|Wednesday, Jul 29, 2015, 09:00:14 PM|
Thursday, September 30, 2004
The art of the tease
Burlesque returns to town in all its feathered glory
By Bob Shemeligian
"A woman's greatest weapon is a man's imagination."
--Burlesque queen Ann Corio
"God bless Lilli St. Cyr."
--Susan Sarandon as Janet Weiss in The
Rocky Horror Picture Show
Could there be a more appropriate place for the return of old-time burlesque than the Las Vegas Strip?
"Not the Las Vegas of 10 years ago, when they took the Disneyland approach, but today it's a different Las Vegas," says Ivan Kane, who will open his Forty Deuce retro striptease lounge in the Mandalay Place mall at Mandalay Bay later this month. "Las Vegas is the pinnacle of adult entertainment."
Kane is an actor, screenwriter and entrepreneur whose flagship Forty Deuce in Hollywood is one of L.A.'s most popular nightspots. With its low bar, plush lounge chairs and smoky atmosphere that provides a seductive climate for burlesque performers to bump and grind to a wailing sax, the club is so successful it has spawned a new Bravo cable series, "Forty Deuce." And Kane fully expects his newest venue to thrive.
"My club harkens to the glory days of Las Vegas, when the Rat Pack ruled the Strip," Kane says. "Forty Deuce is also the perfect nightspot for the Las Vegas of today, where people come for adult entertainment, and whatever happens here stays here."
The entertainment at Forty Deuce and other burlesque venues in Las Vegas is not hardcore. Unlike the entertainment offered at strip clubs, where nothing is left to the imagination, there is only partial nudity. The performers' private parts remain covered by G-strings, pasties and fishnets.
"Burlesque is the art of the tease," says Dee Milo, a veteran performer and a member of the Golden Days of Burlesque Historical Society. "A naked body is to be put in a bed and used. But on a stage, there's no tease--no anticipation--to the naked form. But when you're fully clothed and you remove them slowly, it serves as a type of foreplay and it entices both men and women."
Such entertainment is drawing packed houses in intimate clubs throughout the nation. Make no mistake, burlesque is back in all its feathered glory. Striptease is the rage in countless venues from the York Hotel's Empire Plush Room in San Francisco to the Paradise Rock Club in Boston.
"Burlesque entertainment also does better during war and difficult economic times," says Milo, who lives in Salt Lake City. "People long for something that feels good--something that reminds them of a time when things were better."
In Las Vegas, where 35 million annual visitors seek feelgood entertainment, old-time burlesque is included in several Strip productions, including La Femme at the MGM Grand and the long-running Crazy Girls act at the Riviera.
"The show is still going strong after 17 years," Crazy Girls publicist Wayne Bernath says. "Sex sells--and always will."
One who knows this is Jennifer Worthington, a former film executive who, with partner Robert Frey, three months ago opened Tangerine at Treasure Island. At the new lounge, decorated with distinctive orange and amber hues, burlesque performers in evening attire perform seductive striptease acts in an intimate setting to the sultry sounds of drums, stand-up bass and saxophone.
Not to be outdone, Frederic Apcar, son of veteran Las Vegas producer Frederic Apcar Sr.--best known for the Casino de Paris and Vive Les Girls! shows at the old Dunes Hotel--plans to open a 4,000-square-foot burlesque theater next year in downtown Las Vegas.
Apcar, reached last week in Milan, Italy, said he has entered into a partnership with the owners of the Lady Luck hotel-casino to develop a swanky striptease theater in the newly formed Third Street Promenade, an entertainment district just two blocks from the Fremont Street Experience.
"It will be more of a classy entertainment venue--sexy, not sleazy--a place where you can bring your wife," Apcar explains. "It will be a very intimate setting, with small tables and a mahogany interior with a bit of burgundy. You can let your imagination run wild from there." Apcar says his new venue will open sometime next summer.
Also planned for the downtown entertainment district: a Las Vegas version of the famous Hogs and Heifers bar, a drag-themed nightclub and several more taverns and restaurants. The site is owned by the Henry Brent Co., owner and operator of the Lady Luck. Principals are Robert O'Neil and Keith Grossman.
"I think it's a terrific idea," says Mayor Oscar Goodman. "Downtown is going to be the fun place to visit, and all these entertainment and boutique venues will appeal to everybody and every particular taste."
The recent revival of striptease acts in Las Vegas began early last year when the operators of Risqué de Paris in the Paris Hotel introduced the Vamps Girlie Revue. General manager Michael Cornthwaite said he got the idea two years ago when he visited Dante's, a small club in Portland.
"They had a kind of bohemian variety show--everything from puppets to strippers on stage, and later we talked about different ideas for Risqué de Paris and we thought burlesque fit our Parisian theme, and so we ran with it."
