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MICA exhibit explores the history and revival of Baltimore burlesque

Sunny Sighed remembers her first exposure to modern burlesque very well. She loved it, but never dreamed she'd soon be a part of it.

Stripping off her clothes in front of an audience — well, even for a performer trained in acting, singing and dancing, that seemed a bit much.

"I at first could not imagine being able to do it myself," she says of the night about eight years ago when she first saw local legends Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey (real names: Beatrix Burneston and Adam Krandle) do their act.

"They were doing this crazy German bratwurst number," she remembers. "I just thought it was such a great art form, and such a brave art form, and really envied the people that were part of it."

Soon she started wondering. What if…?

"The more I started watching it, the more I started seeing different kinds of performers, different bodies of performers," she says. "I really started to feel like, 'I could do this. I could be a part of this.'"

Before long, she did become part of Baltimore's growing neo-burlesque scene — a raucous, laugh-filled, few-holds-barred funhouse by turns uproarious and titillating. It's one that contains elements of classic striptease (think burlesque queens slowly, tantalizingly removing their clothes, piece by seductive piece), circus acrobatics and old-time vaudeville shtick. Sunny Sighed — not her real name, as you might have guessed — sings up a storm while stripping off her clothes; she and partner Bal'd Lightning have a blast being risque.

As do her compatriots, men and women with names like Paco Fish and Kay Sera (that's her legs on the cover), Short Staxx and Tapitha Kix, Dolly Longlegs and Valeria Voxx. (We'll get this out of the way right here: Most performers you'll meet in this piece prefer — and asked — to be known by their stage names. Generally, they want to separate their stage personas from their personal and professional lives)

All the performers mentioned so far, along with a handful of others, will be onstage at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric on April 22, in a salute to the best of Baltimore's modern-day burlesque scene and a nod to its notorious past. "Workin' the Tease: The Art of Baltimore Burlesque," organized by students from the Maryland Institute College of Art, includes this performance, an April 17 panel discussion called "Undressing Baltimore" and an artifact-laden exhibition on display at the Lyric from April 22 to May 7.

For the organizers, some of whom are barely old enough to get into an adults-only club — and none of whom were around for the glory days of Baltimore burlesque in the mid-20th century — putting together "Workin' the Tease" has been an eye-opener.

"I wasn't very thrilled about it; I was a bit confused," admits Niahm Doherty, one of the exhibition's student curators. "I had never seen Baltimore burlesque or experienced the neo-burlesque culture. I only knew it as 'Burlesque,' the movie. But we started looking more into burlesque — its gender roles, how the neo-burlesque culture in Baltimore is so Baltimore. We became really interested in the highbrow/lowbrow aspects of it, the all-inclusive nature of the scene.

"I've really fallen in love with the burlesque scene now."

Charm City hasn't been this striptease-heavy since the glory days of The Block, that infamous strip of East Baltimore Street where Blaze Starr and her compatriots happily spent decades tweaking the city's moral character.

Those were the days when the West Virginia-born Starr and her 38 Double Ds reigned, when strippers and baggy-pants comics were staples at clubs like the Oasis, the Gayety, the Midway and the famed 2 O'clock (which Starr owned for a time).

Baltimore may not have invented stripping, and certainly couldn't rival cities like New York when it came to the sheer number of burlesque houses. But the charms of Charm City's strippers became known far and wide, especially after a February 1954 article in Esquire, "B-Belles of Burlesque: You Get Strip Tease With Your Beer in Baltimore," helped Blaze Starr go national.

Even H.L. Mencken, the fabled Bard of Baltimore, got in on the act. In 1940, responding to a letter from a proud stripper who thought the term "strip-tease" had the wrong connotations, Mencken suggested substituting the word "ecdysiast," derived from the Greek word for shedding or molting. The word never exactly caught on, but it is in the dictionary. It's even the name of a pole-dance studio in Oregon.

Margo Christie wasn't around in the old days; she started doing her act on The Block in 1978, when she was only 16 and trying to distance herself from her dysfunctional family. By that time, the area's glory days were largely behind it; things were turning decidedly seedy. But Christie befriended some of the old strippers, many of whom were still working The Block as waitresses and barmaids. And oh, the stories they would tell.

"They loved to rehash the old days — that was essentially what we would spend our time doing, when there wasn't a lot of customers at the bar," says Christie, who spent much of the next four years on The Block and used some of her experiences there in writing her first novel, "These Days: A Tale of Nostalgia on Baltimore's Block." She now lives in Denver.

Christie, who spent most of her time at the Stage Door, a converted bar, got to know many of the old-timers. She can tell stories of Starr's generosity, of Pam Gail's extraordinary wardrobes (one of which Christie has lent to the folks at MICA for the exhibition), of how every club would have its own musicians, how the truest measure of status was how many out-of-town gigs you landed. "I remember hearing about a lady, she used to stand on her head," Christie recalls with a laugh. "She was known as the Upside Down Girl."

