Champagne Girl Rita Alexander and the New Orleans Burlesque Festival



At one point in my lively interview with Rita Alexander — aka the Champagne Girl of 1960s Bourbon Street — for a feature in the current Gambit, I asked the sexagenarian Las Vegas psychic about the contrast between burlesque dancers and strippers. Her simple, serious response: “What’s the difference?” For Alexander’s generation of French Quarter striptease performers, whose stage antics led to New Orleans being known as the Most Interesting City in the World, there was none. Starting tonight, at a free 5:30 p.m. kickoff at the Westin Canal Place, Rick Delaup’s inaugural New Orleans Burlesque Festival turns back the clock to the days of hoarse barkers and heaving bosoms, high bouffants and hourglass bustiers. Alexander, meanwhile, is flying home for the first time since 1995 to judge the Queen of Burlesque competition (8 p.m. Saturday, Harrah's New Orleans) and discuss her dancing days at the Legends of New Orleans Burlesque Panel (2 p.m. Sunday, Westin). She was kind enough to interrupt a recent lunch for an extended flashback with Gambit. The full hilarious, touching and candid transcript:

OK darling, you hold on and let me turn off the TV. I was just having lunch. It’s time in Vegas to get your yard together for the planting season. We only have two. So I came in from the yard starved! Had to have shrimp scampi with angel hair pasta. Let me just have one sip of milk. I love milk. You like milk? I just love milk. I’d rather be having red wine, but it’s pretty early here, you know?

When I left New Orleans, I came here to be in the Folies Bergere. I went to Hollywood then I came back. I like Vegas a lot. I loved Hollywood because it was great people, but I love Las Vegas. When I was a kid in New Orleans, you’d plan a picnic and it would rain. Here, you plan a picnic and it happens. That’s kind of my first memory: Wow, we can plan things?

I came home once to check it out. You know how you have this dream, Noah, to go home? I had this dream back about '95, and I thought, well, let me check it out. I went to Bourbon Street, because I remember Bourbon Street at pretty much the end of its heyday, you know, the '60s. I never remembered cheap T-shirt shops — and there weren’t any stars. Noah, when I worked there, I would be starring at the Sho-Bar, right? And across the street would be the Blue Angels. It was so fabulous! They had traffic. They had barkers. Ronnie Kole was next door. Pete Fountain was down the street. Al Hirt was on the other corner. Billy Holliday and Walter Perseveaux were in their show, Nobody Likes a Smart Ass. Everywhere, if you walked down the street, were barkers and music and action. (Gasps) Fabulous!

Oh honey, some of my most fabulous memories are dancing on Bourbon Street, I have to be honest. I was a teenager. I started at 18 at the Silver Frolics, then I went to the Sho-Bar. I actually started as an intermission act at the Sho-Bar; Tee Tee Red taught me a little act. But it only lasted two weeks. I moved right on.

[Red] came out to Exotic World and we got to hang out. But we’re going to be roommates in our suite! And we’ve been friends since I was a very young teenager, maybe 16 or 17. We’ve spent our whole lives (together). It’s a lovely relationship, because for strippers there was never any competition. We always wished each other the best. Anything we could do for each other throughout the years, we have, you understand? It was a beautiful friendship. That’s where I put all my effort in life. I figure money comes and goes, but friends last forever. Tee and I have remained friends for the whole lifetime. Just like my light man at the Sho-Bar, he and I went to McMain Junior High together. We’ve known each other 50 years now. He’s still my dearest friend.

I’m dying to go to ACME Oyster House! Noah, did it change, too, like everything else? I have this vision of the cold beer in the afternoon and the Saltine crackers. I just love that cold oyster on the Saltine cracker. You know what else I’m dying for? A Barq’s root beer and a po-boy, half shrimp and half oyster. Then I want a roast beef one. I can’t wait to get to the Café du Monde! When I was a little kid, I would sit there and write poetry, and then I would walk down Pirate’s Alley and talk to the artists, then I would go into the cathedral and light a candle. I just want to retrace all of that, you know?

It was fabulous. Our club had two stories of audience, you know. I had a fabulous drummer. I still read about him occasionally. His name was Smoky Johnson. They had all live music. The end of my act, Philip would put on the red lights and the club would go dark. And they were very silent. I figured, for 20 minutes, you are going to forget every problem you have, and I’m going to take you on a little trip. Joey Howard was the MC. I had a little stage gun. The theme was "Goldfinger." By this time, to be honest, I’m down to a rhinestone G-string, barefoot. My hair’s all messed up from all the stuff I did before. But it was a wild blonde thing. I had a dentist make me pasties in that pink stuff they make fake gums out of. He made it into nipples, because you couldn’t go topless. I would actually take my jeweled pasties off, and the effect was pretty much naked.

