Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Burlesque Book Author Sheds Light On An Artform

Interview With Author, Actress and Award-Winning Documentarian Leslie Zemeckis

1.        Leslie, what inspired you to write Behind the Burly Q: The Story of Burlesque in America? It is very much an untold story, an impt part of our American culture that has been overlooked because of the “stigma” of stripping. When I met some former performers, all in their 70s 80 and 90s! I fell in love with them felt their stories were so compelling that I had to tell it.

2.       Why are you so passionate about preserving the legacy of the pioneers of what was once taboo entertainment? Because it is completely misunderstood. Few realized the size of a show (during its golden age, the 20-40s), few even knew men were in a burlesque show, that the comedians were kings! With shows in theatres all over, 3, 4 sometimes running 6 times a day, 6 days a week to full houses – there had to be something about burlesque worth remembering and telling. It was a highly entertaining show and employed thousands and entertained thousands more. I think the memories of the performers deserves to live in the correct light. Some were artists and they all worked incredibly hard – and it wasn’t a once taboo entertainment, it only became that way in memory.

3.       Why is the world of burlesque misunderstood? Because of the strippers and the fact that it did degenerate into pure naked stripping with go go in the 60s and on. But that isn’t at all how it started out. We forget our legacy. Saturday Night Live, The Carol Burnett Show – it all comes from burlesque. Burlesque was about humor. It was a form of entertainment for the common man – many of whom were immigrants and did not speak English. But they could understand broad comedy and a pretty woman.

4.       You got Blaze Starr to write your foreword.  How fascinated are you by her notoriety and accomplishments? I don’t think of her story as being “notorious.” I found her to be a brave, plucky girl who came from poverty, and a close family (they still are today) who made something out of her life. She has great humor, honesty and decency. She had affairs and showed her body for a living, but that doesn’t make her a good person. She conducted herself in a way to be proud. She didn’t hurt anyone. She is a lady. She was smart with her money and a smart business woman. She takes care of her large family. She’s a good friend to many. Beautiful, wild – maybe – she had a good life.

5.       What do we not know about America’s original entertainers – those who worked with strippers, such as the singers, comedians and variety acts? That burlesque was a training ground for comedians. And they could move onto other forms of entertainment, tv, radio, films. But the strippers could not. Even Gypsy’s films she did in Hollywood she had to use her “real” name as “Gypsy” was too scandalous. A novelty act – hand balancers, harmonica players, etc. Could and did made a decent living. Could you imagine today a hand balancing act (except for cirque de sole) being able to make a living and having enough venues to perform in for 25 years – as Rudy and Renald did, whom I talk about in my book? And they loved being a part of this big variety show “with a little more spice.”

6.       Could burlesque ever make a resurgence? No. Burlesque was, at one time, the only place where flesh could be seen – pre bikini in 1946 and pre Playboy Magazine. It was a ritual of sorts for high school boys to sneak in and see the girls. Our sense of humor has become more sophisticated. The neo-burlesque scene is huge – but that is strip acts – some incredibly inventive and creative. But it would be expensive to employ a cast of 20 show girls, 2-4 comedians, novelty acts, animal acts, singers, dancers and strippers. And we don’t have the venues or audience to sustain a “wheel” today and really “train” these performers to perfect their acts.

7.       How did you gain unprecedented access to the performer’s diaries, letters, albums, and memorabilia? Because I had done so much research – I continue to – they were impressed with my knowledge of a time that is clearly not of my era. I could recite names to them and know other’s histories. I treated them with respect and promised them this was their story – not mine. They were the most generous, heartfelt people I have ever met. They invited me into their homes and send cards on my childrens’ birthdays. They have become my friends.

8.       Can you still be a feminist and support burlesque? I don’t even know what a feminist is. I would see no reason why anyone couldn’t “support” burlesque. It was a fun humorous form of entertainment. Today’s neo-burlesque seen is undertaken by women who have the choice to strip or not. And some show nothing as it was in the old days of classic burlesque. However in the 30s and 40s there were less options for women – a lot from tough backgrounds of abuse and poverty and lack of education. Stripping gave these women an opportunity to see something of the country and to support themselves and often families.

9.       Did you feel more in touch with your sexuality and erotic side after researching this book? I’ve always been in touch with my sexuality. The misconception still seems to be that burlesque makes women sexual or erotic. To many working in it – it was a job.

10.   What challenges came up in writing this book? Organizing all my material. I have boxes and boxes of material. And sorting through fact and fiction. Hunting down little known facts about performers. I love research.

11.   Do most Americans today full appreciate what these performers went through to perform their ribald pastime? They have no idea how hard the work was, how much travel was involved, how lonely being on the road could be – and the stigma these performers lived under their entire careers. They worked incredibly long hard hours.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, the nation’s largest book promoter. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2013

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