In particular, Christie remembers coming across a stash of old photographs at the Midway, photos that clearly hearkened back to a bygone era. "They were probably from the 1940s, the 1950s. They were definitely professionally done, definitely taken in a photo studio. They were these burlesque queens in various stages of dress — full gowns or leather boas, some other accents. All fancy rhinestones and sequins, stuff like that. It was all very burlesque-y."

Christie learned her act from the women who had been there before her — especially Lynn Christie, a veteran of the Oasis who continued doing her act into the 1980s.

"She truly was a lady who was the last real stripper down there," says Margo Christie, who adopted the older woman's surname in tribute. "I saw how classy striptease could be by watching her. I made an effort to practice that same sort of class in my routine. I'm proud of that."

As she should be, says Kay Sera. "Margo should be proud of her performance styles, and proud of trying to uphold the tradition of classic burlesque," she says. "A number of performers today are focused on classic burlesque — what most people think of when they think of burlesque: the long gowns, the satin gloves, the languorous stocking pull. She helped perpetuate a performance style that, in its heyday, was uniquely American: that small, intimate burlesque concept."

But if burlesque went though a sallow period, it has come back in full force today. That's largely thanks to the neo-burlesque movement, a sort-of cross between striptease and performance art. One of its prime practitioners is Trixie Little and her partner, the Evil Hate Monkey. Most of Charm City's burlesque revival seems to trace its origins back to classes and workshops these two began holding about 10 years ago.

So what makes today's neo-burlesque performers different from their more traditional forebears? "The classic burlesque still definitely exists, there's still a big element of that," says Trixie Little, who moved to New York about four years ago, before the Baltimore neo-burlesque scene had come into full blossom, but still returns home three or four times a year. "Where it really becomes neo is when it becomes kind of a little bit post-modern, it becomes informed by many other things — like the circus, rock and roll, lots of different influences.

"When it becomes neo-burlesque for me," she adds, "is when it kind of brings more of a theatrical element and a little bit of storytelling. To me, it's like short-form theater."

Better yet, says Paco Fish, who's been doing neo-burlesque for some eight years, in today's environment, pretty much anything goes. And that can be very liberating — for both performer and audience.

"I like to describe burlesque as the punk rock of the theater and dance world," says Paco Fish, who has spent the past year touring the country and living out of his van. "It doesn't really matter what you do, it's how you do it. You can do anything you want. Just as punk was freedom, burlesque is freedom. You can do anything and make it amazing.

That anything can include Paco Fish wordlessly inviting someone from the audience to undress him and whip his backside with a belt; Kay Sera seducing a cloth dummy by coyly stripping to the tune of "Baby, It's Cold Outside"; Trixie Little slinking her way out of an onstage volcano, to the Evil Hate Monkey's acrobatic delight; or Sunny Sighed crooning "Send In the Clowns," then being assaulted by one that actually shows up.

Rarely a week goes by when there isn't a burlesque show being staged somewhere in Baltimore, at such venues at the Ottobar, Metro Gallery, Creative Alliance, Windup Space or Yellow Sign Theatre.

Clearly, old-style burlesque has morphed into something more energetic, more campy, more interested in engaging the audience rather than simply displaying for it. But why is a form of entertainment that's been around for a century, but that just 20 or 30 years ago seemed discredited beyond repair, roaring back?

Maybe audiences are finally ready for it, Paco Fish suggests.

"There's been a big cultural shift in the last decade," he says, "where people are much more accepting of things outside of their norm. They're much more accepting of alternative lifestyles."

Trixie Little suggests that performing without a net — or, better said, performing without much in the way of clothes — can be exhilarating for audience and performer. "People see that sort of confidence and boldness, that confidence with yourself being naked, just being a crazy person — that's what's so infectious about it, and why the scene has grown so much."

Or maybe, suggests Kay Sera, it's because stripping is way more inclusive than it used to be, and not simply an excuse to ogle at women with massive cleavage that they're happy to show off.

"Burlesque itself is extremely inclusive, and I think that's another reason for its resurgence," she says. "To be a burlesque performer, you do not have to be a lithe 21-year-old female with prodigious breasts. There are performers who fit that description, but there are plenty of performers who do not."

Whatever the reasons, the stars of Baltimore's neo-burlesque scene are delighted that the city is once again embracing its naughtier side.

"One of the nice things about Baltimore as a city is that it's very open and accepting of different kinds of art and different kinds of creativity," says Kay Sera. "I think that has helped burlesque to thrive."

Adds Trixie Little, "Baltimore audiences have such a great sense of humor. They really always got it."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com.

If you go

"Workin' the Tease: The Art of Baltimore Burlesque" will be on display at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave., from April 22 to May 7.

For a full list of free events go to workinthetease.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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