A new wave of old school entertainment is back with comedians, singers and girls who take their clothes off.
Lola Boutée is smart enough to know when fate calls, you say hello. She got that call about eight years ago and has turned it into a career as the very singular owner of The Dollface Dames, a successful Los Angeles-based burlesque troupe and the producer of a series of regular burlesque shows that perform at clubs around town.
“I saw my first burlesque about eight years ago,” says Boutée, whose real name is Kira Turnage. “It sounded like fun so I took my sister and a couple of friends to 40 Deuce, which was the big burlesque club in L.A. at the time. We had a blast.”
Not long after her first exposure to what aficionados call the “Burly Q,” the actor/dancer from Maine was cast as a burlesque-ish character in a small stage production in Hollywood — that’s when the phone rang. A couple of producers who saw the show liked her act so much they asked her to recreate her character for a fundraising show for a new actors company. Boutée told jokes and took off her clothes for the audience. The show was so popular that a two-show run turned into a summer-long engagement. It also convinced her that she might be able to make a living doing this thing called burlesque.
According to Boutée, many big cities now have an active burlesque scene, including New Orleans, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Miami, Phoenix, and, of course, Las Vegas. Los Angeles has probably a half dozen regular shows going on any given night, depending on how you define burlesque.
The last 20 years have seen a significant resurgence of burlesque. Some call it “neo-burlesque” but it hasn’t changed since the beginning of the 20th century when it was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in America with comedy, satire and scantily clad girls. While burlesque hasn’t regained its full former glory, its popularity is growing.
I saw my first show in October 2013 at Three Clubs, an old-school lounge at the south end of Hollywood near Vine and Santa Monica Boulevard. As you walk through the red door at the entrance, the darkness is blinding, but it offers a few moments of anonymity while you decide if you should stay or go. The jukebox pours out classics by Sinatra, Bennett, Martin, and Ella. The bartenders pour lots of martinis. And in the back room, there’s a small stage that seats about 80, the perfect place for a girl to take off her clothes in front of strangers.
I was there to see my friend Bootsy Sterling give her first performance as a professional burlesque dancer. Bootsy bills herself as L.A.’s sexiest private eye, a vision Raymond Chandler would surely love. The problem, however, is that this detective has trouble blending into the background; she sports a bright red trench coat, black four-inch platform pumps, black leg warmers and a black fedora. Under the trench coat there’s a frilly, black mini skirt, a black cincher corset, a snap on collar and tie, and cuffs. Dressed to kill, you might say. The last thing to come off during her routine is her fedora, which she tossed Frisbee-style out into the audience and right into my lap. The crowd clapped and cheered wildly as she made her way off the stage.
If this was burlesque, I liked it right away. It seemed naughty, but not nasty; it was sexy without being slutty. It’s respectable, more or less, but still a bit edgy. My American Heritage Dictionary defines burlesque as a “literary or dramatic work that makes the subject ridiculous by treating it in an incongruous way, as by presenting a lofty subject with vulgarity or an inconsequential one with mock dignity.” The dictionary adds that burlesque can be “a variety show characterized by broad ribald comedy, dancing and striptease.”
Today’s burlesque continues a tradition of entertainment for the masses that has always relied on irreverent humor, biting satire and sex to sell tickets. Lili VonSchtupp, an entertainer and producer of the Monday Night Tease at 3 Clubs for the last 10 years, describes it this way: “Burlesque is based in parody, comedy, and it slowly evolved into striptease. Shakespeare was burlesque. It’s a parody of politics and morals, and of what the upper class was doing, created for the lower classes in a way that is blue and humorous. And hopefully, it’s a little cheeky and a little sexy.”
During its peak in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, burlesque audiences were massive. The 2010 Leslie Zemeckis documentary, “Behind the Burly Q,” tells a story about how the famous Minsky family made millions selling tickets to their burlesque shows at fifteen cents each. Many top burlesque performers of bygone days were so popular they became national, even international celebrities. Gypsy Rose Lee had her own TV talk show in 1958. Before that, her life was chronicled in a Broadway musical called “Gypsy” that was then made into a Hollywood movie starring Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood. A star doesn’t get more mainstream than that.
