Long before instant access to internet pornography, in a world where people still used the phrase “stag film”, a group of ladies pioneered the art of striptease on stages in clubs across the world. Now, as Burlesque makes a comeback in hot clubs from NYC to Vegas, YesButNoButYes salutes those strippers who took the first groundbreaking, bare-assed steps towards creating an artform.
Gypsy Rose Lee
Possibly the most famous stripper of all time (and the only one I couldn't find pictures of in a state of undress), Gypsy got her start at Minsky's Burlesque in New York, where she became the talk of the town. Progressing to the Ziegfeld Follies, and later be a movie & TV star, as well as a detective novel author, Gypsy only stripped until the age of 23, retiring to concentrate on more mainstream entertainment. Much admired by men around the world (she had a son with director Otto Preminger), she died of lung cancer in 1970. At that time, according to Wikipedia, the walls of her LA home were covered with art, gifts from artists such as Picasso, Chagall and Ernst.
Dixie was billed as “The Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque” and looking at the photos, it's not hard to see why. Starting in the El Ray Theater in Oakland, CA in 1952, she worked what was known as the Kane Circuit, covering Cleveland, Chicago and Boston, showing on stage what Marilyn would have looked like if she had stripped. Even Marilyn's death didn't put a crimp in Dixie's act - she just renamed it a “tribute act” - but the decline of burlesque came, and she retired in 1967. Today, she runs Exotic World: The Strippers Hall of Fame & Museum, which she took over from friend and fellow stripper Jennie Lee (see below)
One of the real legends of the golden age of striptease, Tempest got her start as a chorus girl, but soon made her debut at the El Ray as a stripper. She was to go on to achieve fame as a pinup girl, and appear (under the legendary lens of Russ Meyer and in some of the earlier strip-tease movies, most notably Teasarama, in which she starred with Bettie Page. Romantically linked with JFK, Sammy Davis Jr and Elvis, she was once asked if she was ever embarrassed by her ample breasts - she replied “They don't make 'em too big for this business”. Tempest continued to strip until the age of 65, when she retired. She currently lives in Las Vegas.
Lili St Cyr
Lili first performed at the Gayety Theater in Montreal in 1944, and developed an act that was to become famous for her taking a bubble bath on the stage, and for “The Flying G”, where her G-String was attached to a fishing rod and flew off into the balcony at the end of her act. Romatically linked with Orson Welles,Victor Mature and - enticingly - Marilyn Monroe, Lili's wild life included six marriages, very public brawls and suicide attempts. Lili is credited by many for elevating bump-n-grind into an art form, and she became the striptease queen of Las Vegas. In her later years, she ran a lingerie business before she died in 1999, aged 81.
Blaze rose to fame at the Two O' Clock Club in Baltimore, and achieved national notoriety when featured in Esquire magazine in 1954. Her act included a panther that she trained to undress her, and a prop couch that was rigged to smolder and burst into flames when she sat on it and undressed. But Blaze is perhaps best known for her long affair with Earl Long, the Govenor of Louisiana, which was dramatized in the 1989 movie, Blaze, starring Paul Newman. Blaze retired and ended up buying the Two O' Clock club, which she still owns and manages today.
Candy Barr's career actually started with an unsavory incident where she was forced (at gunpoint) to appear in one of the 50s most famous stag films, Smart Alec. She would go on to become one of the country's top strippers, earning over $100,000 a year (close to $1m today allowing for inflation). In a notorious (for the time) case, she was to serve three years in prison for marijuana possession. Yet perhaps the most bizarre piece of trivia about Candy is that she was required to make a statement to the FBI about her relationship to Jack Ruby prior to the JFK assasination. She was also to have a brief affair with Hugh Hefner. Candy retired to Texas, where she lived until her recent death, aged 70. Here's a link to her obituary in the LA Times. RIP Candy, you were one of the greats. Watch rare footage of Candy doing what she did best.
Known as The Girl In Black Stockings, Rita was originally a legitimate dancer, having trained in ballet and tap, before hard times pushed her into burlesque. She continued to try and make a splash in mainstream theater, and once appeared in the Jayne Mansfield role in the touring version of Will success spoil Rock Hunter? However, her sole screen appearance is in Buxom Beautease (1956)
Lilly's nickname was “The Cat Girl”, and she first appeared on the stages of New Orleans before making the jump to Broadway. She always insisted she was a dancer and not a stripper, even though during her act all of her clothes came off. Here's a report from one reviewer: “Performing her classic original routines like the 'cat dance,' 'voodoo dance' and 'harem heat', Lilly appeared on stage in a jewel encrusted bikini bra and panties and black net stockings, hurling her long blonde hair back and forth while sensuously weaving across the floor and shredding most of her attire to the hypnotic beat of jungle drums”. Lilly died in Florida in 1965 of peritonitis.
Evelyn was known as “The Girl with the $50,000 Treasure Chest” after famously insuring her breasts for that amount with Lloyds of London. Oh, to be an Insurance assessor. This was only the first of a long string of gimmicks and stunts that she was to use over the years to keep her in the headlines - appearing at nudist weddings, sueing other strippers, throwing tomatoes at Anita Ekberg... in fact she seemed to take aim at anyone who competed in the “Battle of the Bosom”.
Jennie Lee - The Bazoom Girl - stripped the world over, becoming a favorite with the GIs during WWII. Her amazing muscle control allowed her to whirl her tassles together, in alternate directions, and individually. What a talent. Jennie even had her own fan club where 25 cents got you a handwritten letter. She was the founded of the Exotic Dancer's League of North America, and also the Exotic World Hall of Fame, before her death, in a cruel twist of irony, of breast cancer.