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Blaze Starr and burlesque's 'big to-do'

When first I heard the name Blaze Starr, it was from an old stripper named Betty, who tended bar at the Stage Door on The Block in the late 1970s.

"Honey," she said, "you should've seen Blaze. She was really something"

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With a wave of his hand, bar manager Milton Carter demurred. "Fanfare," he said. "Had to make a big to-do out of everything."

"A big to-do" — in its essence, that's burlesque. But in 1978 when, as a high school dropout from a broken home I landed on The Block in Baltimore, I didn't know burlesque from a brassiere. I'd seen the word in drugstore paperbacks, heard it in old movies. But it wasn't until I heard exchanges like this one between Betty and Milton day-in and day-out at the Stage Door bar that I began to understand its meaning.

By then, Betty was the day barmaid at the Stage Door; as a stripper, she had been a contemporary of Blaze Starr, who died this month at the age of 83, albeit one of the lesser-known. A grandfatherly figure, Milton had been on The Block since the 1930s. He had opinions a-plenty, often shared in grunts and whispers. He routinely pulled me aside to warn me against drug-addicted dancers and philandering bartenders. For a time, he succeeded in keeping me away from what was "around the corner."

The Stage Door was a quiet place on Commerce Street, behind the old Gayety Theater; the real Block was the 400-block of East Baltimore Street, where Betty had danced and where, for more than two decades, Blaze Starr owned the famous 2 O'clock Club.

I adored Betty — she was the trash-talking big sister who schooled me in ways my real big sister didn't. It was Betty who taught me that burlesque was a classed-up version of what I did every day — that is, strip out of lingerie while dancing for audiences of mostly ornery men. In the 1970s, The Block was hardly "really something." Prostitution was everywhere; coin-operated peep shows shared space with the "big to-do" that was once the glitzy Block. With no education or job skills, I was hanging in there. What often made it worthwhile was hearing what people like Betty and Milton had to say about people like Blaze Starr.

Betty: "She wore gowns and boas, hon; only the best."

Milton: "When she walked into a joint, everyone watched."

One day, Betty noticed my stockings and garters and taught me, in words, how to strip out of them. Those in the audience who remembered Blaze Starr were duly impressed. In time, I developed a small, loyal clientele who liked Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee, classic stripping and fresh young dancers who loved old Block stories.

Most Block folks held Blaze Starr in a higher regard than Milton did. I later learned that the "big to-do" Blaze made of things was sometimes beneficial, like the time she transported several busloads of wounded vets from Walter Reed Army Hospital to be entertained on The Block at her expense.

As for philandering men, Milton was on the money. When I finally drifted around the corner, it was in chase of the smooth-talking owner of one of the Block's prominent clubs. He had more women than he knew what to do with.

While waiting for him one night in the Midway Bar, I noticed a collection of old photographs lining the walls. In retrospect, it seems Betty's striptease coaching would've prepared me to know these were publicity shots of yesteryear's burlesque performers, but I initially mistook them for old movie stills, so satiny-soft and silvery they were.

Blaze Starr, of course, was prominently featured in the photos at the Midway. In one photo, she posed on a dressing table chair in what appeared to be just evening gloves. What stood out was the way she seemed to show it all while really showing nothing.

My paramour didn't show up that night. I didn't give up the chase. I was, after all, a teenager — getting told to stay away from boys only made them more desirable. I did walk away from the Midway with a resolve to keep the glamour in my act, though. It didn't always work with audiences that wanted to see it all, but Milton didn't call it "fanfare," and it kept my years on The Block interesting.

Margo Christie is a member of Maryland Writers' Association and author of "These Days, A Tale of Nostalgia on a Burlesque Strip" (Createspace, 2013). She can be reached at http://www.margochristienovelist.com.

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