Legendary Stars of the Stage"
by Jane Briggeman
Collectors Press, 2004
There have been many
books written about the golden age of burlesque, but none have had the
personal feel that Jane Briggeman brings to new her book Burlesque:
Legendary Stars of the Stage. Briggeman has formed deep, personal friendships
with the men and women who made the burlesque circuit what it was.
Here now is an exclusive
interview with Briggeman about Burlesque: Legendary Stars of the Stage.
* * * * *
Java's Bachelor Pad: Give us a brief history
on the period of Burlesque you cover--the theaters, the circuits, etc...
Jane Briggeman: In my book, BURLESQUE:
Legendary Stars of the Stage, I write mostly about the last decades
of burlesque, the 1940’s into the late 1960’s, because those are the years
and people I've gotten to know the best through our group, “The Golden
Days of Burlesque Historical Society.” Those who have been found and are
members, over 200 of them, all worked during the last years burlesque theatres
were open, or they worked in early clubs. MANY of the dancers had it written
into their contracts that they wouldn't mix with the customers in clubs.
Occasionally the club owners tried to force the issue with these dancers,
and the women walked away. Others preferred working in clubs, saying that's
where they made the big money. What I have found over the years is that
every performer is different, and they all have stories to share. There
is also a chapter that briefly covers the entire history of burlesque.
JBP: How did you get interested in Burlesque
and the people who performed on the circuit? What is it about Burlesque
that intrigues you so much?
JB: I've always been interested in all
forms of old entertainment history. Even as a kid, that's all I wanted
to read and explore. Norma Jean Bell, Librarian at the Kendall Young Library
in Webster City, Iowa allowed me to read theatre and old movie books in
the “upstairs library,” before I was 14. (At that time you had to be 14
to check materials out from the “upstairs library.”)
JBP: Who are the performers who really
stand out for you? Three from your book really stand out for me--Jennie
Lee, Dee Milo, and Mona Vaughn. Why are these gals important to you?
JB: EVERYONE who worked on a burlesque
stage is important to me. Jennie Lee strived to keep the dancers connected
all of her life. Preserving the history of burlesque was VERY important
to her. It's because of Jennie the “west coast gals” became something of
a family. When she died in 1990, that family fell a part. Starting in 1995,
with Betty Rowland’s help, we began holding Reunions strictly for those
who worked in old-time burlesque. I feel we have reunited the family; only
this time we include everyone who worked in old-time burlesque, not just
After our last Burlesque Historical Society
Reunion in 2000, it was Dee Milo who suggested I HAD to write about those
Id met from burlesque. We had already lost several from the group; so Dee
was pretty insistent people be remembered, and it must be done NOW. But
then anyone who meets Dee Milo, Venus of Dance, I think would agree she
is a very special woman.
Mona Vaughn was one of the first dancers from
burlesque I hooked up with. We wrote each other at least every week, sometimes
more, and you can't help but become close to someone you communicate with
that often. It was only during the last 6 months of her life that we didn't
write, but she truly was not well. Mona was also the one who introduced
me to Electra in 1994. Until then I didn't realize Electra was a real person—I
thought she was a “character” from “Gypsy.” Believe me, Electra was VERY
EVERYONE who's a part of “The Golden Days of
Burlesque Historical Society” is special to me. I hope all who read my
book/s regarding old-time burlesque come to feel the same, as they meet
more of the performers, and learn more about the history.
JBP: While going through your book, I read
about a few gals I knew...A lot I didn't know. I was also surprised at
some of the gals you didn't feature: Lili St. Cyr,
Storm, Evelyn West, etc... How did you decide
who to include in your book?
JB: When you read the chapter on Lee
Stuart, a house singer and straight man, he says, ”There is a lot of published
history that covers the so-called stars of the business, but very little
about the supporting casts that really made up the nuts and bolts of the
business. Most of that information died with the people who lived it.”
Those words stuck with me. You can read about Lili, Tempest, Evelyn, and
so many others pretty much everywhere you look…but where else can you discover
the “nuts and bolts of burlesque,” but through my book?
JBP: This book seems very personal to you.
You include a lot of comments, asides, dedications, and memories about
the performers you've met along the way. When did your interest in Burlesque
move from being a hobby to something deeper?
JB: I think my interest in burlesque
has grown more personal over the years simply because so many in the group
have become “family.” As the years pass we have gone through births, and
deaths, together. Friendships have developed. Several in the group have
told me I have an “old soul”---that I understand them. Maybe it's partially
due to spending 25 years as a “techie” with school and civic theatre groups;
so I have a love for live stage performances. What I know for certain is
that I care about these people a great deal!
JBP: There is a real sense of sadness running
throughout the book. You introduce us to all these interesting people,
and then, in many cases, talk about how they were forgotten or ran into
bad luck in their later years. There is also a sense that this part of
American popular culture is disappearing into history as these performers
die off. How do you balance the joy and excitement you have for Burlesque
culture and this sense of sadness?
who performed in burlesque shows provided audiences with one of the most
popular forms of entertainment into the 1960’s…yet today they are all but
forgotten. Think how much fun it must have been to perform in live shows,
with costumes, lights, and music. There were thousands of people who worked
in burlesque… WHERE ARE THEY?
Unfortunately it's a fact of life that as people
die, their history and stories die with them. Since the book was released
in September we've lost our oldest comic in the group, Jimmy Mathews, 91,
passed away in October.
It's frustrating for me that so few see the
urgency of preserving this history, before it's too late. These are the
people who entertained our parents and grandparents. This IS American culture…and
we, as a whole, are allowing it to fade away. Look at the way Zorita signed
her photo to me—I believe that's how many feel. She wrote, “…the “only
one” who gives a f___ about us old broads.” What does that say to you?
It tells me there is little respect or interest in anyone in this country
after they reach a certain age…and that's sad!
JBP: Tell us about your group, The
Golden Days of Burlesque Historical Society. How did that come about?
JB: In December 1994, “Tanayo,” already
not well, asked my help in finding and reconnecting her with those she
had known and worked with in burlesque decades before. All she wanted was
to communicate with old acquaintances while she was still well enough to
The Golden Days of Burlesque Historical Society,”
came into existence in 1995 because of “Tanayo”—but over the years it's
become a family. The group now numbers almost 250 people; over 200 of those
worked in burlesque by or before 1965. Recently, the public has been invited
to join the mailing list and receive the newsletters as well, but at a
slightly higher cost which helps others in the group receive their newsletters.
The newsletter keeps everyone connected, preserves the history, and helps
to find others who worked in old-time burlesque.
JBP: The back of your book feature a huge
list of performers you're looking for. Any luck at finding some of these
JB: I'm hoping we can find some additional
people, or information regarding them, which is why their names were listed
in the book. We have already learned that “Kina Bare” died in 1997. She
is one we have been looking for since 1995.
JBP: I heard you're working on volume two
of this book. Who will you be featuring in that book?
JB: Just as in Book I, there are chapters
about various individuals, but more of the “living members” of the Burlesque
Historical Society have been written about in Book II. Also more of the
men and the roles they played, as well as theatre information. Again, it's
a variety, but there are nearly 75 people written about in the first chapter,
whether it's one paragraph or 10-- ALL who are a part of the BHS. And yes,
there will be plenty of photos!