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."
*BOB* could just as easily be talking about herself. At Fez, she slips out of a shiny gold lamé gown and then makes a martini using her breastswhich, it should be noted, are considerable. (They are an F cup.) She tops off the confection by producing two olives from the depths of her underpants, before offering it to a red-faced customer in the front row.
The buxom 5-10 blonde with the kewpie doll face, Marilyn Monroe 'do, and winning Vaseline smile got her start seven years ago as a "female-female impersonator" in the gay nightclub scene, where she was mentored by local drag queen Jackie Beat. One of her foremost acts was break dancing in high heels. "I accidentally started doing burlesque because my costumes got fancier and were coming off to music in a conceptual way," she says.
She thought she was alone until she met Linda Martini, a/k/a Dirty Martini. In the tight-knit burlesque community, Dirty Martini is considered one of the best: She conjures an overdone '50s housewife with a blonde flip, heavy blue eye makeup, and sassy yet naive smile. Martini has a classic burlesque body, too. Before Ziegfield Follies made the slender figure popular, the women were much more curvy than the ones featured in today's laddie mags. "I realized the difference in body types of the women and what a statement that makes in this day and age, when you can only be Pam Anderson without getting ridiculed," says Martini.
A modern dancer and actor, Martini's routines are creative and often intricate. For a Valentine's Day skit, she played a distraught woman stood up on a date who ends the night by committing suicide. For the climax, Dirty tore off her red dress, her body sheathed in Saran Wrap, and with Julie London's "Cry Me a River" playing, she cut herself out of the plastic. The scarlet slip underneath transformed into "blood" as she fell to the floor in undies and pasties.
"Classic burlesque is the definition of Dirty Martini," says *BOB*. "The spirit that Dirty creates onstage, there's a spookiness to it, it's so real."
Burlesque's first home was New York. In 1868, Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes invaded New York City and subsequently took the country by storm. They performed travestiessend-ups of popular plays with the women taking all the male parts. They were funny and bold, inverting female stereotypes and threatening the social order. The Bowery, the Lower East Side, and Broadway were the epicenters for burlesque, and still are. Back then burlesque wasn't about the striptease, but by the time Mayor LaGuardia was in office during the 1930s, it was viewed as obscene. Generally speaking, the more clothes shed, the lower the class.
The new burlesque revival started with the early-'90s Blue Angel parties, held in Tribeca. Founder Uta Hanna wanted the Blue Angel to be a comfort zone for strippers. "They actually had lap dances," says Bonnie Dunn, who took over the show a little over a year ago and renamed it Le Scandal. Over the years it evolved to include variety performerssword swallowers, magicians, and belly dancersas well as girls taking off their clothes in kitschy repose. Dunn, who includes the Sally Rand Fan Dance and other traditional burlesque motifs in her act, points to New York's performance-art-rich history as just one of the many reasons why burlesque and its cousinsvaudeville and varietyhave thrived here.
Sheer energy: the Pontani Sisters' gorgeous gams
(photo: Amy Pierce)
At the Va Va Voom Room, Kate Valentine holds court as Miss Astrid, a faux German dominatrix with a severe eye patch and black pageboy hairdo, who taunts the audience: "Only five more minutes until nudity!" A parade of performers take the stage: a female impersonator wearing a slinky black cocktail gown melodramatically plays the theremin; a pretentious wannabe Parisian does a dance mocking pretentious Parisians; and the girlsJulie Atlas Muz, *BOB*, and Dirty Martiniserve as buffers in the buff.
The five-year-old show started in L.A. and is the closest to the original burlesque model, putting comedians, singers, and striptease performers together on one stage. Burlesque was called "the poor man's vaudeville," and it's still not entirely clear how the two forms differ. Giunta, of the New York Museum of Sex, says even she's confused. "It's mostly a class issue. Vaudeville was perceived as highbrow." And even though the Ziegfield Follies at the turn of the 20th century featured topless showgirls, they were considered classy because the women wore fancy, elaborate costumes.
Today, class distinctions still exist. "Downtown is low-end titillation," says Show's Norman Gosney. "I'm high-end titillation.
"By downtown, I mean when you've got some fat girl who takes off her clothes and shows her stuff. Number one, you don't take off all your clothes. That's stripping. I operate by true burlesque rules. You never see real t&a in my shows, but they are very sexy," he says.
Gosney, who hails from Bristol, England, imagines himself as a burlesque puristhe peppers his conversation with "darling"s and recalls vintage burlesque in at least one way. "I'm a straight male and I'm also the creative director. Some of the people who put these shows on are gay and I think you can see the difference in my work," he chuckles. "It's not that I want to be one of those women, but I want to shag them, and you can see that in my act."
Many of today's performers have a background in theater or dance or acting. Most are college educated. Nearly all of them make their own costumes, book their own shows, and direct their own skits. And Gosney's Show excluded, the new burlesque doesn't have the bitter aftertaste of a man parading women out onstage for male pleasure, which leads to the inevitable painting of the new burlesque as a post-feminist movement.
"It has a lot to do with where we are in our feminist history and the fact that we couldn't explore sexual nature and poke fun at it in the years before," says Dirty Martini. "Now it's so much easier to be strong and sexual."
Not everyone thinks so. Angie Pontani recalls a corporate event where the Pontanis were asked to leave. Women in the audience were upset and thought they were "pushing back feminist movements. We were floored. We're an all-woman operation," she says. "They asked if we could tone down our dances. We said, 'We could mime.' "
Today's burlesquers bust their behinds to put on shows, but most don't make a decent living. Sometimes they bring in $50 a night; if they work every night, they can make $500 a week. Or sometimes they come home with empty pockets and full hearts. In contrast, old burlesque stars like Tempest Storm were paid handsomely for less-skilled performancessometimes $1500 a week, which is more along the lines of what a garden-variety stripper makes.
Va va voom: Dirty Martini
(photo: Amy Pierce)
"You do it because you love it," says Kate Valentine.
If there's one troupe that's figured out the key to unlocking the burlesque treasure chest, it's the Pontani Sisters. Classically trained dancers, Angie, Tara, and Helen started performing at Windows on the World a few years ago. Besides being glamorous Italian stallions, the Pontanis are a savvy bunch, expanding their empire to such an extent that they now live up to the "World Famous" part of their name.
They've traveled the country six times, appeared numerous times on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, and toured with surf band Los Straitjackets. They've also made a workout video, Go Go Robics, and teach classes at the Soho Crunch gym.
"It's more time consuming than any other job I've had in my entire life," says Angie Pontani.
A job that's allowed them a firsthand look at the country's budding burlesque scenesstrong enough to accommodate an annual roving convention called Tease-O-Rama, and the Miss Exotic World Pageant.
Come May 24, the Pontanis are co-producing, with Thirsty Girl Productions, the first-ever New York Burlesque Festival, to be held at the Knitting Factory. Gotham audiences will see how the local lovelies measure up. Surprisewe're gritty. "Aesthetically, the L.A. girls are so over-the-top. They are top-shelf, beautiful classic burlesque," says *BOB*. But, she adds with a wink and a smile, "New York girls are making their own shelf." Burlesque has come home again.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.