Animal Haven exposes Fans! A Sally Rand Centennial Celebration and Burlesque is Back!
Sally Rand, who revolutionized exotic dance in the 1930's by combining classical ballet with peek-a-boo titillation, knew how to tease the public, both on stage and off. How many times she actually appeared nude in performance (she often wore a shear body stocking or dabs of strategically placed theatre cream) is a secret she took with her upon her passing in 1979. In 2004, the centennial year of her birth, the name "Sally Rand" may not still have the same household familiarity that helped her attract more total ticket buyers than any other live performer of the 20th Century, but her most notable contributions to exotic dancing, the fan dance and the bubble dance, are standards of American popular culture which are still performed by burlesque artists today.
So what does all this have to do with finding homes for abandoned dogs and cats? Can't say I have a quick answer for that one. But if Animal Haven, a non-profit organization that helps find homes for felines and Fidos in the Tri-State area, wants to gather up stars like Bebe Neuworth, Marge Champion, Eileen Fulton, Patrice Munsel, Rex Reed and Julie Wilson to put up a fund-raising performance at Town Hall saluting an American original... well, that's two good causes in one.
Presented in variety show format, Deborah Grace Winer's engaging and informative narrative, read by various performers, traced Rand's life from a farmgirl childhood, to an actress in silent pictures to sudden success (and numerous arrests for public indecency) as the surprise star attraction of the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. Rex Reed spoke authoritatively and passionately about the innocence of Sally Rand's performances when compared with what we see today, and how dancers like her raised exotic dance and burlesque to a higher artistic level.
Indeed the dancers did provide the peak moments of the evening, although most of their performances seemed far too short. Deborah Wingert's solo in the style of Pavlova gave a taste of Rand's early influence. Caitlin Carter demurely floated between feathered fans and Barbara Bruno playfully hid herself behind large latex bubbles in demonstrations her signature dances. The World Famous Pontani Sisters (that's how they're billed), the only guests of the evening who are in fact burlesque performers, briefly gyrated in the belly-dancing style of Little Egypt, who at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair became the first exotic dancer to gain national attention in America. An odd, albeit cute choice was to have a foursome of chorus ladies strip tease out of full-body chicken outfits, prompting Bebe Neuworth to quip as stagehands cleaned up the remains, "When was the last time you saw a woman sweeping up vinyl chicken feet at Town Hall? Usually you have to go to BAM for that." (Later in the evening, Rex Reed remarked "All those bubbles have deflated backstage and just to get out here you have to go through five pounds of latex. I don't want to tell you what it reminded me of.")
Vocal highlights of the show included Julie Wilson, no stranger to the concept of teasing men with feathers, with her saucy rendition of "I'm a Bad, Bad, Bad Woman (but I'm Good, Good Company)" and Karen Mason squeezing all the juices out of her naughty number "History is Made at Night". Providing music throughout the show were The Lounge-O-Leers, who specialize in the kind of hilariously campy cocktail music that inhabited the stereos of many a swingin' 60's bachelor pad.
But to remind us all of the cause we were there to support, Carleton Carpenter and a chorus of glamour girls paraded several adoptable pooches on stage in a Ziegfeld-inspired parody, appropriately named "The Most Beautiful Dogs in the World."
For more information on pet adoption, visit AnimalHavenShelter.org
It's still a bit of a secret to some New York theatre-goers, but burlesque dancing, as adapted for the 21st Century, has been making a steady comeback throughout the city. Not to be confused with strip clubs, today's burlesque is being performed fringe style in little theatres and club spaces several times a week. Mixed gender audiences, in a supportive atmosphere, enjoy the creativity and humor of strip-tease artists of all looks and body types.
For an insider's look at the burlesque resurgence, let's hear from Miss Dirty Martini, the reining Miss Exotic World 2004 who performs classic fan dances in the style of Sally Rand:
It always amazes me when people recognize the word burlesque as meaning something other than "Scores" or "Goldfingers" or the peep shows that used to be a fixture on Broadway. Now Broadway has declared that "Burlesque is Back". Fantastic! The more people hear the word, the more people are likely to see my shows or visit the Burlesque Museum, "Exotic World" in Helendale California run by the incomparable Dixie Evans, the Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque who gives tours and talks about what life was like for her in the 1950's when she performed burlesque in NYC. There are burlesque shows happening this and every Saturday night in New York City at the Slipper Room, The VaVavoom Room at Fez and Le Scandal at the Cutting Room. There are shows every Friday night at Coney Island and every Thursday night at Rififi. Not to mention the troupes all over the country who are in environments that aren't as live theater oriented such as Denver, Boston, Seattle, San Diego and Phoenix.
The burlesque aesthetic has been explored by many performers in New York even when striptease star headliners were still touring at the end of the era. It has been co-opted by drag queens, rock stars, performance artists, and night club promoters. I even heard one of the celebrities on a rerun of Match Game '78 make a five minute detour on the show to make a joke about Sally Rand and her famous fans. Burlesque is a big part of popular culture. It's been under the radar for sometime, and now that my fellow burlesque performers and I have been featured in articles in The New York Times, Esquire, The Post, Newsweek, The Village Voice, Variety, The Washington Post, etc. etc., I suppose Broadway folks have noticed the fun we are having as well.
As my mother said to me when I started performing burlesque around 1996, "Those women (burlesque performers of her day) were not considered nice girls" They were infamous, appearing in Life Magazine but not someone you'd want as your neighbor. For me, burlesque in the 21st century is a celebration of their beauty, ingenuity, and tenacity in a time that women were not allowed to make as much money as men. Sally Rand toured extensively in the 1930's with a troupe of dancers during the depression, often booking, choreographing, and even building the actual stage. Tirza of Coney Island became a plumber to fix her own Wine Bath so she wouldn't have to pay a Union man to do it for her. These women were tough as well as glamorous.
The influence of Sally Rand and the stripteasers of the 1940's and 50's on today's new burlesque performers is the attitude of making a place for yourself in a world of conformity, in a world of commerce. Each new burlesque performer has a different approach. Some, like me are interested in keeping the history of burlesque alive, while others such as Julie Atlas Muz, Tigger and Lady Ace make new work that involves 5 minute mini dramas with no words. The World Famous *Bob* mixes a little of both, Hollywood Glamour and body politics in a small martini glass. All of these acts happen side by side with eclectic MC's such as Murray Hill, the hardest working middle aged man in show biz, or Miss Astrid who berates and adores her audience. How does one categorize Scotty The Blue Bunny, an 8 foot gay daddy with tattoos in a bunny outfit making jokes, singing songs and doing magic tricks and fire eating all in one show and in stripper heels? That's burlesque...and guess what? It's back.
Visit Miss Dirty Martini at missdirtymartini.com