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Burlesque era remains alive in hall of fame

April 05, 2009|Steve Harvey
  • Catherine d'Lish performs at "Legends" night at the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. D'Lish is a former Miss Exotic World.
Catherine d'Lish performs at "Legends" night at the Burlesque… (Don Spiro )

As a burlesque dancer at the Follies Theater in downtown L.A., Dixie Evans encountered a few rats in the early 1950s, but not all of them were customers. Some were actual rodents.

"There was a big, round water pipe that ran through the basement where we dressed," Evans recalled. "Rats would run on the pipe."

Luckily, she said, there were usually cops around.

"They [the cops] liked to hang out in the theater, especially on rainy days," she said.

On a couple of occasions, she continued, an officer pulled out his revolver and picked off one of the invaders.

"These [cops] were young guys, and they sort of liked to show their valor," she said. "The girls would stand behind them and squeal and holler and applaud."

The Main Street theater is gone. But Evans, 82, known as the Frisco Flash and the Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque in her performing days, is determined to keep alive the memories -- wacky and otherwise -- of the burlesque hall era. That's why she became involved with the Exotic Dancers League of America, an organization of strippers founded in Los Angeles in the 1950s by her close friend, the late Jennie Lee.

A dancer whose nickname was Miss 44 and Plenty More, Lee held annual reunions of burlesque performers, inducting new members by presenting them with a plaster Fanny (a replica of Miss Lee's behind). She also published an annual Ten Best Undressed list.

For several years, Lee's Exotic World Museum was based at her Sassy Lassy nightclub on Pacific Avenue in San Pedro near Fort MacArthur, further cementing the close ties between strippers and servicemen.

But Lee's health went into decline around 1980, and she and her husband, Charles Arroyo, moved Exotic World to a one-time goat ranch in Helendale, a Mojave Desert town near Victorville.

After Lee died in 1990, her husband asked Evans to keep the museum going.

"He didn't know anything about burlesque," Evans said. "He was in real estate."

Evans moved in and added new touches to the museum.

"As you drive into Exotic World, half-naked Grecian goddesses and lawn jockeys greet you from the front yard," the website legendsofamerica.com reported several years ago.

"Inside the walls are filled with photographs and playbills of busty strippers from days gone by, and a wealth of memorabilia, including pasties, lip-prints and even the jewel-encrusted G-strings of such burlesque legends as Blaze Starr, Lili St. Cyr, Candy Barr and Chesty Morgan."

The burlesque industry has never received the credit it deserved for its contributions, Evans believes.

"We saved America in the '30s," she said. "It was the Depression, a sad time. But men could come into the theater and see a flamboyant, gaudy show with a wild sense of humor, and we put smiles on their faces. It wasn't just the dancers. There were comics, jugglers."

After Arroyo died in 2005, Evans inherited the Helendale property, but there were permit problems with the county authorities. A goat shed at the ranch had been converted into several museum rooms. But, Evans said, "the county told us there had been no building permit since 1938."

Overwhelmed by the red tape, she packed up the pasties and other artifacts and moved the museum to Las Vegas. She also had Exotic World converted into a nonprofit foundation.

In Vegas she teamed up with longtime Exotic World fans such as producer Luke Littell, creative consultant Laura Herbert and a performer known as Paula the Swedish Housewife and created the Burlesque Hall of Fame.

Although it is not yet open to the public, the Burlesque Hall has been holding annual shows in Sin City since 2006. The next one will be June 4-7 at the Orleans Hotel.

Festivities will include a "Barecats" bowling tournament, a "Titans of Tease" reunion (55-and-older category), a burlesque "finishing school," a "Texas Tease'em" poker tournament and "a Best of Burlesque 2009 Pageant."

Gypsy Rose Lee's trunk and costumes will also be on exhibit, as will Tempest Storm's dresses and Sally Rand's original ivory fans. Rand became a legend in the industry when she was arrested four times in one day during her fan dances at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair.

Of course, nearly every stripper was pinched in the conservative era that predated the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s.

Evans recalled the time she was arrested in Miami just before an election. "Whenever it was election time in Miami, they'd raid the strip joints," she said. "I told the judge, 'Your Honor, this is the same act you saw at the policemen's show.' "

The charges were promptly stripped from her record.

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steveharvey9@gmail.com

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