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Behind the Burly Q (DVD Review)

11 Apr, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Street 4/12/11
First Run
Box Office $0.02 million
$27.95 DVD
Not rated.

Marriages were many, and few of the subjects here ended up in straits as comfortable as, say, Barbra Streisand’s. But on balance, the mostly aged former burlesque strippers that filmmaker Leslie Zemeckis interviews for this talking-heads remembrance claim to have had a jolly good time of it and speak of the now quaint old profession with fondness.

And yes, Leslie is indeed married to Robert Zemeckis, and if her documentary isn’t the most stylistically imaginative you’ll ever see, it does offer a better time than anything the once dependable Robert has directed since 2000’s Cast Away (though let it be said that he served as Burly Q’s executive producer). While Robert spent much of the past decade fashioning blah family entertainment like The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol with a little Beowulf thrown in, here was Leslie (at times quite pregnant during this documentary’s own long gestation period) knocking on trailers and asking the residents a lot of questions. Like: what it was like working with Mob backing, or the seedy male comics who were part of the daily landscape or the drummers whose percussive exclamation points didn’t always synch perfectly with your own method of bumping and grinding.

Performers’ costumes weren’t cheap, and you couldn’t get anything at all decent for under in $250 in old-time dollars. A lot of the women (no surprise) took the jobs to get out of terrible family situations — and started when they were underage (sometimes significantly so) if they thought they could get away with it. You had to learn the legal why’s and wherefores of each city’s statutes; one might even have an ordinance that forbade you to take off anything on stage, which means you’d have to walk behind the curtain, remove whatever apparel that came next in the act, and return on stage shorn of it (makes a lot of sense, right?). One of the strictest cities was Detroit in terms of what the law wouldn’t let you do; could this really have been a higher legal priority than busting the Motown’s famed Purple Gang? Almost to a woman, interview subjects claim that they were too tired to party and that the Mob (nice guys, they add) could never maintain the mandatory control they had to have if their attractions weren’t keeping their work ethic on track.

A lot of the subjects advance the oft-spoken lore that the comics were really the stars of burlesque and its audience draws — and maybe it’s even true given the number of times I’ve heard this (though it strains credulity). There’s a section here about future stars who came out of burlesque, and Lou Costello’s daughter tells about his initial pairing with partner Bud Abbott and also the famous story about how Costello once went through with a network radio broadcast even though his infant son had gotten out of a playpen and drowned that afternoon in the family swimming pool.

A major high point is hearing Alan Alda reminisce about his long-ago backstage time as a “child of burlesque” because father Robert (who eventually played George Gershwin in Rhapsody in Blue and originated the Sky Masterson role in Broadway’s Guys and Dolls) spent his early career working in the burly-q trade. The younger Alda is philosophical about it and certainly seems to have emerged from the experience with a screwed-on head, but despite warm memories, he likens it to a certain form of child abuse. You know he had to have seen a thing or two.

Most of these survivors have only good thing to say about each other, though it’s interesting that the mention of the most famous stripper (Gypsy Rose Lee) brings on some brickbats. Showing up in other anecdotes or vintage footage are Sally Rand, Ann Corio, Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm, Candy Barr, Lili St. Cyr and all the other women who captured my imaginations as a 9-year-old when I either read about them or saw newspaper ads for them at the Gayety Theater in my home town. I really yearned for an unlikely chance to go to the Gayety at that time, even though an adult male relative set me straight during, again, around fourth grade, by saying, “Well, first of all, you don’t get to see anything good.”

But about two years later, the joint closed its doors — no doubt a victim, just like every other like venue in the country, first of television and later the double whammy of the women’s movement and readily available explicit entertainment. Even air conditioning didn’t work. Zemeckis captured these unique histories in the nick of time, and the DVD extras include a tribute to several performers who died during the documentary’s long production process. The extras also include a reunion party of many of the featured principals, and the documentary itself contains footage from the frank interview of St. Cyr on Mike Wallace’s famed ‘50s interview show — the one that every week must have set some kind of record for second-hand smoke. Wallace was a significant pain even then, though I do remember that his program spurred a superb Mad Magazine parody where Wallace grilled guest Mother Goose.

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