New Orleans Burlesque, Then and Now

New Orleans Burlesque Festival 2009 Flyer.  Courtesy of Rick Delaup
New Orleans Burlesque Festival 2009 Flyer. Courtesy of Rick Delaup

Story: Divertida Devotchka, Photos: Courtesy of Rick Delaup

Some of the biggest acts in burlesque will be appearing September 11 through the 13 at the New Orleans Burlesque Festival. The festival is the first of its kind in New Orleans since 2001’s Tease-O-Rama, and it’s shaping up to be one of the biggest burlesque happenings of the year. The event is boasting three nights of burlesque shows with live jazz, workshops with burlesque superstars such as Michelle L’amour, Jo Weldon and Catherine D’Lish, and panel discussions with New Orleans burlesque legends Kitty West (Evangeline the Oyster Girl), Wild Cherry, Tee Tee Red and Rita Alexander.

New Orleans burlesque has a very rich history, and I was lucky enough to discuss all of the details with Rick Delaup, the founder of the New Orleans Burlesque Fest and producer and creator of Bustout Burlesque. Delaup has almost 15 years of New Orleans burly-q research under his belt, making him a more than qualified source on the topic.

According to Delaup, the glory days of Bourbon Street burlesque were from the mid-forties to the mid-sixties. “The mid to late 1940s is when you started hearing about big burlesque stars like Stormy, Lilly Christine the Cat Girl and Evangeline the Oyster Girl,” said Delaup. “In the forties there were a lot of dancers who would come in and strip in the style of that time. In the late forties and in the fifties, they got more creative, using props like big oyster shells and champagne glasses. Things got even more imaginative, with more production value and more gimmicky shows.”

Evangeline the Oyster Girl headlined at the Casino Royale on Bourbon Street, rising out of a giant oyster shell and performing a dance with a massive pearl. She eventually dyed her hair green to make it look more like seaweed for her act.

Aside from the grandiosity of the performers, the Bourbon Street venues themselves were apparently quite a sight to behold. The most well-known locales were The Sho Bar, the 500 Club and the Casino Royale, which had raised stages with theatrical-style lighting and balconies from which spectators could watch the shows.

“The 500 Club was on the corner, so they had a great location,” said Delaup. “They could advertise from both sides and they big, tall windows with nearly life-size photos of the dancers in the windows and lots of neon lights. The outsides and entrances of the clubs were very attractive to crowds.”

Of course no discussion of New Orleans burlesque would be complete without mention of the music for which the city is most famous – jazz. According to Delaup, live jazz and burlesque were hand in hand all throughout the Bourbon Street hey-day.

Linda Brigette inside 500 club, early 1960s. Courtesy of Rick Delaup
Linda Brigette inside 500 club, early 1960s. Courtesy of Rick Delaup

“All the burlesque venues had live jazz. Louis Prima’s brother Leon Prima owned the 500 Club for a long time, and quite a few jazz musicians got started in strip clubs,” said Delaup. Legendary jazz saxophonist Sam Butera, who just recently passed away this June, got his start in Bourbon Street strip clubs when he was just a teen.
New Orleans may have a history of being a playground of debaucherous delights, but its image has changed quite a bit over the years. “It was the burlesque clubs, jazz clubs and shows that made Bourbon Street famous,” said Delaup. “Of course, there’s no semblance of that now; Bourbon Street is very different now.”

The glory days of Bourbon Street burlesque may have faded, but Delaup decided that a throwback to the old days was in order, which is why he created Bustout Burlesque in early 2005. The group consists of an average of 6 to 7 dancers (one of them being this month’s stunning spotlight burlesque performer, Perle Noire).

“We’re trying to give the audience the experience of what New Orleans nightlife was like 50 years ago while still being in the here and now,” said Delaup. “Some people who have attended our shows say they feel as though they’ve stepped back in time.”

Delaup says they’re heralded as the only authentic 1950’s style show because their entire hour and a half long show is performed with the accompaniment of a live band, which is something he decided to include in the New Orleans Burlesque Fest as well.

“It’s going to be a real challenge because all of the performers competing for the Queen of Burlesque title will be performing to live music, and some of them may or may not be accustomed to that,” Delaup said. “It will be very interesting to see how everyone does.”
In addition to the live musical accompaniment, Bustout is pretty serious about authenticity. There’s no neo-burlesque or visible tattoos in their shows. Delaup says there’s nothing wrong with either, but that their goal is to have acts that really look as though they could have come from the era.

“Our acts are very different from the average four minute strip act. They average seven to ten minutes per act, which is much more in line with the classic acts, which some could be as long as 20 minutes,” said Delaup. “A four minute song simply isn’t enough to adequately tease the crowd.”

The caliber of Bustout’s show is pretty astounding considering what they’ve been through during their existence. They premiered in March 2005 and just as things started picking up for them, Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005 and laid waste to all of their hard work.

“The show was destroyed,” Delaup said. “We lost all the costumes. The props were ruined. Performers scattered all over the country. Some returned. Some didn’t. It took half a year to restart everything from scratch.”

As soon as they were able to reassemble, they hit the ground running. Bustout Burlesque started back in March of 2006 performed every Saturday night for nine months at Tipitina’s in the French Quarter. They did runs at a cabaret and on Bourbon Street, but they’ve been performing monthly at the House of Blues for the past two and a half years.

As far as the city’s recovery from Katrina, Delaup says there’s still a lot to be done.

Outside of 500 club, early 1960s.  Courtesy of Rick Delaup
Outside of 500 club, early 1960s. Courtesy of Rick Delaup

“New Orleans is still trying to bounce back from the storm. A lot of tourists probably wouldn’t notice because the French Quarter is rebuilt, so you don’t really see any damage in those areas,” Delaup said. “But we’re definitely not fully recovered.”

Delaup and his associates have been planning the New Orleans Burlesque Festival since October of last year, and we here at Pin Curl are quite confident that his efforts will pay off. If you haven’t already snagged tickets, you better do so quickly, because you’re not going to want to miss the opportunity to see who is crowned the new Queen of Burlesque in one of the most historically risqué cities in the country!

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