Famous Burlesque Divas
Ever wonder about the burlesque divas of yesteryear – their costumes and dances that made them famous around the world?
In the 1930s, the Minsky Burlesque circuit of New York began to produce many individual stars. One which is well-recognized from this era, is Gypsy Rose Lee. Her costume was absolutely essential to her act, with layers of satin and lace that she would slowly strip away. Historic photographs show her festooned in feather capes and feather boas leaving behind a corset, suspender belts or stockings by the end of her show. Lest someone try and label Gypsy a “stripper”, she was also an author, playwright, actress, marathon dancer, and her memoir was eventually made into the stage musical and film Gyspy.
Back in the 1940s and 50s, the home to striptease and burlesque was New Orleans on Bourbon Street. Evangeline aka, Kitty West, the Oyster Girl headlined the Bourbon Street clubs during this time. One of six children, the daughter of a minister and a second cousin to Elvis Presley’s father (Vernon), she opted for living her life according to her own destiny, like so many of us women do, and moved to New Orleans. She became a stripper and headlined for the Casino Royale as the Oyster Girl, in which she rose out of a giant oyster shell and danced with an over-sized pearl with little or no clothing, leaving nothing to the imagination. Even today, she is working to keep the Burlesque culture alive in New Orleans and find understudies to become the new Oyster Girl.
Kalantan, was the toast of the town in both New Orleans and Las Vegas in the 1950s, known for her exotic interpretations of Afro-Cuban dances. She was known for her artistic moves and postures from head to toe with her “love-torturing designs”. She later performed in the Howard Hughes film, Son of Sinbad, and had been labeled as having the “Most Photogenic Body of 1955”.
Another show-stopping, hard-working beauty was Lilly Christine, known as the Cat Girl and top-attraction on Bourbon Street in the 1940s. She is known for her “Cat Dance”, “Voodoo Dance” and “Harem Heat” which she performed to the exotic and hypnotic beats of jungle drums. She has appeared on many covers of girlie magazines of the past and in B-movies. Later in 1956 she played a role in Mike Todd’s Peep Show and in 1956, Strip for Action. Little more was known about this vixen and she mysteriously died in 1965.
Another great Burlesque diva of the 40s and 50s was the regal, Lily St. Cyr. Unlike her counterparts who would take it off, she would put it on. The audience was teased and tantalized as she seductively and mockingly dressed, through a “key-hole”. Peeping toms could be comfortable with their fetishes, she didn’t mind if people watched. Another act of St. Cyr was the “Flying G-String”. Pasties would cover her nipples, those being the top half of her costume and three layers of G-strings on the bottom; the top one being of frilly chiffon, another basic black one underneath and the final one of flesh-toned, net fabric. They were each removed in a seductive, comical routine. The final G-string was attached to an invisible stage wire that would rip the final one away just as the lights went out – sorry boys.
In 1958, Wild Cherry of Tampa, Florida, was inspired to move to New Orleans after hearing a many broadcast shows on the radio about the then, “City That Never Sleeps”. She was raised on the carnival circuit and not unfamiliar to making a show or spectacle. After stepping on the stage for her first job a the Mardi Gras Lounge, she was dubbed, “Torchy” by the club’s owner, Sid Davilla after a character in the movie, Mardi Gras. Behind the scenes, Wild Cherry was not one to toy with and was not afraid to give one a piece of her mind. One behind the scenes act might have been the flying shoe at said manager’s head. One act was as a demure and shy oriental woman, perhaps forced on stage to strip and bare all against her will. During another stage act with Afro-Cuban music and beats, she could transform into a fiery and hot Latina woman with nothing to hide nor be ashamed of. Her career as a Burlesque dancer extended into her mid-forties when she quit. She had been married three times, with two marriages being to the same man.
Burlesque culture has brought us so many famous faces, bodies, attitudes and acts us women should not forget: Linda Bridgette, the Cupid Doll–known as “America’s Most Beautiful Exotic in the 1950s”, who only stood at 5 feet tall was noted for her enhanced bosom and big, platinum blonde hair, often dancing in an over-sized champagne glass.
There are more, Lydia and her Blondes of England who arrived in New York in 1868, from the silver screen; Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Liza Manelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, just to name a few.
So who is your inner Burlesque diva?
What would be your stage name?
What’s the act? Don’t have one? You’re such a liar. Tell us. Don’t be shy 🙂
Here’s a little video of the past stars for future inspiration: