I emerged just now from an uncharacteristic separation from my computer to find my feed exploding with the sudden, sad news that my friend the Neo-Burlesque pioneer Miss Bonnie Dunn has passed away after a long illness. This is the point in an obituary where the writer typically gives the age of the person who has passed. It is a testament to Bonnie’s art that I have no friggin’ clue. Don’t wanna know, and if you know, don’t you tell me. When I met her over 20 years ago, I guessed but wasn’t sure, that she was bit older than me. All I knew is that she looked GOOD — and I mean that not (entirely) in the lascivious sense, but in the sense of when an old friend impresses you. She was master and mistress of her art.
I met her around 1997 or 1998. The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus had her in a show, and (attracted by the classicism of her act) quickly booked her for mine. There are all sorts of performers in New Burlesque, from political performance artists to trained choreographers with fancy degrees to roadhouse pole dancers to potential movie stars and chanteuses and clowns and a thousand other types — many of the best ones are all of the above. With Bonnie you sensed in particular a love of tradition. More than sensed — she articulated it. She was too young to have been one of the original burlesque dancers, thank you, but old enough to have known many of them and gleaned their folkways and their pointers. And she has been widely acknowledged to be one of the godmothers of the New Burlesque movement, having been on the scene since the mid-’90s, working first at the old Blue Angel and then at Le Scandal, which she took over as producer early in the century. She has been presenting it at such venues as the Cutting Room and the Laurie Beechman for 18 years now. From what I can tell, her last performance was just a couple of weeks ago. Bonnie was a mentor to scores, maybe hundreds of younger performers, a bridge from the old to the new.
When I first booked her in 1998, I was full of the jitters. Burlesque, if it is any good, has always been dangerous, and back then, when the concept of reviving it was new, it felt particularly so. I had only been to the Blue Angel a couple of times, for example, and it felt too racy for my tastes — something like the Box is today. It hadn’t been mainstreamed yet, and almost nobody had seen it. It felt risky, and I honestly didn’t know what the legal parameters were. In part of her patter, Bonnie (in a voice not unlike Mae West) announced that she “had just got out of the slammer”. And I was like, “DID she?” The Cabaret law was still in effect, for example, and I had no idea what the deal was about nudity or semi-nudity on stage. Certainly, back then, I overheard older audience members say things like, “Well, I’m not sure how I felt about THAT!” although they could well have been talking about my comedy. At any rate, Bonnie, with her Sally Rand style fan dance, was squarely in my comfort zone as a curator, and I presented her many times over the next five or six years at venues ranging from Surf Reality to The Duplex to the New-York Historical Society (which she immediately joined afterwards, to my delight). Bonnie was classy. Sometimes she looked like a dance hall girl, sometime she evoked the Gypsy Rose Lee idea in evening gowns and long gloves. And she had a great set of pipes — sometimes she just sang standards.
I’m going to have to hunt up some old articles I wrote for Backstage and other places back in the day in which I interviewed her and got some of her background and her thoughts about the New Burlesque. But for the most part, in burlesque matters, as in all things, I prefer the mystery. I LOVED imagining she had spent the previous night in jail. I prefer it. THAT is what is actually meant by the word “legend”.
At the bottom of this post is a brief clip of her dancing at my American Vaudeville Theatre at Surf Reality in 1998. (Thanks John Foster, for the harnessed lechery that made this video possible). My old friend Victoria Linchong has some added context about the time in which this video was taken. I always knew Victoria as a writer, so I was amazed to hear about her parallel experience. I add it with her kind permission, for it gives a different yet kindred perspective on the same times and the same person:
“…this video of Bonnie back in 1998, strutting her stuff at Trav SD’s show, not only captures her sweetness, but also brings me back to the time when I knew her.
I forget exactly when it was…1998 or 1999…through a director whom I was seeing. He had a script set in Times Square about an old burlesque club getting shuttered due to gentrification and he wanted me to help him write a new draft. (I’m still stoked that my draft got Rod Steiger interested in the project before he passed away.) Bonnie was one of the dancers cast in the film and I got to know her through the umpteen readings of the script as it went through a million re-writes and never got produced.
Burlesque was nearly unknown at that time. It died in the 1970s when sexual liberation made striptease totally passé. I mean, why pay for a glimpse of gam when everyone’s already naked? It was not until the late 1990s when Mayor Giuliani started to make things impossible for strip clubs that burlesque started to come back to New York.
At that time, there was an amazing community of women working in a handful of downtown strip clubs. Bonnie worked at Blue Angel on Walker Street, which was known for being fetish and rather extreme. I worked a block south at Baby Doll Lounge, which still bore remnants of its past as a rock ‘n roll biker bar. On 23rd Street, there was Billy’s Topless owned by a cigar-chomping gravel-voiced relic of 1960s burlesque. And way down by the World Trade Center was Pussycat Lounge owned by a Russian mafioso with a handlebar mustache. There was a lot of overlap between these places. Almost everyone knew one another.
Then Giuliani’s policies caused the pay to plummet to a third of what it used to be. Like I used to count on about $200 at Baby Doll & then suddenly I was making about $60. A lot of women left the scene and a few decided that if the pay was going to be shite, well then they could at least make it more interesting. Bonnie was one of the first to take the lead. Most of the women who were part of that first wave were actresses and contemporary dancers, so right away there was a performance art aspect to the new burlesque movement. But unlike almost everyone else, Bonnie was all about classic glove-and-gown burlesque. It was through her and Billie Madley and Dirty Martini that we were reminded that there was a tradition we were drawing from; a history that we could reinterpret and make our own.
So this video is amazing to see when you know the context. There were no tutorials at that time. There were no burlesque classes to teach fan dance technique. No one was making burlesque fans or nipple pasties to be bought. In 1998, there was absolutely no burlesque industry. This entire worldwide movement was started by women like Bonnie who were daring enough to go against the grain. There she is in 1998, bringing the fan dance back into the current world. Thank you Bonnie for making the world a more beautiful place.”
(Me again) For the record, there is a burlesque heaven and Bonnie Dunn is there. Tell me any different and I’ll clock you. If anybody can get St. Peter to yell “Take it off!” she can. Details on Bonnie’s memorial TBA. Meanwhile, here is that video I promised: