Our 2019 Sparkly Devil Memorial Scholarship recipient, Precious Ephemera, shares how her experiences studying with the legends of burlesque at the BHoF Weekender solidified her commitment to community.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
From the moment I received the call that I was the Sparkly Devil Memorial Scholarship recipient I was ready to sink my teeth into this awesome opportunity. What I imagined lay ahead for me was an all-access pass to everything BHoF and I would need to pay attention and take a lot of notes to soak it all up – but what actually happened was that, by allowing myself to immersively experience the weekender, I began to see the taproot of how the art of burlesque has survived drought and famine to thrive with all the glittery glory we enjoy today. Furthermore, I began to see the impact Sparkly Devil herself made with her fearless enthusiasm for burlesque.
It all started when I was assigned to escort Miss April March, the First Lady of Burlesque. Escorting a legend is an incredible privilege and I think the universe had a plan for me and Miss April, her Wikipedia page alone guaranteed that there were incredible stories locked inside this icon and the life she has led. When the time came to call I was just excited to hear her voice.
From the jump we started arranging travel plans and I even booked her a hair appointment in Las Vegas while I was still waiting at the airport in New Orleans for my flight. You see, I knew that I was going to get to meet April but I didn’t realize that even across generations we share infinitely more similarities to who we are as people than differences. By the time we actually met in person outside the Orleans Hotel we had already struck a golden friendship. Being mindful of April’s whereabouts and personal needs throughout the weekend helped to keep me focused and grounded through the whirlwind of glamour and intrigue. In a way, she escorted me into a new dimension where the experiences of our collective history was suddenly normalized and unified. Throughout the weekend, I would come to realize how accessible my dreams were and this experience truly gave me permission to take root in the fertile soil of our community. Here’s how.
I get settled into my hotel room at the Orleans and had almost no time at all to get into a full beauty look, pick up my legend and escort her to the Movers, Shakers & Innovators Showcase. Outside the showroom, the casino is a buzz with glitz and glamour as creatively clad burlesque hopefuls mingle. Everyone is laughing, shooting photos and reuniting. On the arm of the First Lady of Burlesque, I’m introduced to many of her contemporaries and, as if spinning through a revolving door in a cartoon, I find myself making acquaintances with many of the people in the community I’ve admired for years until I’m seated in the second row – right beside neo-Legends and Exotic World title holders, to watch the first night of inspiration. There’s no looking back and there’s little time for note taking. Honestly, it’s questionable to blink at this point. After the show we pour out of the theater, everyone gobsmacked and revelling, some off to after parties while others retreat for a glimpse of sleep.
I wake up and get a little coffee before I head to my first day of Burlycon Finishing School. First up, “The Stocking Peel” with Lovey Goldmine whose enthusiasm is contagious! With delight she regales us with her years in the biz from her days in the Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris to the Merv Griffin Show. She tells us that applause is her drug of choice and tells us all, “Don’t look that age thing in the mirror, don’t do it, don’t make eye contact” – good advice from someone as timeless as Lovey.
We haven’t even put our stockings on and already everyone in the room is fueled up and excited about the magic of the stage as it’s transmitted through Lovey’s sweet passion. She demonstrates that stockings should be slow and sensual, to sit at the edge of the chair and lean back for balance, and how to use a prop over the lap to bring the focus to your legs.
She invites us all to give a little stocking peel performance and we delight in the opportunity to try to fill the room with as much joy as Lovely does.
Suddenly, the mood becomes a little more intimate and she breaks the fourth wall giving us all some personal insight into the love and appreciation she has for her late mother, we learn how much the sisterhood of burlesque and it’s neo revival mean to her. In her closing remarks she says that “if you remember one thing – it’s kindness. Kindness will always be the most important thing.”
We reset the room for “Legendary Life and Story Discussion” with Tina Pratt and I learned things I couldn’t have conceived of in my experience as a stage performer today. Tina started dancing at the age of 3 and attended the same dance school as Gene Kelly. She’s relatable and endearing as she describes her first experience seeing a white burlesque dancer when she was an usher in the theater, how she was afraid she might get in trouble somehow. She laughs about how she never wore her glasses to perform and when contact lenses became common she saw her audience for the first time and, in her own words, was “completely terrified”. Chris Harder holds a laptop to offer visual aid and to help her keep the outline of her storytelling.
She speaks so earnestly about her experiences coming of age as an entertainer and a woman of color. There is nowhere else on earth you can learn about the reality of this history and understand the experience than from our living legends like Tina Pratt. The most remarkable thing for me in this workshop is witnessing how intently my POC peers are absorbing this information and reinforcing their own belief in what is possible for them. This inspiration is palpable and, while I have always felt its importance to some theoretical degree, its transmission is not exactly google-able.
There is something spiritual happening. There is an inherent solemnity and reverence in the room as this gentle woman walks us all through the seasons of her life with tender remembrance and nostalgia. It becomes cemented in you that we all have a responsibility to learn about the past and shape the future. It was intriguing to hear her say that that most entertainers got along well and that most of the tension came from producers and club owners who created or reinforced the race politics of the day.
She tells us of the “chitlin circuit” where clubs in all the black neighborhoods featured 3 shows a night for 25 weeks and chorus girl jobs were plentiful and how subsequently the unions ended up killing the chitlin circuit because the pay went up and black clubs could no longer afford chorus girls. But, taking what would become her advice to our group, Tina Pratt would “never say no when you need a job, be it safety pins or straight pins you’re gonna make that gig and always find a way to get on stage.”
Tina tells us how wonderful it was for a while to headline and be “the only girl” for infamous drag cabarets like The Jewel Box and the Pearl Box Revue. Again, I had always presumed that these intersections must have existed, but it was surreal to hear someone talk about it because they were there. And as a result, I felt more connected to everyone in the room. I felt more exact in my place in the history of this great body of work. The specificity is indescribable. She says, “if you’re a performer, keep an open mind but ignore negativity and focus on yourself and just keep stepping”
A quick bite to eat and a whirlwind shower and makeup moment before I’m picking up April to escort her to the theater for the Titans of Tease legends showcase. Seasoned MC World Famous *BOB* calls the community into the space to remember Jenny Lee and Dixie Evans and the Exotic World Reunions in the desert on the goat farm. How these women kept a little flame alive to be re-ignited into the burlesque movement we see across the globe today. You can read my play-by-play of this night culminating in a showstopping performance by Legend of the Year Camille 2000, who I would be privileged to meet in the morning for her Finishing School seminar entitled “Burlesque on the Wild Side”.
Saturday and Sunday
The chance to hold the hand of the Godmother of Neo-Burlesque, to make eye contact and to thank her for her contributions to the art of burlesque is the single most profound moment of the entire weekender for me. Arriving in a wheelchair fashioned like a throne with a backrest made up of a million fingers flipping the bird (you can’t make this up!), she told us of the ways she got into the business, how she learned all the rules and then broke all the rules. Then she began making what she called “aggressive art” to keep her audience. She decided for herself what she liked and what she didn’t and she was the first to say “I’m not for everyone” but she never apologized – in fact her manager Leroy was always firing her only to find himself re-hiring her because she could bring in the audience. She also tells us to “try to stay in touch with younger people, that’s what I did, for me it was the punk people”. What a statement as she holds the room for people who are at least thirty years her junior. Here I am thinking I’ve gotta learn from my elders, and here she is telling us all to watch and support young people and learn from them!
She left us with a mic drop “You’ve got no excuse for not fighting, we’re burlesque queens and we’re strong – that’s what we do,” and speaking of her relationship to the stage she says, “You gotta find the place for you where you can go and it’s not gonna kill you from the inside.” She says this as the woman who took the stage the night before with stage IV metastasized cancer all over her body, having outlived her prognosis by almost a year, delivering a vulnerable performance to an adoring crowd. I will never forget Camille 2000, who passed less than two months later.
