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World on a G-String : Retirees: Former striptease dancers share their memories and try to demystify burlesque at UCLA conference.

March 21, 1993|LISA KLUG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTWOOD — Dixie Evans couldn't sing or dance, but in her striptease act, she became Marilyn Monroe.

At burlesque theaters on the East Coast in the 1950s, Evans acted out scenes from Monroe's movie blockbusters as she stripped down to a G-string.

"Walter Cronkite used to come every year to see my act," said Evans, who now runs "Exotic World," a strippers' hall of fame in Victorville.

Evans was one of three retired strippers who shared their memories at UCLA last weekend in what organizers called the first academic conference to discuss the history, traditions and contributions of American burlesque theater.

Titled "Burlesque: Tradition and Transgression," the two-day conference was sponsored by the Center for the Study of Comparative Folklore and Mythology at UCLA. About 150 people from around the country attended academic presentations as well as less formal discussions, such as the panel of retired striptease artists.

"What I liked best is the pride they all showed in what they did," said Bob Tanenbaum, a Las Vegas entertainer who attended the talk. "There's so much these girls could say. Every time they said one thing I could ask them 75 more questions."

Retired stripper Betty Roland of West Los Angeles told how she was studying ballet when her father lost his job. The family's tight budget prompted Roland and her sister to work as dancers, and Roland eventually started stripping for a living.

"I guess I'm one of the first girls to put the bumps in the ballet," Roland told an audience of about 50 people.

At her Santa Monica bar called Mr. B's, Roland still receives letters every month from fans asking if she is the same Betty Roland that appeared as a stripper.

The retired strippers' panel, titled "The Performer's View of the Striptease," was organized by folklore graduate student Andy Davis, who said his aim was to demystify the lives and work of striptease artists.

Legends about the origins of striptease abound, but Davis favors the one about a burlesque dancer named Hinda Wassau whose bra strap broke as she was on her way offstage.

"The audience went wild, and the next night, quite accidentally, the bra strap broke again," Davis deadpanned.

Burlesque was lowbrow entertainment that included not only strippers but also performances by chorus dancers and comedians, Davis said. It became popular in the late 1920s as striptease queens Gypsy Rose Lee and Ann Corio became the stars of burlesque shows, he said.

Unlike nude dancers, burlesque stripteasers did not take off all their clothes, Davis said. "Striptease always rode the edge of what was taboo and what was not."

Burlesque strippers often performed with such gimmicks as fire-eating, said Mitzi Sinclair of Miami, who performed a strip dance at burlesque theaters in the 1940s and '50s.

Striptease died along with the last burlesque theaters as television gained popularity, Davis said.

The panel of strippers all looked back with nostalgia at their former careers.

"The glamour of burlesque is all gone now: the soft lights, the beautiful costumes, the sequins, pearls, chiffon," Sinclair said. "You can't help but miss it."

For Roland, starring as a stripteaser meant success.

"A lot of girls didn't make it," she said.

For most performers, however, striptease was tainted with an air of ambivalence, Davis said.

"The guy in the audience is looking up, and there is this tall, statuesque woman who is completely unattainable. At the same time, she's taking her clothes off, which is both powerful and demeaning. There might be a different relationship with the club owner, but when she's in front of the audience, she's in control."

All three women said they rarely felt exploited as a stripper.

"If I ever felt like a piece of meat, then I wouldn't do it," Sinclair said.

In fact, Sinclair, who is semi-retired in Miami, still strips.

At birthday parties for folks over 50, Sinclair charges $250 for a 15-minute dance in which she strips down to a bikini.

"I tell them, 'If you think I'm gonna dance around at 75 years old and take my clothes off, you're damn right I am.' "

Evans, the Monroe impersonator, said she has never let criticism of striptease from other people bother her.

"I would never want to have their boring job anyway."

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