Still, burlesque isn’t for kids. It’s adult entertainment that gives the audience a sense of watching something a bit naughty. It’s not slick, corporate cookie-cutter entertainment, like the 2010 movie “Burlesque” that starred Cher and Christina Aguilera. Real life burlesque in Los Angeles is grittier, has dirtier jokes and way more boobage.
“To me, it’s old school entertainment,” says Von Crockett, a patron of a recent St. Patty’s Day burlesque show at El Cid in Hollywood. “The whole point is about what you don’t see, which is different from other kinds of entertainment.” Von and his wife Brenda go to four or five shows a year,just because it’s more fun than other types of grown-up entertainment.
“For me, burlesque is fun because the girls are actually enjoying it,” says Crockett, “versus going to another type of entertainment (strip clubs) where it seems like they’re not really having fun. Here the girls are enjoying it, the crowd is enjoying it. Everyone is having a lot of fun.”
While the audiences I’ve seen weren’t large, they were enthusiastic and diverse; younger hipsters, couples, groups of women, and, of course, the occasional dirty old man. At El Cid, a landmark club on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, I met a pair of young women, Sara Thomas and her friend Kimmie Fadem, who had come to catch the show.
“The fun thing about burlesque is that, unlike a strip club scenario, which is a sketchier environment, burlesque is a place where you can get rowdy and have fun, but without that invasive element that you get at other types of places,” says Thomas. “The guys at burlesque shows are more of the kind of guys I want to be in the same room with, whereas guys at a strip club are not. I didn’t worry about what I wore here tonight (a very short skirt), whereas if I was going to a strip club, I would worry more about what to wear. I would dress down more, I would be more covered.”
I asked Sarah’s friend Kimmie what she thought about the show: “It was a very fun show. I enjoyed it. It’s kind of intimate and personal. The woman who is on stage is completely in control. She says how much. There is no contact with the men. No exchange of money.”
Dolly Danger, a burlesque dancer for about six years, was one of the performers at the El Cid show. “It’s a women’s sport and the women involved put more love and effort and energy and passion into this than strippers could ever dream of,” she says.
There is a strong sense of camaraderie and community in the burlesque world. After the shows, performers mingle with the audience, take pictures, chat about upcoming shows and just relax. It’s one of the things that helps keep the burlesque world spinning.
As elsewhere in the entertainment business, there is always more talent available than there is room on the stage. That makes it difficult for the performers and a lot of the payoff comes in the form of psychic rewards. I met burlesque dancer Mercy Beaucoup in December at Three Clubs lounge while she waited for her turn on stage. Beaucoup says that burlesque in Los Angeles gives the dancers and the comics a way to get on stage and be part of a grand old tradition that goes down to the deepest roots of show business. “I’ve been doing this for three years now, and I absolutely love it,” she says. “It’s clearly not the money that drives burlesque today, it’s the experience. After three and a half years, I’ve finally made enough money to break even,” she says. “I think I’m ahead about $25. Yeah! I can have lunch!”
For the producers, burlesque is a lot of work. Lola Boutée started The Dollface Dames with three friends who also worked at the fundraiser show that got her started. Her friends dropped out soon afterward because it was too much on top of their day jobs.
The Dollface Dames perform in at least four venues each month. Boutée books the talent, drawn from a pool of more than 120 dancers and comedians. She’s always looking for new bookings, which have included appearances in a number of movies and private parties for some big name Hollywood celebrities. She wants to expand her burlesque empire with plans to add an all-male review and to do a show in New York before the end of the year. She also thinks there may be room in Hollywood for a club that’s dedicated to burlesque.
Even though acting is her first love, Boutée understands its limitations. “Acting is a medium you can’t control,” she says. “You have to get cast, and you have to do what they tell you to do. I like having my own company because then I get to control my own livelihood.”
Boutée says she spends about half her time on her acting career, apart from her time producing and performing burlesque. “It’s fun to me,” she says. “I get to dress up, wear sexy lingerie, dance and be a character.”
What more could a girl ask for?
Join SingularCity on Saturday, June 14, 2014 at 9:30 p.m. for drinks and a special USO-inspired performance by the burlesque troupe “The Dollface Dames” at Magicopolis in Santa Monica.
General admission tickets for the show are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. Click here to purchase.
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