By Albert Samaha
By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
By Alison Flowers
By Albert Samaha
By Jesse Jarnow
By Eric Tsetsi
The woman onstage is nearly naked. A ravishing redhead with a Rita Hayworth hairdo, she has porcelain-perfect skin and a lithe body. She takes her sweet time putting on sheer black thigh-high stockingsgently caressing one lean leg, then the next. She flicks her toes and stands up as she fastens garters in place, and with a sly smile she slowly pulls on a luscious burgundy-and-black corset over which her glittery pasties twinkle in the spotlight. The strains of Gloria Wood's "Oh Honey" play, and the audience at the midtown Palace of Variety Theatre sits rapt as she laces up the garment. With each tug, the music releases an ecstatic groan and her face contorts with pain and pleasure.
The entertainer, who goes by the name MsTickle, is performing a reverse strip in the time-honored tradition of burlesque, an art form that began in the late 1800s and faded by the mid 20th century. She is part of a burgeoning burlesque revival, which, not surprisingly, began in New York in the early '90s and has now reached critical mass. On any given night, there are countless burlesque shows around town: at Fez every Saturday, Kate Valentine's Va Va Voom Room packs 'em in; at the Lower East Side's Slipper Room, burlesquers like Dirty Martini and the World Famous *BOB* teeter about wearing titty tassels; at Chez Es Saada, an East Village Middle Eastern restaurant, former members of the infamous nightclub crew Jackie 60 host Cabaret Magique; at Marion's Continental every Monday, the World Famous Pontani Sisters kick their heels up in the narrow aisles while customers eat dinner; and in midtown, just a few blocks from where the Ziegfield Follies once lived, Show, a burlesque and cabaret venue that opened last month, features performers like the Rouge and Le Scandal troupes.
As the country gears up for war, there's an eerie similarity to the World War II era. More than one person wonders if people just need a little escapism amid increasingly dire straits. "Going to a burlesque night is a great way not to think about troubles," says Lady Ace, a member of the Bombshell! Girls, a burlesque troupe that performs the Slipper Room on March 23.
History confirms this. "Burlesque thrives on depression," wrote Irving Zeidman in his 1967 book The American Burlesque Show. "Prettier girls are obtainable at burlesque wages, and the unemployed or indigent male reverts to simple and less expensive forms of entertainment."
The same is true for down-and-out downtown residents who frequent affordable venues like the Slipper Room or the Marquee, the sister performance space to Marion's Continental, where they can watch divas like Darling Star, Harvest Moon, and the bodacious troupe the Glamazons tickle the ribs while titillating the libido.
"I think people can't deal with life," says Murray Hill, a drag performer who frequently hosts burlesque shows. "You know how miserable it is right now? Nobody has jobs. Nobody has money. People are just going out, having a good time, getting loaded, and seeing shows. People want to forget about reality," says the bubbly entertainer over drinks at Marion's. "It's pure shtick. It's almost like a drug. It's all part of entertainment as denial. It's part of the economy; it's part of living in New York. It's escape. Escape can be $10 at a movie, and you don't get a drink." With burlesque, says Murray, "you can spend $5 and drink and smoke all night."
Post-Giuliani New York is so squeaky clean that burlesque is one of the only available sexual outlets. "We're living in a police state. You can't go to strip clubs and topless bars. It's so regulated. Times Square is Disneyland," says the Slipper Room's Camille Habacker. "It's as sexy as you can get without breaking the law."
Nostalgia, it seems, is also in high demand. Even though burlesque was frequently dismissed in its heyday for being lewd, today the "kute kuties" hark back to a more innocent time. "Smart people under 30 know they've missed something entirely and are interested in seeing something not coming through a monitor," says Show's owner, Norman Gosney.
Cat on a hot tin roof: MsTickle positively purrs
(photo: Anna Curtis)
But the new burlesque isn't simply a throwback. "The thing that's interesting about the revival is that so many people doing it are very, very aware of the history and yet are reinventing the form," says Kimb Giunta, an assistant curator at the New York Museum of Sex.
Today's performers are edgier than their predecessors. They twist gender roles in their skits: MsTickle's belly-dance strip ends by revealing a merkinfake pubic hairin her crotch area as well as a full beard, while Lady Ace portrays a stressed-out career woman who lets loose to Van Halen's "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love."
"We are not so concerned with duplicating [classic burlesque]," says Lady Ace. "We do things with something sick and twisted thrown in."
Julie Atlas Muz, who many consider to be the most conceptual of the new guard, has a routine where she breaks free of rope à la Houdini while stripping down to pasties and not much else. "Julie is the cutting edge of burlesque, period," says *BOB*. "A lot of girls are doing completely new things."