The salty reminiscences of participants in the classic age of burlesque enliven this companion volume to a documentary film directed by the author.
Zemeckis assembled an impressive number of surviving performers from roughly the 1930s through the late ’50s to recount their experiences toiling in this often misunderstood cul-de-sac in American performing arts. An evolution of vaudeville, burlesque added striptease to the program in an effort to lure audiences back from the movies by giving them something unavailable on the silver screen. Such luminaries as Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm and Dixie Evans dish on backstage rivalries, the depredations of the road, the stigma of stripping and all other aspects of burlesque life, providing an engaging behind-the-scenes analysis of an art form most people have heard of but few understand. In fact, the performers themselves contribute contradictory perspectives, describing the shows variously as bawdy but innocent escapism for cash-strapped regular folks or exploitative flesh parades with audiences full of men furtively masturbating behind newspapers. However, the interviewees share a common spirit of toughness and rueful good humor, which jibes with their status as, in the main, poverty-stricken young women who could earn more disrobing than waiting tables. A defiant pride in burlesque's second-rate status in the entertainment firmament—the performers may not have had the goods to make it in “legitimate” venues like the movies or Broadway, but they left the audiences happy—also unites the subjects, who take poignant pride in their brief moments of relative fame. The narrative moves briskly and will engross anyone interested in midcentury Americana. There is much colorful ground-level showbiz detail and descriptions of what it was like to work circuses, carnivals and the rotating theatrical circuit known as “The Wheel,” and the anecdotes are never less than good fun.
An affectionate and historically valuable document of an intriguing, little-served corner of American entertainment.