The Vamps Girlie Revue performs at Risqué Sunday nights after midnight, and Cornthwaite is delighted with the response. "The show does very well," Cornthwaite says. "People are always looking for a new show, and this is great entertainment. Nightclubs are sexy by nature, and burlesque just pushes the envelope a little more."
While striptease acts are a relatively new trend in the world's entertainment capital, they are hardly unprecedented. In fact, only two generations ago, the bump `n' grind and hoochie-coochie were performed nightly in the showrooms and lounges of several Las Vegas Strip hotels, including the Dunes, El Rancho Vegas, Silver Slipper and the old Aladdin.
In his book Cult Vegas (Huntington Press 2001), Las Vegas Review-Journal entertainment reporter Mike Weatherford writes: "The female anatomy has been a Cadillac feature of Vegas from the earliest days, a running ubiquitous design scheme embracing everything from the anonymous cocktail waitress to the highest-paid showroom star."
Weatherford details the various burlesque striptease acts that captivated mid-'50s audiences in Las Vegas showrooms. They included Tere Sheehan (The Girl in the Champagne Glass), who was part of Hank Henry's burlesque show at the Last Frontier; Tempest Storm (Beauty and the Bust), who periodically headlined at the Dunes; and Sally Rand, the famous fan dancer who performed at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair.
"Sally manipulated those fans so beautifully that you never saw her nude," says Fluff LeCoque, company manager of Jubilee! at Bally's. "She kept performing long after she was young, and later in life she wore a body stocking."
Other `50s and `60s burlesque performers included strikingly tall and buxom brunette Tura Satana, who would also star in Russ Meyer's cult film classic Faster Pussycat Kill! Kill!, and Candy Barr, who years earlier earned the dubious distinction of starring in the first modern-day porn film: Smart Alec.
Both Satana and Barr performed at several hotels on the Strip, including the Silver Slipper, and both also appeared at numerous strip clubs across the nation--including Jack Ruby's Carousel Club in Dallas. Barr reportedly dated Jack Ruby, who would gain infamy in 1963 by murdering Lee Harvey Oswald, suspected assassin of President John F. Kennedy, before a nationwide television audience.
Arguably, the most famous and alluring entertainer who ever sashayed across a Las Vegas stage was Lilli St. Cyr, a statuesque blonde who was one of the most provocative performers at the El Rancho Vegas throughout the 1950s.
Born Marie Van Schaark in 1918, St. Cyr was a natural beauty who was trained as a classic ballet dancer, but soon realized there was a lot more money to be made in adult burlesque than in dance productions. She once said, "Sex is currency. What's the use of being beautiful if you can't profit from it?"
St. Cyr (The Anatomic Bomb) used innovative and elaborate sets and props to captivate audiences and to keep them coming back. In one sketch, she would enthrall her patrons by sitting high on a throne eating grapes in an alluring manner to sexy songs. Other times she would be seated on a swing high above the audience and remove articles of clothing and fling them below. But her most famous act was the bubble bath.
"She was actually in a bathtub on the stage and talking on a telephone as if she were getting ready for a date," says LeCoque. "She had a little story line, and the audiences loved it. Lilli played very good clubs throughout the nation, and her act was very classy. It was erotic, not raunchy."
Such was the allure of old-time burlesque. After all, practically every man has had sex with a naked woman. But how many have actually seen a beautiful young woman prepare for a date?
"This is what audiences want," says Dee Milo, whose stage name is Venus of Dance. "It's the costumes, the makeup, the props--it's all part of burlesque. And the women also really get into it. They love the costumes and the ideas. They can use them to have fun with their husbands. It might be a burlesque skit about the Welcome Wagon lady who comes to the door with her little basket of goodies. You get the idea."
But the ones who loved adult burlesque the most in mid-20th century Las Vegas were the show promoters and hotel owners, simply because the acts produced not only erotic fantasies--they also made money.
"I can't understand why the hotels ever let burlesque go. There was never an empty seat, and it didn't cost a lot to put on these productions," says actress Dyanne Thorne, who starred in Minsky's Burlesque at the old Aladdin. "People used to scream and belly-laugh throughout these shows. It was lovely."
Indeed, what could be more lovely to hotel owners than the idea of bringing back low-cost racy productions that will fill lounges and perhaps keep some hotel guest from venturing out to nearby gentlemen's clubs where the entertainment is more raunchy?
"I think they're trying to keep the visitors in the hotels," LeCoque says. "They're trying to get people away from the gentlemen's clubs. We've all seen those stretch limos outside the hotels, and a lot of the guys here on conventions are riding in these limos to the clubs."
Others say the return of old-time burlesque to Las Vegas is just another variation of an age-old axiom that has been drawing visitors to Southern Nevada since the area's first gamblers noticed an attractive young woman saunter across the sawdust-covered floor of a downtown gambling joint.
"Risqué entertainment is an endemic part of our fabric," says Bill Thompson, UNLV professor and gaming expert. "And it's a big part of the draw to Las Vegas. Remember, gambling is the world's second-oldest diversion."