BEHIND THE BURLY Q – The DVD Review
Review by Sam Moffitt
I love strippers! Always have and always will. Having said that I have never been to a real burlesque show. Oh, I’ve been to tittie bars, sure, tittie bars, absolutely! Four years in the Navy and having been a bachelor all my life (I am engaged to a wonderful woman so cut me some slack here) I’ve been to plenty of bars where topless dancers do their shimmy and shake and hang from the pole and all that. But that isn’t really burlesque.
I can remember growing up in St. Louis in the 60s and 70s and looking at ads in the Globe Democrat and Post Dispatch for the Grand Burlesque downtown (was it on Washington?) and the Stardust Burlesque on DeBaliviere. How I wanted to go to those theaters, how I wanted to see Evelyn West and her $20,000 (was that the dollar amount?) Treasure Chest, insured by Lloyd’s of London. Somehow I never got to go, by the time I was old enough and had the money those theaters were gone.
In Behind the Burly Q, a wonderful documentary, we learn just how great a burlesque show really was. For one thing there was more than just the strippers, there were production numbers, a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants. There were baggy pants comics, doing double entendre routines. Abbot and Costello both came from burlesque, Bud Abbot was one of the most sought after straight men, the guy who set up the jokes for the comics, Lou Costello was one of the fastest comics in the business. When the two of them got together they out grew burlesque very quickly and comedy history was made.
In Behind the Burly Q we hear a lot from retired burlesque strippers, many of whom I never heard of. We learn the history of burlesque, it actually started before the beginning of the 20th century, in carnivals and World Fairs. The combination of low comedy and beautiful women taking off their clothes allegedly came from Minsky’s, a promoter and producer who knew a good thing when he saw it.
There is no narrator for Behind the Burly Q, the strippers, comics, husbands and other performers have their time to speak and tell their own stories. The film switches back and forth between how the women look now and when they were star attractions on the Bump and Grind circuit.
As you would expect these ladies are showing their age, after all, the heyday of burlesque was the 40s through the 60s. Some still look very attractive, most look like someone’s Grandmother, which a lot of them are. All have stories to tell, funny, jaw dropping, outrageous and at times sad and wistful stories about an aspect of American Culture that is all but forgotten.
To start with many of the strippers had husbands and children. As you would expect many were married too many times. The ones with children actually took them on the road and kids sitting in the wings watching Mom do a bump and grind was not unheard of. Alan Alda has some great information to relate, things I had never heard of, and I read a biography of Alda years ago when MASH was a television staple. Alan Alda’s Father, Robert Alda was an actor but before that he was a singer and a straight man in burlesque shows. Deserted by his Mother Alda’s Father took him on the road and he basically grew up in burlesque houses. We learn that, yes, he had dozens of surrogate Mothers more than willing to take care of him, even though they were usually dressed in g-strings and pasties. Alda advises us that by today’s standards this was probably abuse. I don’t know, when I was ten years old I don’t think I would have minded that situation one bit. I don’t think it would leave any more emotional scars than being raised in, say, a nudist resort.
But there was emotional and physical trouble for the women who chose a career in burlesque. Several women were raped. Tempest Storm (still stripping in her 80s, think about that for a while!) says she was gang raped at fourteen and saw burlesque dancing as a way out of grinding rural poverty. Blaze Starr tells pretty much the same story.
We learn that strippers needed a purse big enough for a gun and a bottle. Alcoholism and drugs were as much of a problem for dancers then as now. The story of Lili St. Cyr is especially heartbreaking. Staggeringly beautiful and a class act Lili had trouble with alcohol and became addicted to heroin. She became a recluse after growing old and losing her looks, she attempted suicide 3 times and died broke and alone.
Several dancers talk about “stage door Johnnies” who would shower the women with gifts and constantly try to get close to them. One dancer says she still gets gifts from an admirer (stalker by today’s standards) every Christmas, Birthday and New Year’s Day.
The influence of organized crime is freely talked about, although one stripper admits she will not name any names, to this day. In old movies strippers were often portrayed as arm candy for various hoodlums, apparently that was not far wrong! One dancer says that the mob kept the operations clean and above board, by enforcing the rules about not dating audience members or any other hanky panky. But we also hear from a dancer who dated a mobster, out on the town he told her they had to stop at his house to “take care of some business”. The business involved dragging a dead body out of the house, wrapped in a tarp, and stuffed into the trunk of the gangster’s Cadillac for disposal at a later time. Well, that’s show biz!
Many of the women made their own costumes and a transvestite performer who was really good at fashion made dozens of costumes for the ladies. Which is another aspect of burlesque not generally known, transvestites were often star attractions. It was also not unusual for women to accompany men to shows. Some theaters had midnight shows for ladies only. In fact Alda informs us that in its heyday burlesque was considered family entertainment, many people brought their kids!
Regarding the costumes, the popular image of strippers throwing their clothes out into the audience is sheer fantasy, they were far too expensive. In lots of archival footage we see the women hand off their garments to someone in the wings who was there for exactly that purpose. Many dancers had assistants strictly to help with wardrobe and makeup.
Why did these women get into burlesque dancing if there were risks involved? The oldest story in the book, money! Women in the 30s (especially) and the 40s through the 60s could make a lot more money stripping than they could in a 9 to 5 job, and did not need any special skills like typing or dictation.
And, another old, old story, it gave them pleasure to mock the fantasies and urges of men, that is the very definition of burlesque after all. If any women had reason to laugh at men, the way women have laughed at men for centuries, it was burlesque strippers. Some of them admit, there was a kick to having all eyes in the room riveted on them as they went through their acts, it was easy, it was fun, and they got paid for it! Some of the dancers, in their heyday, were truly drop dead gorgeous. Many were very ordinary looking, but with the makeup, costumes, the colored lighting and the band beating out that bump and grind rhythm, and the booze flowing, magic happened 4 times a day.
A famous story told in Behind the Burly Q, Boston had a notorious and popular burlesque theater. A Father tells his son not to go there or he’ll “see something he shouldn’t!” Of course the boy sneaks in and sees exactly what he shouldn’t, his Father sitting in the front row!
One dancer insists the real attraction to burlesque was the comics, who we are also told were angry, depressed and hateful old men who drank too much and were bitter that they could not make it in show business in any other venue.
We also hear some dreadful comments about the most famous stripper from that era, Gypsy Rose Lee. One dancer insists Gypsy “couldn’t sing, couldn’t dance, had a foul mouth, a homely face and not a very good body!” Yikes! We hear other back biting comments about other dancers like Rose La Rose.
Two of my favorites are never mentioned or seen, Jenny Lee (The Bazoom Girl!) and Virginia (Ding Dong) Belle. Never the less, I loved this documentary. Behind the Burly Q takes a good long look at a part of American Culture that needed the exposure (sorry!) The fact that so many dancers were still around to be captured on film telling their stories is astonishing. At the end credits we get a list of dancers who passed away while the film was being edited.
Behind the Burly Q is informative, funny, sad, wistful, and yes sexy, very sexy at times, and oh so human.
The dvd has great behind the scenes and making of featurettes and a photo gallery, as well as several previews. New footage is color video, sometimes not miked or lit very well. Archive footage is, as you would expect black and white and grainy, all the better for the nostalgia of the whole enterprise.
I’m going over to Mons Venus for the late show, any one care to join me? I’ll buy the first round!