Lynn Ruth Miller
Burlesque is just vaudeville with tits
Sophie Tucker

It was in 1942 that Johnny Mercer recorded what was to become my favorite song of all time THE STRIP POLKA. I was 9 years old and we were in the midst of a horrific world war. Americans spent a lot of time collecting tin cans and paper, juggling ration stamps for gasoline, sugar, butter and meat and rallying to the cause. Children were expected to make their own entertainment, because parents were too busy surviving or rolling bandages for the Red Cross and entertaining soldiers in their homes.

Our house had a huge backyard and my mother had an extravagant supply of clothes she didn’t like anymore. My cousin Jessica and I loved to put together crazy costumes and create glitzy shows for our neighbors after we did our homework and finished our chores. We thought we were wonderful and our neighbors thought we were a welcome relief from the tension of bombings, battles and not enough sugar or butter to make a decent cake. We would spend hours sitting at the kitchen table making posters to paste on all the trees in the neighborhood. Then, on a Saturday afternoon to my mother’s horror and the other children’s delight, we would sing, dance and serve free Kool-Aide. Jessie’s dog Dell was an immense boxer who drooled all over our improvised stage and our terrier Junior was our one-man band. He barked and danced to the music while everyone clapped and stamped their feet. We sang “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”; we recited poems, did somersaults and always closed with my favorite finale: THE STRIP POLKA. I never really understood why the lady was taking things off and I never was sure WHAT she was removing, but I loved the jazzy beat. Jessica and I would romp around the improvised stage with Junior barking a rag time rhythm while we ripped off hats, coats, shoes, and hair ribbons and Dell crashed through the audience showering them with his unique brand of enthusiasm. You couldn’t beat it for a fantastic finish.

When I was sixteen years old, my date took me to a burlesque show in Toledo Ohio in an attempt to encourage me to give him what he wasn’t getting. The theater was on Superior Street tucked in between a pawn hop and a greasy spoon. It was dark and narrow and looked as if no one had touched it with a dust rag or a broom in 20 years. We groped our way through the dimly lit lobby, and I was hit in the face with an odor so dense and heavy, I almost fell to the floor. It was a combination of sweat, popcorn, semen and cockroach droppings. “I want to go home,” I told my optimistic date. “It stinks in here.”

“Give it a chance, “ said my lothario. “You will really love this show.”

I wiped off my seat with my head scarf and tried not to touch the arm rest while my date settled down to enjoy a bit of 1950’s burlesque. The music began to play, the lights dimmed and the breathing of the sparse, totally male audience accelerated. The curtains parted and there she was: a 1950 Burlesque Beauty.

Except she wasn’t. Not at all. The woman that appeared on that filthy stage framed in a tattered red velvet curtain was not the glamorous gloriously built vision I had expected. She looked like the before in a weight watcher’s ad or the center fold of a Health Magazine entitled THIS COULD HAPPEN TO YOU. She gyrated around the stage, the music’s beat slowed to a throbbing pulse of drums and clatter and she removed one shabby article of clothing after another as she moved across the stage more like an elephant on crack than a dancer on a high.

The men in the audience, gasped, sighed and moaned as each article of clothing fell to the floor and when the song ended, our tarnished queen stood before me, a living example of why my anorexia made sense. “Let’s get out of here,” I said to my date. “Zip up your pants.”

Tempest Storm said, “ I've always said that a woman's greatest weapon is a man's imagination” but that was West Coast Burlesque. In the Midwest you needed more than an imagination. You needed to be drunk, desperate and horny. That sums up
1950’s burlesque in the boondocks. Even in San Francisco, women like Blaze Star and Tempest Storm might have better figures than that demented woman I saw. Indeed they spent a bit more on their costumes, but the theme was the same: a lot of wiggling and bright smiles while women who looked lousy in a Chanel suit did the very thing I did every night before retiring: they took off their clothes. Of course, I didn’t caress myself to music. I let my dates to that.

That experience cemented my vision of what Burlesque actually was and it did not tempt me in the least. I preferred a good opera or a stage play that made me cry. I certainly never associated what I saw in that filthy theater with THE STRIP POLKA, a happy, adorable romp with cute words that didn’t make a lot of sense but always pepped up a party.

As I got older and life took me on different journeys, I always remembered that catchy song. Whenever there was an entertainment or a community-sing, I would perform it because I knew all the words and it had an infectious sound. I sang it at sorority shows, family dinners and even at funerals. I thought it would cheer everyone up. I never thought of myself as an entertainer…my Master’s Degree was in education. And besides it took a couple Brandy Alexanders or a Gin and Tonic to get me to make a fool of myself in front of people who, once they heard me, might never again be my friends.

Before I knew it, it was 2000. My life had changed. I no longer taught. I wrote books and stories and read them aloud at book stores. However, one performance led to another and everyone knows that once you give a Jewish ham a microphone, it is going to go downhill very fast.

And indeed it did.

By 2004 I found myself on stage telling jokes and wondering what I could do at the age of 71 to get people to notice me. After one of my comedy shows at Winters Bar in Pacifica, a few of us were getting drunk trying to forget how small our audience was and how little they laughed when a young man named Ian said to me, “Have you ever thought of adding music to your act?” and I remembered ….you guessed it…THE STRIP POLKA. “You know,” I said. “I have a song…………………….

And that is how it all began. One song expanded to a parody and that bloomed into a full scale cabaret show. At every show, I did my shtick, sang my songs and then for the finale, I did the one number I knew could never fail; THE STRIP POLKA.” I was 40 Mason Street in San Francisco, when Susan Alexander saw me and said, “Here comes the Stripping Granny.”

Another performer said, “Have you ever thought of Burlesque?”

I closed my eyes and remembered that disgusting theatre in Toledo, Ohio and shook my head. “I try not to,” I said.

And he said, “You know, the scene is very different these days. It is funny and entertaining and sexy in a very different way than it once was in the days of Gypsy Rose Lee and Sally Rand.”

“I’ll bet it is,” I said.

That was when I met Maxwell Wood. “I know some people who would LOVE your act,” he said.

And you know the rest.

Burlesque is about…. knowing how to
Shake what you have and being proud of it.
Baby Doe

Labels: , ,