On a recent Saturday night, Lili VonSchtupp (yes, that's her legal name, changed in homage to the Madeline Kahn character in "Blazing Saddles," with altered spelling) attended three different burlesque shows. As producer of the weekly revue "Monday Night Tease," VonSchtupp can also recall the not-so-distant era of several years ago, when "there was maybe one or two burlesque shows per month besides my show."
"Today, you've got four weekly shows, seven monthly shows and a tremendous amount of one-offs," she says. "Burlesque in L.A. is booming."
Some 15 years after troupes such as L.A.-based Velvet Hammer ushered in the era of neo-burlesque performance, the burlesque scene in Los Angeles has assumed the proportions of a lavish Las Vegas buffet, both in its abundance and heterogeneity.
This year alone a number of new shows have cropped up, such as the monthly "Rendezvous" at the King King Club, where sophisticated choreography and slick production values fuse with a commedia dell'arte theatricality, while the grittier but equally compelling "Monday Night Tease," now in its sixth year of weekly performances, sells out on a regular basis and features individual striptease acts with a vaudevillian vibe. And in December, the Actors' Gang theater organization will present three evenings of burlesque performance.
While these productions generally involve some stage of undress, they ban total nudity and emphasize a tongue-in-cheek attitude that hearkens to a more innocent, pre-modern-day strip-club era.
Inside the Hollywood bar Three Club's intimate cabaret space, which seats about 70 people, the "Monday Night Tease" show a few weeks ago attracted an over-30 crowd, with almost equal numbers of men and women. The host, "Buster Balloon," a husky man decked out in formal suit, spats and a bowler, performed magic tricks and told slightly dirty jokes in between acts that included a performance by magician Christopher Hogsworth, who combined card tricks with striptease. More often than not, sheer stage presence and a sense of humor trumped virtuosic movement, as in the case of the "French Fry Fan Dance" by performer Ali Oops, who wielded cardboard cutouts of McDonald's French fries in their large-sized serving containers and eventually revealed a hamburger-themed G-string.
In Los Angeles, "burlesque is not as fringe as it used to be," says Augusta Avallone, a documentary filmmaker turned burlesque maven who goes by the stage name Penny Starr Jr. She's the founder of the Striptease Symposium, a 3-year-old local burlesque school offering classes in tassel twirling, striptease techniques and hair and makeup preparation.
Avallone says that her school's business "has doubled every year. Most women wouldn't go to a strip club, but burlesque is more accessible because of the glamour and because it's playful."
But it also appears that the art form best associated with the bump and grind is poised for mainstream recognition beyond Los Angeles and the other big cities with thriving neo-burlesque scenes, such as New York and Seattle. "Burlesque," starring Christina Aguilera and Cher and written and directed by Steven Antin, is set to premiere Thanksgiving weekend and targets a PG-13 audience.
"I was inspired to steer people away from tawdry notions of burlesque," says Antin, who had collaborated with his sister, Robin Antin, founder of the Pussycat Dolls, back in the days when the famous all-girl pop group was a burlesque troupe.
In a phone interview, Antin takes great care to distance his film from the pasties and G-string aesthetic of many contemporary burlesque performances. He identifies the parodies in the European theater dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries as "original burlesque."
"There's a real misunderstanding of burlesque as a 20th century convention rooted in second-rate striptease. I wanted to bring back what burlesque originally was. For me, burlesque is about the tease, not the strip," he says.
According to Rachel Shteir, the author of "Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show" and a recent biography on burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, burlesque began in the 19th century French cabaret and brothels, spread to other parts of Europe and arrived in the United States in the late 1860s, courtesy of the British showgirl Lydia Thompson. Burlesque as striptease took off in America during the Jazz Age.
"The question of what burlesque is and isn't has reappeared throughout history," says Shteir, a DePaul University drama professor. "Historically, there are two consistent things about it. One is women in some stage of undress moving around, and two is that it's done with a sense of humor."