Egypt Blaque Knyle prepares the room to help our next presenter get comfortable. Toni Elling is one of the most beloved legends at the Burlesque Hall of Fame, known as Duke Ellington’s muse and the inspiration behind “Satin Doll”. She shows up with a high pony and an afghan on her lap. She tells us, shy as she was, how she made her way to the stage and that remaining humble and modest was the source of her intrigue. She would tell herself, “I had to be on my toes, be myself, and don’t act a fool.” She implored the room to lead by example. With the poise of a headmistress taking responsibility for her pupils she says, “I insist on you being ladies. Be a professional, don’t put your clothes on the floor – that is your living. And be prepared! Always travel with two outfits.”
She speaks gracefully and intricately about racial inequality and acknowledges the performers of color in the room, saying “some of you know exactly what I’m talking about. Egypt knows, but if we let those things bother us we wouldn’t be here would we?” From her days as a telephone operator in Detroit when Michigan Bell refused to give her a promotion to taking matters into her own hands and making her way into the hearts of her audiences everywhere, Toni recounts the way people admired her strut. One audience member told her how she seemed to be so happy up there and she said, “I am! You all are my show!”
I would learn later that Toni was brought to the Burlesque Hall of Fame for the first time in 2006. A year earlier Sparkly Devil, who was then the culture editor for the Detroit Metro Times, learned about Lottie the Body and as a result met Toni and began a wonderful friendship. It was a wild awakening to see that the woman whose commitment to burlesque and the Museum was the whole reason I had been sitting there in such legendary company and seeing the magic of the weekend unfold from the second row. The pieces continued to fall into place. You can read Sparkly’s original article documenting their first encounter on my website. I have since learned more about the impact Sparkly Devil made with her fearless enthusiasm for burlesque and I’m grateful to be propelled to carry the torch and commit myself to preserving the legendary history of ecdysiast art at home in New Orleans and abroad.
“Bump and Grind Boot Camp” with Penny Starr Sr. started with some brief statements about the business of burlesque and revealed just how tenacious Penny Starr Sr. has been her whole life. True to her nature, after only a little bit of conversation she had everyone on their feet and testing their hips and glutes to some classic bump and grind tunes. We are all taking turns and encouraging each other down a central aisle, Soul Train-style, as Penny Starr peppers her instructions with iconic statements like “the stage is yours, they paid to see you so LET THEM SEE YOU!” and sweetly reminding us that “the body is beautiful, we are just practicing to make it MORE beautiful!” – it was quite possibly the most athletic of the Finishing School classes and a perfect bookend to Lovey’s opener.
That night, the Burlesque Hall of Fame crowned Frankie Fictitious Miss Exotic World and Queen of Burlesque 2019. Sunday morning, equal parts world summit and church brunch, we hear from our heroes at the Legends panel as they share what it means to be truly legendary. They speak of unity and remind us to hold space for one another: “The sky is big enough for all the stars to shine”. There is a circle of ecdysiast life and if you’re reading this article – you’re already a part of it. There is no end to what we can learn but we have to actively seek to absorb the life and stories of our legends. They are the only known source of this wisdom. Jo Weldon informs the crowd that the museum is developing a program called Lunching with the Legends, where small groups can share intimate meals with the Titans of Tease themselves in 2020. I have learned first-hand the importance of connecting with these incredible performers and I hope anyone interested in being a part of the world of burlesque takes the opportunity to understand the power of their legacy. The world of burlesque is vast and the creative possibilities are endless today. That reality is well-nourished through the taproot of this history.
I’m profoundly grateful to the Burlesque Hall of Fame and I’m forever changed because of this experience. I wouldn’t have made to Las Vegas this year without Sparkly Devil and this scholarship. As a result, I’m committed to helping the up-and-coming entertainers of the ever-enduring burlesque revival know their predecessors. We are standing on the shoulders of giants and the view is spectacular. We owe it to them to never question our place on the stage, to commit to standards of artistic excellence, to learn their stories and honor their legacy. We owe it to them to keep the burlesque flame burning bright and let their passion continue to live through us, for as far as the eye can see.
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