Behind the Burly Q
RUN, DO NOT WALK, TO SEE THIS MOVIE!!! It is the most thorough, balanced, rich and probing (sorry) documentary possible about the history of classical burlesque and it is only playing until Thursday at the Quad Cinema. I can’t say enough good things about it. It not only gives us a nice historic overview, from the form’s origins with Lydia Thompson and her British Blonds through it’s ironic death at the hands of the porn industry in the 1960s, but it also does an amazing job painting a detailed portrait of what that industry was. Director Leslie Zemeckis (wife of Robert) managed to secure interviews with dozens of key figures from back in day, including Dixie Evans, a mentor to hundreds in the new burlesque movement, and comedian Lee Stuart, whom Todd Robbins had first told me about ages ago. About half of these people died before the film was finished, making this film a very important document indeed. Backing up the talking heads is an astounding amount of archival footage and photo stills, much of which is very surprising to learn exists at all. And the film does a wonderful job of evoking subtleties and context — painting pictures of areas that were vague at least in my own imagination until clarified by this film. For example, burlesque shows, prior to Laguardia’s crackdown in New York in the late ’30s were elaborate stage shows, having much in common with Broadway revues and vaudeville. Pictures tell the story — chorus lines full of costumed pretties…circus balancing acts…comedy sketches…all in houses seating 1000+ patrons. For the first time we get a context in which to plug Abbott and Costello, who came not from vaudeville, but from burlesque (Costello’s daughter is one of the interviewees). Ever wonder why Alan Alda was so convincing in his indiscriminate pursuit of nurses in M*A*S*H? Perhaps because he grew up in burlesque theatres, where his father worked as a “tit singer”. And more, more, more! About Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, Ann Corio, Lili St. Cyr, Tempest Storm, Blaze Starr, and on and on.
Following the screening Thursday night, there was a Q & A with Ms. Zemeckis (her hubby staying diplomatically in the background), her producers, and one of the artistes profiled in the film, a dancer by the name of April March. I was shocked not to see more of the current burlesque world out there (I only noticed Jo “Boobs” Weldon in the crowd). Ladies and gentlemen, you only have four days left! Do your homework and see this film!
And to find out even more about the variety arts past and present, consultNo Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.