Burlesque never went away," says Leslie Zemeckis, director of the documentary Behind the Burly Q and author of the companion book released in June. "If you look at Johnny Carson's skits or Carol Burnett — making fun of Gone With the Wind — it's a spoof. That's burlesque. That informs our humor hugely today. Lady Gaga's costumes are over the top. That's burlesque."
In tracing the history of burlesque, Zemeckis notes that theatricality was as essential as titillation.
"It starts with a play in Britain, The Black Crook," she says, referring to the musical theater piece that toured in the 1870s. "It was the first time girls came out in flesh-colored stockings. That was shocking. (Burlesque) changed, but it started in theater."
The boundaries of exposed flesh moved considerably.
In the 1920s, '30 and '40s, "There was no Playboy," she says. "The bikini was not invented until 1946. There was no place but burlesque houses to see legs on a woman. As society got more permissive, as you can see stuff in films, burlesque had to compete."
The modern burlesque revival has been going on for more than 15 years, and New Orleans Burlesque Festival founder Rick Delaup says it's the live performance element that makes it different than some retro-culture fads.
"For a night out, outside of live music, your option is live theater," Delaup says. "The great thing about the burlesque clubs on Bourbon Street — it was a cross between a theater and a bar, and you could whistle at the girls — there's a live band and it's a show. It was glamorous and sexy and fun."
In New Orleans, the heyday of burlesque theaters and headlining stars (from roughly the 1930s to 1950s) created the notion of a dancer coming on stage in a gown or costume and slowly teasing the audience to the music of a live band. That type of burlesque is the focus of the New Orleans Burlesque Festival, which includes several showcases at the House of Blues and Harrah's New Orleans.
Many of the festival's acts feature live music, but to claim the crown in the Queen of Burlesque competition (7:30 p.m. Saturday, Harrah's New Orleans), performers must perform with a live band. The 2012 Queen of Burlesque, Angi B. Lovely, will perform and the 2013 contestants include Charlotte Treuse from New Orleans, Medianoche (New York City), Miss Orchid Mei (Denver, Colo.), Havana Hurricane (England), Dixie Ramone (Italy), The Strawberry Siren (Australia) and others.
The festival will feature its first all-male showcase. Several of the performers are members of Chicago's Stage Door Johnnies troupe, and male burlesque star The Great Gadso is visiting from Australia. It's the third all-male show Delaup has presented in New Orleans. He's also launching a new show titled Siren of the South, featuring Athena, a regular performer in Delaup's Bustout Burlesque shows, who also was a contestant on American Idol. Siren is a musical revue but the finale is a burlesque number.
Several performers will lead free workshops, and some past stars will autograph photos. One notable guest is Tammi True, who headlined at Dallas' Carousel Club in the 1960s. The club was owned by Jack Ruby, who killed Lee Harvey Oswald.
Zemeckis will sign copies of her book at the festival. Behind the Burly Q includes extended sections on Blaze Starr, as well as interviews with Kitty West, better known as Evangeline the Oyster Girl. Both achieved national fame: West for a publicity stunt photographed for LIFE magazine in which she used an axe to smash the tank of a performer who did her act in water; and Starr from her relationship with Gov. Earl Long and her legendary performances. But in profiling the full lives of the performers, Zemeckis was struck by how many dancers were self-made stars.
"What impressed me about these women is that they produced their own acts — Blaze in particular," Zemeckis says. "If you didn't have a gimmick, you'd do something that set you apart. Blaze, for a long time, worked with animals. She had a black panther; she had a leopard. They had to come up with that on their own, and no one cared. She just brought a panther into the theater."
Blaze gave up the animal acts and moved on to other gimmicks. In one of her famous acts, she reclined on a couch that appeared to catch fire as she danced.
While interviewing West, Zemeckis was struck by how she escaped an economically disadvantaged upbringing.
"She is an example of someone who came from a really rough background," Zemeckis says. "She said, 'I saw my mother give birth in a cotton field, and that made me want to change everything.'"
Making it in burlesque was making it big.
"It's amazing how huge this industry was," Zemeckis says. "There was enough work, and enough theaters in the circuit — they could do six shows a day, six days a week, week after week. It could be a long career."