People send me stuff, and I think, “How can people still be fascinated with this?” When I go to sleep, you know how sometimes you just want to escape? I will go back to this moment I’m telling you about. Philip’s got the red spot, and the whole deal is over. Now I’m going to tie it up, understand? Joey Howard standing in the wings with the stage gun. Behind the curtain’s my maid, Helen, picking up all my clothes. Smoky’s upstairs along with the other guys. One was an alto sax. And it was just the drums, the alto sax when I would move my hand a certain way, you know? The audience would be dead silent right in here. Oh my God, it would be late at night, the streets still had traffic, and it was just a fabulous moment. Me and the drum, just like one. Every movement — I don’t know if he followed me or I followed the drum, but it was perfection. Which is hard to find in life.

Lilly Christine influenced me greatly. She was the first stripper I saw when I was 16. I would be doing the catwalk across the stage, and I would get on this couch thing. Then Joey Howard would leap out and shoot me. And you’d hear the audience scream, you know? Philip would do these special things with the spot, and it would go dark. That moment, when it’s just Smoky Johnson and the alto sax and me, is priceless. I can even today feel the complete concentration and joy. There was something when you’re in complete concentration, working live in front of an audience with a drummer you enjoy, it was a magical time. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world. A lot of people in my family and around put me down for being a stripper. I always said to myself: (Gasps) "Oh! Wouldn’t have traded this for the world.”

I’ll be very interested to see what the young strippers do. I want to be kind to everybody, but somebody has to win, you know? I’ll be so interested to see — we used so much wardrobe. I’d come out with gloves, fur, a gown, panels. There was a thousand things to take off, right down to my shoes. I’m very curious to see, do they use that? I was really, truly old-time burlesque. Because Sarita, this lady out of Florida, taught Tee Tee. And Tee Tee taught me. So that was three generations of strippers taught the old way, the old-time way. So I’m very interested to see how creative they are, or how they do, you know Noah? Very interested. Very interested even that they’d still be able to do it and make a living at it.

Ricky, obviously he must have been a club owner that got killed in like the 40s, and he’s still trying to get back there. Isn’t he interesting with his fixation on that period of time? I swear to God, it took him seven years to find me. When I met him, I thought, “Maybe reincarnation does happen.” I’m just amazed. Once we were all having lunch in Vegas, and I said, “What would you do if you hit the lottery?” And his wife said this about her family, and we went around the table. When I got to Ricky, he said, I’d do this, I’d do that. Then he said: “Then I’d open a home for old strippers that are broke and have no place to go.” And I thought, my God! It’s truly sincere. It’s truly him. He’s so nice. He’ll say, “Will this be all right with you? Will that be all right?” We’ve been friends now a long time.

The burlesque thing, I was like, “Where is this going to go? Is this going to end up cheap, or tawdry, or insane?” I didn’t really trust it. No matter how much Exotic World and all of them begged, I just said to myself, “I’m going to go and watch.” Ricky was doing the panel discussion for Exotic World, and of course when he came to Vegas he says, “Please let me take you to lunch.” For two years he did it, and the second year I was almost feeding him questions to ask them. It was like we were a little team there. He has this dream of this thing that he’s doing, and I said, “Well Ricky, if you ever get that on, I will come. I will participate.” And damn, he got it on! I made a promise. To be honest with you Noah, I’m going to do my very, very best to make his little thing a success. Because anybody that has a dream, and works toward it without making a dime, I respect that risk factor for a dream. I did that. Very few people do it. I respect Ricky for trying to bring the vision to life, so whatever it takes for me to help him, I’m going to do.

It’s quite amazing the people who have come out of the woodwork: “I used to be your photographer!” I’m thinking to myself, “This is a nice way to go home!” I want to visit Uptown, my grandmother’s house I grew up in. Oh my God, dude, my grandmother would play the radio, and I grew up on Ernie K-Doe and Fats Domino. When I left and I went to other cities and I turned on the radio, I said, “Well, where’s the soul? What’s happening here? This is very generic. Where’s the music?” Then of course it was, “Where’s the food?” [Laughs]

Thank you for doing this article for Ricky. I hope you got some fodda. Make me look fabulous, darlin’. Make me look fabulous.

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