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Two young men striding down 11th Street stop in front of Rififi and gape at the window. The doorman chuckles and moves out of the way, offering a better view of the window dressings, a tantalizing array of go-go boots, fishnet stockings, fringe belts, jeweled stilettos, tasseled panties, and sequined push-up bras twitching and twinkling in a forest of shapely thighs, fannies, and breasts. The burlesque go-go girls in the window Clams Casino, Peekaboo Pointe, Scarlet Sinclair, and Darlinda Just Darlindasmile and blow kisses at the men, who respond like children who have just discovered a secret door in their own backyard.
"[Burlesque] embraces real women of all shapes and sizes," explains Peter Sands, a longtime East Village resident and a Thursday-night regular at Rififi. "It's not just 90-pound girls with fake breasts. There's imagination and humor and self-expression. It's about connecting with what is sexy in your mind, not just t&a."
As if to emphasize the point, Darlinda Just Darlinda jiggles her satin-enclosed ass, upon which the word "Groove" gleams between trembling threads of purple fringe.
Despite the scantily clad welcoming committee and hip-shaking tunes being teased out of the turntables by DJ Meat Mistress, Rififi's cozy environs have taken on all the charm and comfort of a rush hour commute. Regulars make the best of it, exchanging kisses, redistributing sweat, and balancing full pints on their neighbors' shoulders and, in some cases, cleavage. Happily separated from the throng, burlesque neophytes Ethan Page and Anna Carrigan admire the dancers (especially Peekaboo Pointe) from the comfort of Rififi's padded bench seat. "We ended up here by accident," explains Carrigan, "but we're definitely into it."
They couldn't have stumbled upon a better night. While Little Brooklyn and Creamy Stevens present Starshine Burlesque at Rififi every Thursday, this particular occasion is a benefit for the Exotic World Burlesque Museum and Hall of Fame, and all of New York's finest burly-q artists and admirers have come out to play.
"It's really important to keep the past alive," explains Creamy Stevens. "The women who came before us didn't always get the respect they deserved, but they were incredibly smart and funny and sexy and beautiful. Exotic World preserves that legacy. We want to offer our support and honor the women who kept it all going."
The women are the original "Bazoom Girl" Jennie Lee, who started Exotic World and founded the Exotic Dancers' League of America, and Dixie Evans, the "Marilyn Monroe of burlesque," who became both guardian angel and curator of Lee's legacy when the "biggest bust in burlesque" finally succumbed to breast cancer in 1990.
Situated in Helendale, California, the Exotic World Burlesque Museum and Hall of Fame sits on an abandoned goat farm in the middle of the Mojave Desert a third of the way between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Since Lee's death, the nominal roadside attraction has become the site of the annual Miss Exotic World Pageant. Despite all the promise of sin in the sand, a sign hanging near the poolside stage prohibits drugs, alcohol, and foul language. Still, even during off-season, which is traditionally every week except the first week in June, Exotic World has long provided one of the most strange and fantastic stops along old Route 66.
A few years ago, some friends and I drove under the white Exotic World archway along a long, dusty cul-de-sac to a group of low-lying buildings where we found a sign that read, "Honk three time for a tour." Despite the discouraging silence of the place, we honked. There was a long wait, giving us ample time to absorb the yard, which had become the final resting place of an old wagon and a vintage stoplight that seemed to poke fun at the barren isolation of the place. Then, the door of a nearby trailer sprung open, disgorging groundskeeper Jim Nagel, a gaunt, leathery man who smelled of alcohol and very recently burned mustache hair.
"I'll show you around while Dixie puts on something nice," said the amiable Nagel, leading us to a breezeway where curling publicity photos of decades' worth of dancers hung on the walls, overlooking a mismatched collection of chairs and a patio table.
Inside a storage barn, we were treated to head shots, newspaper articles, biographies, and a seemingly uncut video of the previous year's Miss Exotic World Pageant, which we watched in the sweltering heat, while our thighs fused to the plastic of the folding chairs and flies drank sweat from our temples. Of course, the wait was worth it. When Dixie appeared, in all her seemingly careless starlet glory with twinkling eyes and silvery hair falling across her shoulders, we knew we were in for one of the great tours of our lives.
There are dozens of pasties in the Exotic World collection, pasties that have adhered to the notorious nipples of such burlesque legends as Blaze Starr, Lili St. Cyr, Candy Barr, and Chesty Morgan. And there are the famous feather fans of Sally Rand, Gypsy Rose Lee's travel trunk, Jayne Mansfield's heart-shaped bassinet, and Mae West's cape. There are also jewel-encrusted G-strings, sequined gowns, satin gloves, feathered masks, velvet slippers, custom props, and original programs, as well as the ashes of Sheri Champagne, Mitzi Sinclair, Jennie Lee, and her husband, the "Singing Cowboy," Charles Arroyo. (I have recently learned that Jim Nagel's ashes were added to the collection last September.) Yet as wonderful as the collection might be, few people other than snowbirds and burly-q fanatics make the journey.