J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Take a Peek: Behind the Burly Q

Old school burlesque is making a bit of a comeback in some way Off-Off Broadway theaters, yet it is a far cry from its once grand tradition. Indeed, tradition is the right word for the risqué but in its own way respectable form of entertainment according to Leslie Zemeckis’s documentary Behind the Burly Q (trailer here), which opens Friday in New York.

You might recognize names like Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm, and Lili St. Cyr, but not know (or perhaps admit) why. They were all burlesque dancers who came to be uncharitably known as strippers. However Burly takes pains to point out burlesque was initially more closely akin to vaudeville than contemporary adult only clubs. For pocket change, the working class (primarily but not exclusively men) could enjoy an entire variety show, including comedians, singers, novelty acts, and a slightly naughty featured dancer. It is this tradition that contemporary shows like the Horse Trade theater company’s Revealed Burlesque take inspiration from. Of course, as other forms of “adult” entertainment got coarser, it dragged burlesque down as well, until it ceased to be, morphing into just plain strip tease.

Throughout Burly, viewers get a sense of what was lost, hearing from family members of famous entertainers who launched their careers in burlesque, including the daughter of Lou Costello (partner of Abbott) and Alan Alda, whose actor-father Robert started out on the now forgotten circuit. With their reminiscences, Zemeckis (yes, she is the wife of Gump director Robert) convincingly makes her case that the history of this once enormously popular (if slightly disreputable) form of entertainment has been unfairly ignored by cultural historians.

While Burly’s approach is strictly conventional, relying on talking head interviews and archival photos and video, Zemeckis’s timing was fortuitous. In many cases, she obtained the final (and often only) interview granted by her aging subjects before they took their final curtain call. As a result, Burly is the only oral history recorded by many of burlesque’s greatest stars.

True, some of vintage images are indeed a bit racy, but there is a sense of regret in Burly for the loss of a more innocent time gone by. In fact, Burly seems to have the heart of conservative traditionalist. While Burly would probably disappoint audiences strictly looking for skin, it is an interesting look at some unheralded theater history. It opens at the Quad in New York this Friday (4/23).

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