a proud place in the history of burlesque. After belly dancer Little Egypt gyrated half naked on the Midway at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, dancers across the country co-opted her shimmies and veils, and the Hootchy Cootchy was born. Chicago also may have been the scene of the first strip, sometime in the 1920s, though New York claims this distinction as well. “It’s debatable,” says Tremmel, but the first striptease probably occurred “when something accidentally fell off.”
Despite periodic crackdowns, burlesque remained hugely popular with working-class audiences until the 30s. Many historians trace the beginning of its decline to 1937, when New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia closed down the “burly houses” in Times Square, but it survived in Chicago and elsewhere for decades afterward. Dixie Evans and Tempest Storm, who’s 80 (and also featured in the documentary), were at the height of their careers in the 40s and 50s, says Tremmel, “supposedly after burlesque had died.”
A defining characteristic of burlesque, says Bezalel, is “the tease of the audience”–unlike what you see at strip clubs today. In interviews, burlesque dancers “always brought the subject up,” says Tremmel. “They have nostalgia for the striptease, and a disdain for what stripping is now. Stripping gives the audience complete access to a woman, sort of serves her on a plate.” But in striptease, “the woman is constructing her sexuality through her costumes, how much she takes off or doesn’t take off. The audience is made to feel lucky if they get to see anything.”
Though it’s easy to be nostalgic from several decades’ distance, there’s also a certain creepiness to burlesque. A July 1956 issue of Cabaret magazine, which features a cover story on Storm amid pages of crude boob-joke cartoons, describes her “outstanding but transitory physical attributes”: her body is “39 1/2 inches at its most interesting circumference, [which] tapers to an amazing but rather neat 23 inches and then flares nicely to 34 inches at the swivel.”
“It’s messy,” Tremmel concedes. “There’s a part of burlesque that’s empowering, but it’s also scary. Boundaries are being pushed. This spectacle is a lot more problematic than just ‘I feel good about being a sexy woman.'”
Tremmel dreams of adding Chicago to the list of cities like New York and Seattle currently experiencing something of a burlesque revival. Partly to that end, as well as to raise money for the documentary, she’s organized Gurlesque, a two-hour show featuring 20 performers–comics, singers, a magician, a knife thrower, a fire-eater, and, of course, dancers, including Gyna Rose Jewel, a former burlesque showgirl who will appear in the film.
Several of the performers are aspiring stripteasers who’ve never appeared onstage before. “We’re not trying to pimp you out,” Gwen Lis reassured them at a recent organizational meeting. “You don’t have to take off everything. Maybe a glove. Or your shirt.”
Gurlesque will take place Thursday, July 18, at 8 at Star Gaze, 5149 N. Clark; suggested admission is $10 to $20. For more information, call 773-561-7363 or see www.burlesquefundraiser.org.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.