Exposing the world’s most famous burlesque dancer

January 28, 2011

Download Story
(Flickr/cosmorochester)
Burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee pioneered the art of the striptease during the 1930s.

Burlesque dancers from around the region converge in Minneapolis this weekend for the Best of Midwest Burlesk Festival. Chicago performers Ray Gunn, Rhonda Vous and Siren Jinx are among those shaking, shimmy-ing, twirling and teasing their way to glory.

In honor of the event we’re taking a look back at the woman who was once saluted by Eleanor Roosevelt with a bawdy, “May your bare ass always be shining!” This would be the world’s most famous burlesque dancer, the one who pioneered the art form back in its early days - Gypsy Rose Lee.
 
Lee made a name for herself during the Depression, but she isn’t just a dusty historical figure to the men and women gathering this weekend. Local burlesque expert Franky Vivid said in an email that Gypsy Rose Lee is “pretty much universally adored by the modern dancers. In fact, she's regarded as probably the top star in our community. Until Gypsy, there really had not been a mainstream burlesque star.”
 
Vivid runs Chicago-based Studio L’amour with wife Michelle L’amour, a renowned dancer who won burlesque’s top prize in 2005. In addition to running their own troupe the couple offers classes and has taught thousands of women and many men the art of the striptease.  He argues that you can still see Lee’s influence in the work of contemporary burlesque dancers like his wife. “A good thing that Gypsy left us is that intelligence and cleverness are transcendently sexy,” says Vivid. “Another world famous performer, Trixie Little, said recently in an interview that Michelle had the ability to perform the dirtiest stripper moves and make you feel smart for watching.”
 
On the other hand, Vivid argues, Lee helped spark the notion that each dancer must have some trick or gimmick to distinguish her from the stripping masses. This idea was put into song in the musical Gypsy, a fictionalized adaptation of Lee’s 1957 memoir. The 1962 film version starred Natalie Wood as ingénue Louise whose infamously aggressive stage mother “Mama Rose,” played by Bette Midler in the 1993 version, pushes her to become burlesque dancer Gypsy despite her shyness and hesitation. As Louise is nudged into her first routine, a gaggle of dancers backstage rattle off their own gimmicks, which include playing a bugle, wearing Christmas tree lights and flapping butterfly wings. “I often find myself saying, ‘Here's a gimmick - be talented!’ Vivid recounts, explaining why he hates this mentality. “There's got to be some cake under the icing.”
 
In real life “Mama Rose” was an abusive, calculating figure who blackmailed her daughter more than once, and Lee was a one-time prostitute who ran with the mob. “A lot of the girls today think that the old burlesque was all glamorous and cheeky,” says Vivid. “But the truth is that much of it was dodgy, talentless and often criminal.”
 
That secret history is chronicled in Karen Abbott’s new biography of Lee, American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare. Abbott is also known for Sin in the Second City, her historical exploration of an infamous Chicago brothel. She spoke to an audience at The Newberry Library just after what would have been Lee’s 100th birthday, and shared some delicious tidbits from Lee’s life story. Check out the audio excerpt of Abbott’s talk above, and if you can’t make it to Minneapolis this weekend, you can check out Michelle L’amour’s upcoming Valentine’s Day performances or the Windy City Burlesque Festival in March.
 
Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Karen Abbott spoke to an audience at The Newberry Library earlier this month. Click here to hear her talk in its entirety, and click here to subscribe to the Dynamic Range podcast.