Pics courtesy of Neil Kendall
Words by Kiki DeVille
Deep in the Nevada desert, on an abandoned goat farm, is not where you’d expect to find a museum dedicated to the art of striptease, but when retired dancer Jennie Lee dreamed of setting up the Exotic World Burlesque Museum, she had visions of fans making the pilgrimage to view photographs and costumes from the Burlesque stars of yesteryear. There was a time when the Burlesque stage was almost as famous as Broadway and vaudeville circuits like the Orpheum and Chicago were kings of cash.
When Jennie Lee died of breast cancer in 1990, one of the biggest names in Burlesque took over and paved the way for the Burlesque Hall of Fame as we know today.
The “Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque,” Dixie Evans was an enormous star throughout the 1950s. Famous for her killer curves, dynamic moves and of course her striking resemblance to the superstar Miss Monroe, Dixie managed to sustain a glittering career.
In 1991, Dixie started the Miss Exotic World Pageant to bring tourists and performers along to the museum and decided to bring the former stars of Burlesque to the ranch in Las Vegas, where the museum was then located. These women, many of them now in their 60s and 70s, jumped at the opportunity to come together and talk about the old days, but also pass along their wisdom to an emerging Burlesque scene, which was slowly making its way back in to underground clubs in the USA and Europe and so, the annual weekender was born.
Sadly, there are few household names of Burlesque. Some like: Gypsy Rose Lee, Sally Rand, Lili St Cyr and Dixie Evans are paid homage to at the museum, which has given people an opportunity to glimpse into the lives of these glamorous stars.
Whilst other Vaudeville stars could make the cross over from the stage to the screen, notably Laurel and Hardy and Bob Hope, few stars of Burlesque ever did more than bit parts in movies. There was a disconnect between what people would tolerate on stage and what they would allow on screen. This limited the earning potential of these hardworking women to what they could earn on the “circuit.” There were few people being paid the astronomical sums demanded by Gypsy and Lili.
Fast forward 40 plus years and there were many retired dancers, stars of their time, with little or no savings and no real earning potential. Of course, there were the exceptions. Beverly Arlynne went on to run a successful acting agency and of course some were to marry and never look back at their careers of yesteryear. With no universal health care and many without health insurance, the legends looked within their community for help, and the BHoF stepped up.
The job of the weekender, along with the museum, is to raise money to help support the Legends of Burlesque in whatever way they need. For some, it may be bringing them to Vegas for the weekender, others it may be medical bills, but the support is there and grows bigger every year.
On the BHoF Board, along with Dita Von Tease and Dirty Martini, you will also find the UK’s very own Neil ‘Nez’ Kendall. Award winning photographer, Neil’s passion for Burlesque is almost unmatched. He is the curator of the museum and has painstakingly brought together hundreds of photographs and collectibles from the careers of these wonderful women. Over the years, he has gotten to know many of them personally, and his encyclopedic knowledge of the industry is unbeatable. The stories he tells are equally inspiring and heartbreaking and his personal friendships with many of these stars make his curatorship even more powerful.
“I met Dixie in 1990 before the weekender started before the resurgence in BurlyQ. I went to the Museum in Helendale California and met her there. She wanted to attract people to come and see the collection, housed in an old goat farm in the Mojave Desert. She had spent her professional life on stage; she was a real show woman. She told me, ‘Neil, I wanted to raise a profile for our little museum and back in the day I had been a Miss flame proof Negligee, A Miss Tinned Tomato, A Miss California so why not have a Miss Burlesque?’ That was how her mind worked!”
That meant in the pre-internet era she mailed old press contacts and fans by snail mail or phone. Dixie was very bombastic so she wrote a grand press release stating that the Burlesque legends would all be there: Tempest Storm, Lilli St Cyr et al. For the first show they weren’t there and when the press came to see the first competition she said, “Oh I said they were invited, I didn’t actually say they would show up!” She was very funny: a real character.
From that little seed, the Burlesque Hall of Fame grew. It grew because Dixie was the spirit of Burlesque she was our Godmother really. The Kitten DeVilles, Dirty Martinis, Dita Von Teeses, they all went to see her and the museum. It was called The Road to Mecca by industry pros because it was our home, it inspired us all. Her wonderful vision of what burlesque was and more importantly could be again, inspired us all.
She passed away four years ago, and in Neil’s last conversation with her she said, “you know Neil, burlesque is like a calling, it’s like being a priest or something.” Neil reminisces that he loved that those words were their final contact.
The Burlesque Hall of Fame is in the heart of Las Vegas’ Arts District and is open all year round.
The BHoF Weekender is held annually in the first week of June.
Sources: Burlesque Hall of Fame, Behind the Burly Q by Leslie Zemeckis.