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Burlesque dancer Blaze Starr dies at 83

Blaze Starr, the performer who brought to The Block a playful version of stripping that combined the flair of an entertainer and the attitude of a satirist, died Monday at a hospital in Williamson, W.Va. She was 83.

Ms. Starr, who became a successful businesswoman as owner of the 2 O'Clock Club on East Baltimore Street, was so unthreatening to local morals that she appeared in an advertising campaign for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.

"She was always a lady who had a flair for show business," said Thomas J. D'Alesandro III, who was mayor when Ms. Starr performed on The Block. "She had a lot of kindness in her heart, especially for veterans.

"We would go down to the 2 O'Clock Club, and I would give her the key to the city. I caught a lot of hell for it but it was a good time."

Born Fannie Belle Fleming in rural West Virginia, Ms. Starr gained national attention in 1954, when Esquire published the story "B-Belles of Burlesque: You Get Strip Tease With Your Beer in Baltimore."

She was famed on the runway for blowing rose petals gently across her chest. It was a rite of passage for fraternity pledges to find out her bra size (38DD — also the title of a song she wrote).

"I did a comedy act," she told The Evening Sun in 1989. "I never tried to be sexy. I always wore a mink coat and said, 'Phew! It's warm in here.'"

One chapter of Ms. Starr's life — her late-1950s affair with Louisiana Gov. Earl Long — made it to the screen in the 1989 film "Blaze." She was played by Lolita Davidovich; Paul Newman was Governor Long. Ms. Starr had a cameo in the movie.

Ms. Starr was selling jewelry at a Carroll County mall when writer-director Ron Shelton came calling.

"We drove around to the old sites and went to The Block, even the 2 O'Clock Club, which she hadn't been to in a while," he recalled Monday. "We went in there and sat, had drinks with a couple people.

"All of a sudden, the announcer recognized her, and there was a standing ovation. It was like Joe DiMaggio had come back. It was great.

"She was sort of ahead of the curve in terms of women's empowerment, and yet she made her living taking her clothes off and inspiring men — which was a wonderful contradiction that she would never have seen as a contradiction."

Mr. Shelton said he was awed by her stories — many of which she had told in the 1974 book, "Blaze Starr: My Life."

"Every chapter was kind of another glorious scandal in her life," Mr. Shelton said. "I loved it."

Mr. Shelton said Ms. Starr never came across as bitter or jaded.

"I felt like she fell in love every Friday night and had her heart broken every Monday morning. And yet she never had any ill will for the savory or unsavory guys she was hanging out with. She had a great view of the world," he said.

Her sister, Cathy Fleming of Wilsondale, W.Va., said Monday that Ms. Starr had "a severe heart condition," and she had been concerned about the health of her pet dog.

"We think that contributed to her death," Ms. Fleming said. She said the dog, a stray Ms. Starr took into her home, died hours after its mistress.

In her day, Ms. Starr was perhaps Baltimore's best-known figure.

During the height of her popularity, she led parades, cheered for the Orioles, Colts and Bullets, presided over bicycle races and gave disabled Vietnam veterans a free show at her club. The American Legion gave her awards for humanitarianism.

"For a while, she was the only famous person Baltimore had," director John Waters said. "I never actually met her. But Divine and I went down and saw her show. She had such dedicated fans.

"We loved her act. She helped form myself and Divine."

She was also a legend within her industry. One of her G-strings was enshrined at the Exotic World ranch and museum in Helendale, Calif.

Margo Christie, author of "These Days: A Tale of Nostalgia on the Burlesque Strip," said she was "well loved by most."

"People talked about her generosity. She liked to help people out," said Ms. Christie, a former stripper on The Block. "She was such a big presence, it seemed like she was still around in the late 1970s, after she had left. Actually, people never forgot her."

Ms. Starr grew up in Twelve Pole Creek, W.Va., one of 11 children. In 1947, when she was 15, she boarded a bus for Washington and went to work as a waitress in a doughnut shop at the Mayflower Hotel.

She was discovered there by a local promoter and began stripping at a club near Quantico, Va., and its massive Marine Corps base.

She made her debut on the runway of the 2 O'Clock Club in 1950.

"She was smart and she knew how to conduct herself," said J. Stanley Heuisler, former Baltimore Magazine editor. "She took stripping and turned it into a satire. She was equally appealing to people in Roland Park as she was to her clientele from Highlandtown. They all loved her.

"Today it's hard to imagine that the sleaze-filled place, The Block, was once actually a real nightclub district. She was the first successful businesswoman who became an iconographic symbol of Baltimore."

Ms. Starr told The Baltimore Sun in 2010 that she owned the building that housed the 2 O'Clock Club. She said she had paid it off 40 years earlier.

At other times, Ms. Starr spoke of the days when stripping was an art form and men took their dates to see her shows on The Block.

The Sun said "she escorted generations of Baltimoreans into puberty and beyond."

"Blaze has made the most of her gifts in a refreshing, playfully carnal, and generous way," The Evening Sun reported in 1989. "When she flexes her right breast, to demonstrate a popular move she called 'the thing,' it's as if she trained a cuddly pet to do a cute trick."

When the kind of gentle burlesque she performed fell out of favor, Ms. Starr took a stand.

"By the 1970s, pornography had caught up with The Block, where performers were totally in the nude," she said in 2010. "I wasn't going to do that, and I certainly wasn't about to let my girls do it. After all, I'm religious, and if my mother knew I was performing in the nude, she would have had a heart attack."

She stopped performing and closed the club.

"Honey, I loved it," she told The Sun in 2010. " But everything has its season."

Ms. Starr lived for many years in Carroll County, where she designed and made jewelry. She signed all the gift boxes that carried her gems.

She later moved home to an 80-acre family compound to care for her mother and a brother, both of whom have since died.

Plans for a funeral are incomplete.

In addition to her sister, Ms. Starr is survived by a brother, John P. Fleming; and four other sisters, Berta Gail Fleming, Judy Fleming, June Fleming and Debbie Fleming.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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