During the shabby final days of the last of the burlesque houses that once dotted State Street near Congress Parkway, three of us — in possession of a few bucks and self-confidence fueled by fake IDs — entered the Follies Theater and saw a show that featured, among long-forgotten performers, a dancer named April Showers.
I dust off this memory because Ms. Showers is not among the many, many creatively named burlesque stars — Tempest Storm, Candy Cotton, Blaze Starr, Candy Barr, Val Valentine, Tee Tee Red, the list goes on — interviewed at poignant, amusing and enlightening length in a new book, “Behind the Burly Q: The Story of Burlesque in America,” by Leslie Zemeckis.
The author is a former actress, film director, mother of three and wife of Robert Zemeckis, an Oscar-winning director of such films as “Back to the Future,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Forrest Gump” and, most recently, “Flight.”
He is also a proud child of the Roseland neighborhood on the Far South Side and still has friends and relatives across this area. He married Leslie in 2001 and started a family that now includes the creatively named daughter Zsa Zsa (5) and sons Zane (8) and Rhys (9); he has a son, Alexander, by a previous marriage. The family lives most of the year in Santa Barbara, Calif., but since 2007 has owned a home and spent a great deal of time here.
It is a handsome apartment with a lovely view of the lake, and it is filled with all manner of artwork and other items, such as Gypsy Rose Lee's suitcase, that Leslie has accumulated in her lengthy relationship with burlesque.
“This was a wonderful place to do research. I can't remember how many times I walked over to dig through files at the Chicago History Museum,” she says. “This was a very important city on the burlesque circuit. Everybody played here.”
Indeed, Chicago has a long history with women who famously disrobed.
Fareeda Mahzar, later to be known as “Little Egypt,” danced at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and was acknowledged as “the first of the sensational girlie dancers.” At the 1933 Century of Progress, Sally Rand caused a sensation with her ostrich feather fan dance and balloon bubble dance. She was arrested four times in a single day during the fair, due to perceived indecent exposure, but a reporter/critic for the then very prim and proper Tribune deemed her act “graceful, handsomely staged, and free from any suggestions of vulgarity.”
Both of these women are featured in “Behind the Burly Q,” a book that is the logical, if who-knew-it-would-be-so-much-work, outgrowth of what started nearly a decade ago.
That was when Zemeckis created a one-woman show for herself called “Staar: She's Back and Mistresser Than Ever!” (She later wrote and produced a “mockumentary” based on the character that starred Carrie Fisher, Jeffrey Tambor and Fabio.)
Staar was a showgirl who strutted her stuff in a cabaretlike revue in various Los Angeles clubs, including a six-week residency at The Conga Room in 2005. The show featured four male dancers, a band and such songs as “You've Gotta Have Boobs.”
In reviewing The Conga Room show for Variety, Joel Hirschhorn wrote that Zemeckis was “a contradiction in terms — a restrained burlesque queen. … Echoes of breathy Marilyn Monroe seductiveness and all-knowing Mae West vulgarity appear, but the attractive Zemeckis lacks a style of her own. … The evening, despite butt-slapping and crotch-grabbing, feels like G-rated naughtiness, a dated production that might have been titillating half a century ago and has lost all power to shock.”
Says Zemeckis, 44: “I called it burlesque, but I didn't really know or understand what that really meant. I began to do some research, and in so doing began to meet some of the people who were part of the world. I was fascinated by their stories.”
She sponsored a 2006 reunion of former burlesque performers at the then-soon-to-be-demolished Stardust hotel in Las Vegas on the condition that those attending agreed to be interviewed on camera about their lives and careers. More than 50 showed up.
Working with her “dear friend, co-producer and cameraperson Sheri Hellard,” Zemeckis' weekend grew into a two-year project “crisscrossing the country interviewing everyone I could find that had worked in a burly show.”
“During some of the time I was pregnant with Zsa Zsa, but Bob was so supportive,” Zemeckis says. “After we had shot all we could shoot, Bob helped with the editing.”
The film version of “Behind the Burly Q” was released in 2010 and played at the Siskel Film Center here. It was not reviewed by any of our major newspapers, but New York was all over it, The Village Voice calling it “utterly entertaining,” and film critic Manohla Dargis of The New York Times writing that it was “charming. … It's great that (Zemeckis) immortalized these women.”
