By: Shoshana Portnoy
Burlesque performers, instructors and industry figures worldwide team up for Dixie Evans Week! Dixie Evans, founder of The Miss Exotic World Competition and Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend has dedicated her life to preserving the legacy of Burlesque. We thought it high time we as a community gave back to the woman who has given so much to us! During her birth week, August 26-September 1, shows and classes will be going on worldwide with proceeds going to Dixie’s continued care and health costs. Want to join in the festivities? Producers and Troupes: To host a benefit for Dixie in your home town please request a Producer Participation Application from Producer Angie Pontani at Angie [at]PontaniSisters [dot]com. Instructors, to teach for Dixie’s benefit, please contact Teacher Coordinator Jo “Boobs” Weldon at NewYorkSchoolofBurlesque[at]gmail [dot]com. To follow the fun, please visit Facebook.com/DixieEvansWeek
Dixie in her own words:
You might not realize this, but there was a time before television, before the Internet, before cell phones, and even before VCRs and DVDs. Yes, once upon a time, when people wanted to be entertained, they went out.
Back in the day, there wasn’t much affordable entertainment for working-class folks, but every major city in the United States had at least two or three burlesque theaters. And burlesque was unbelievably elegant with white cloths on all the tables and wonderful brass bands, featuring the best musicians in the world. You’d see hilarious comics sharing the stage with stunning dancers with amazing, elaborate costumes, and props, and chorus lines that would take your breath away.
I’ll never forget my first burlesque show: I was seventeen, and my boyfriend took me to see Tempest Storm. That titian hair! Those curves! Tempest was a goddess, and she had the entire audience in the palm of her hand. I was bowled over by the glamour and sexiness of it all, and knew right then and there what I wanted to do with my life.
I’d always been considered pretty, and worked as a figure model in my teens, posing for “girlie magazines.” My father died when I was very young, leaving us with no means of financial support, and growing up with a single mother in the Great Depression I was taught to take advantage of every opportunity that came my way. Fortunately, while I was modeling, I landed a job at a theater, where another girl and I danced on stage to open the curtains. Somehow, I got noticed, and before I knew it I was onstage as a solo burlesque dancer.
Although I was never a terribly good singer or a classically trained dancer, I was enthusiastic and ambitious. Originally billed as “The Southern Comfort Girl,” after a year or two of traveling the circuit I met the legendary producer, Harold Minsky in New York. Minsky took one look at me, and said: “You’re a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe. That’s how we’ll bill you.” Suddenly, I had a top gimmick, and was booked two years in advance. I adored Marilyn and always tried to honor her in my performances.
In those days, audiences didn’t just pay to see a woman take her clothes off, they came to burlesque shows to be entertained. Every night, we performed for couples, servicemen, and women, people of all walks and backgrounds, often with only one thing in common: they had come to forget the drama of their “real” lives, and lose themselves in a glittering fantasy of live music, beautiful girls, and slapstick comedy. And we dancers constantly competed with one another to give them the best show possible. It was always a struggle to stay on top, but the competition kept us in peak form.
Like others who dedicate their lives to their work, success came with a high personal price for many burlesque performers, myself included. My mother was a religious woman, who never truly accepted what I did for a living, and constant touring made settling down to have a family of my own impossible. I did marry once, to a prizefighter, for thirteen years, but when I started getting jobs in Paris and London, it put too much pressure on our relationship, and we ended up getting divorced. But burlesque was more than my profession, it was my passion, and I chose to follow the road wherever it took me.
By the time Marilyn Monroe died in 1962, burlesque as I had known it had changed. Television had arrived, and as it infiltrated more and more homes, fewer and fewer people were going out to see live shows. Dancers and musicians still performed, but theater managers were cutting back on club costs, and the whole scene began to lose its gilded glory. For a theater to hold on to the traditions—the bands, the big production numbers—and still make payroll and rent, while fewer and fewer people were coming out to fill seats, well, there was just no way. So the theaters closed, and burlesque just sort of faded away.
In its place, increasingly explicit performances began to replace exotic dance in the remaining clubs, and the suggestive, yet comparatively wholesome, legacy of burlesque was soon eclipsed by “amateur nights,” all-nude reviews, and live sex acts on stage. Rather than “more strip, less tease,” in most cases it had become all strip, and no tease.
In the years since I formally hung up my pasties, I’ve heard much about burlesque’s demise at different points in history, and due to various, disparate causes I’ve also heard much about its rebirth. Every few years, it seems, some new group “discovers” burlesque, and the magical alchemy of glitter, glamour, and guts transforms an ugly ducklings into a sensational swan.
Though I’m thrilled to see the media proclaim, “Burlesque is Back!” and the world at large catch up with those of us who’ve known all along how special it is—as a historical era, a unique American art form, and a remarkable means for self expression through music, dance, fashion, and beyond—there appears to be a common misconception that burlesque encompasses the entirety of live, adult entertainment, including forms that, however artful, athletic, or beautiful they may be in their own right, have little to do with burlesque’s historical origins.
That said, I’m thrilled to see that burlesque as I know it is becoming popular again. I get such a kick out of the young performers who care enough about the art that they want to know about its past. These young girls, the ones who come and perform in the Miss Exotic World Pageant every June, the ones who go to Tease-O-Rama, and organize their own troupes and shows all across the country, may not know firsthand what the old days were all about, but they do have the fire, drive, and ambition to make it their own. This is the same fire that I felt burning in my heart when I first saw Tempest take the stage as a girl. This is the same fire that drove Jennie Lee to dream of Exotic World. And this is the same fire that keeps me going every day to help preserve that dream for future generations.
The future of burlesque may not look exactly like its past, but whenever a carload of wide-eyed young people pulls up to Exotic World, or a wild-looking, green-haired girl with tattoos and a nose ring asks my opinion on the finer points of bump-and -grind, I feel more confident than ever that the legacy of classic—and classy—burlesque is in good hands.
Learn more about Dixie here: