Burlesque Oral History Project

Highlighting the Burlesque Oral History Project:

An Interview with Elsa Sjunneson

by: Femme Vivre LaRouge

Burlesque Legends tell their story at The Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender 2011
Burlesque Legends tell their stories at The Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender 2011.

We’ve told you a little bit about the Burlesque Oral History Project before, but now we’d like to tell you more – and appeal to this fabulous community for some much-needed assistance.  Founded by Dr. Lukki, the Burlesque Oral History Project endeavors to preserve the history of burlesque by gathering and archiving memories of yesteryear from the remarkable ladies (and gents) that lived it.  There is a great deal of work to be done and, as you can imagine, very little resources with which to do it.  Therefore, it is my pleasure to introduce to our readers the woman who is taking on the task, burlesque historian Elsa Sjunneson.  I had the pleasure of meeting Elsa last year in Las Vegas at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Reunion, when I volunteered for the Burlesque Oral History Project.  A performer herself (Lydia Ransom), she is the daughter of world-famous Paula the Swedish Housewife, and has grown up in the world of glitter and garters.  Elsa graduated from Sarah Lawrence with a Master’s degree in Women’s History, and wrote her thesis on burlesque and censorship – she is a personal hero of mine.

Elsa Sjunneson
Elsa Sjunneson

Elsa, won’t you please tell us a little bit about yourself, your research, and your passion for burlesque history?  Also, what is your role with the project?

I am a historian working for the Oral History Project. Right now I organize all the interviews, I interview legends, and I make sure that the legends are comfortable with volunteers if volunteers are being used. And after the BHOF season ends, I’ll be editing interviews, and making them into useful documents. I love what I do because this community is family to me, and as a historian who came out of that family, I feel a deep obligation to directly participate in the documentation of our history. Art history, specifically the history of art made by women, has been systematically ignored or put down, and it is a goal of mine to be able to continue to push forward the history of burlesque, and of women doing burlesque in particular, to the minds of other historians.

What are the most pressing goals of the Burlesque Oral History Project at this point?

Right now I really need to get transcriptions happening. The thing is, when you take an interview with a tiny microphone, there has to be a transcript so that future scholars can actually utilize the information. If (knock on wood it doesn’t) the audio dies and we no longer have the original audio file, we’d still have the transcription to create our archive, and to tell our story.

What work is there to be done and how can we help?

If you find a new legend, tell us about it. If you find a new Legend who REALLY wants to talk to us? Seriously. Tell us about it. The more people we interview, the fuller picture that we can paint of our history. Furthermore, if you have old audio equipment, or old video equipment, that you’d like to donate to the program, we really need better equipment than we have. This is a project, again, for after BHOF.

Would you please share some rewarding moments with us from your experience working with the Burlesque Oral History Project?

It depends on what you mean by rewarding. I’ve heard stories in interviews that made my skin crawl, and it was rewarding because I felt like I was getting the true story, and not just the sparkly story. I’ve also had rewarding moments like this one, knowing that there are people in the community who ARE interested in hearing about this work and how to get involved.

After the interviewing, transcribing, filming, etc. has been done, what will happen to all the material that you’ve gathered?  Will it be available to the public as well as archived?

We’re still in the process, but it is my hope that the community will be able to access documents online. The notion of an archive for an international community that doesn’t utilize the internet makes little sense. There might be a fee in order to keep the archive and the museum going. Until I have transcription done, I can’t really begin to know what the archive will look like.

How do you hope to see the program grow in the upcoming years?

I’d like to create an oral history corps. Essentially, you – the reader – can join the oral history corps and take interviews too. The way it would work is that I would present workshops at BurlyCon, BHOF, maybe other cities and programs, and I would train people in basic oral history interview tactics so that we could take more interviews from legends. I’m not ever going to be able to fly from one city to the next just to take interviews, but I CAN create a system by which we’re able to gather more interviews through education and training.

Is there a website or blog where we can follow the progress being made by the Burlesque Oral History Project?

We’ll likely make posts about things through the BHOF blog.

Elsa Sjunneson1Anything else you’d like to add?

I believe in telling other people’s stories. By gathering stories, we create a vibrant and real history for ourselves.  I’m really honored that I get to work with the Legends so closely, and that I have the opportunity for 4 days out of the year to really work as a historian. The rest of the time, I’m doing some historical work and a lot of other stuff, but for four days every year, I really get to do what I set out to with my MA. THAT is what’s rewarding to me.

If you have information to share about a Legend, please contact Elsa at: elsa.s.henry@gmail.com

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