It was also reviewed by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker when it was released as a DVD in 2011. She wrote: “Zemeckis likes fun, but she asks important questions.”
Zemeckis was pleased by the reviews, but there was greater satisfaction for her.
“I am a history buff,” she says. “I can't stand to see stories get lost. I had so much material that wasn't used in the documentary that I just had to write this book.”
It is, in its fashion, an important historical document, capturing an era and entertainment all but buried in history's dust and by fading memories. Chicago author Rachel Shteir (something of a lightning rod after lambasting Chicago a few weeks ago in The New York Times Book Review) wrote a 2005 book titled “Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show,” but it does not provide the intimate oral history that Zemeckis' book does.
Burlesque, loosely defined as a variety show punctuated by raunchy comedy and female striptease, thrived into the 1960s, and though some performers continued to do their things after that, Zemeckis' aim was, as she writes, “in some small way … (to) change the many misconceptions of burlesque and the performers themselves — men and women who spent their careers marginalized, dismissed, and stigmatized.”
Yes, there were men in the business, a few of them featured in the book. Alan Alda? His father was a singer/joke teller on the circuit, and Alda says, “Early burlesque was a family business. That's hard to believe, but it was.”
Many of those in the book have died since Zemeckis interviewed them, and the others are getting older by the day. But a few undoubtedly find it interesting and perhaps even ironic that “Behind the Burly Q” arrives amid a rebirth of burlesque.
In the April 25 issue of The New Yorker, the aforementioned Acocella wrote about the “new burlesque,” trying to make the case that this “rebirth is due partly to politics. Again and again, artists and commentators of the new burlesque say that it is a feminist enterprise, enabling women to enjoy their sexuality and take pride in their bodies.”
That is not news here, where Michelle L'amour has been at it for nearly a decade, being joined by an ever-increasing number of burlesque shows.
As a girl growing up in Orland Park she studied ballet and jazz dancing. But, encouraged by her parents to get a “real job,” L'amour was majoring in finance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when she was persuaded by husband-to-be Franky Vivid to perform a striptease before a concert by his rock band.
“I was terrified at first,” she says. “But there was no going back.”
Since then, she has been named Miss Exotic World in 2005, dubbed by Chicago magazine the “Reigning Queen of Bump and Grind” and operated Studio L'amour, one of only two known burlesque instruction schools in the world. A couple of years ago she and her husband opened the Everleigh Social Club (named for the world's most famous brothel, which did business here from 1900 to 1910), featuring a wide array of arts and entertainments (everleighsocialclub.com).
“A lot of burlesque these days is about feminism, politics, performance art,” L'amour says. “I am not interested in that sort of thing. I want to entertain. Burlesque is all about the tease. I want to do something that is artistically pleasing for myself and for the audience.”
In that, she shares the philosophy of nearly all of the women in Zemeckis' book, which will be celebrated at a release party Sunday at 7 p.m. at Sheffield's, 3258 N. Sheffield Ave.
In the midst of all this movie/book/three-young-kids whirl, there is another film. “Bound By Flesh” is a documentary about Daisy and Violet Hilton, Siamese twin sisters joined at the hip who went from appearing at carnivals to becoming big stars in vaudeville.
“I guess I am just drawn to outsiders and underdogs,” Zemeckis says. “I discovered the subject of this film while I was researching this (‘Burly Q') book.”
She is the director. Her husband is the executive producer. The film has been playing the festival circuit for the last few months, taking the best documentary prize at the inaugural Louisiana Independent Film Festival in April.
“I don't think of myself as a filmmaker. Bob is a filmmaker,” she says. “But I do think I am a very good documentarian.”
The film played here during the Chicago International Film Festival last fall. The critic for the Hollywood Reporter, Duane Byrge, wrote: “Scrupulously researched from a wide array of sources (such as the Circus Museum in Baraboo, Wis.), ‘Bound by Flesh' mesmerizes with its full-fleshed portrait of the two gentle souls confined to a life of outrageous spectacle.
“Told with crisp clarity and buttressed by compassion, ‘Bound by Flesh' is a masterful movie, certain to touch the hearts of all audiences.”
Says the author/documentarian, “I hope the (‘Burly Q') book does the same thing.”
It does, April Showers or no April Showers.