“At Toni’s Side”: Lessons from the 2015 BHoF Weekender by Sparkly Devil Memorial Scholarship winner Tessa von Twinkle



Tessa von Twinkle with Toni Elling Along with so many others in our community who haven’t yet experienced it for themselves, I’ve been e-creeping on The Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender for years.  Whether Facebook-feed binging, watching hours of YouTube videos, or partaking in the many other fantastic modern marvels of social media, I’ve annually soaked up the weekender online vicariously through my friends, peers, and idols.  I have also always been *extremely* grateful to all of those who have taken the extra time to make sure that they documented their experiences in this way for the rest of us out there.  Each year I told myself, “Glitter, help me, I WILL get there next year”, just to have to give myself yet another rain check.

With this, you can imagine that upon notice of my receiving this year’s Sparkly Devil Memorial Scholarship, I was over-the-moon with excitement at the opportunity to FINALLY creep LIVE and in person on the BHoF Weekender!   That being said, I was also fully aware prior to my scholarship application, as well as upon notice of receipt, that *MY* first BHoF Weekender experience would be unlike any other.  I would soon discover through service what the weekender was really about.  Not awards, titles, fancy garb, and making a scene in The Orleans (though those things are fantastic bonuses to attending), but honoring the history of burlesque, and those who created it.

You see, the purpose of the Sparkly Devil Memorial Scholarship is one of community service and education. This spawned from Sparkly’s love of the Legends and of giving back to the burlesque community as a whole. Though I unfortunately was never able to meet Sparkly myself before her untimely passing, I didn’t need to look far to see her impact and how loved and cherished she was by all.  Since 2009, the art form of burlesque has changed my life dramatically for the better.  I’ve wanted nothing more than to offer myself up to give back to the community and to the legends who have paved the way for us all to do what we do.  I was up for the challenge!

Tessa von Twinkle with Toni Elling and Lottie the Body

Tessa von Twinkle with Toni Elling and Lottie the Body

Shortly before the weekender, I was advised by Tigger! that my assigned legend for the weekend would be THE beloved 2014 Legend of the Year, Ms. Toni Elling!  Having met Toni briefly in Minnesota a few years back, and having seen her light shine on stage personally, I was equally excited and terrified to be in such an important role and to serve such an amazing soul.  I called her a few times leading up to the weekend, but we kept missing each other.  Poor Ms. Toni was the recipient of a number of rambling, nervous phone messages from me. Of course, I secretly (and irrationally) worried she wouldn’t like me.  However, that fear quickly dissipated upon arriving at The Orleans on Thursday, luckily bumping right into Toni, her roommate Lottie the Body, and Ms. Indigo Blue as they worked their way back to their rooms.  “Of course, I’ll take it from here,” I exclaimed to Indigo as I took Toni’s hand and began the whirlwind of my weekend escorting journey.

I quickly mentioned to Toni that I had won the lucky role of being her escort this year as a result of the Sparkly Devil Scholarship.  Upon mention of Sparkly’s name, Toni’s kind eyes instantly turned sad and began to glaze over with tears.  “Oh great,” I thought to myself, “I’ve been at her side for less than an hour and I’ve already made her cry”.  It was clear that Toni’s bond with Sparkly was strong, and rightfully so. Later I was to find out that it was Sparkly who introduced Toni to the BHOF community years ago after having located her as a newspaper article interviewee.  Toni was one of many impactful contributions that Sparkly Devil made to The Burlesque Hall of Fame.  It was serendipitous that I now had the honor to serve her.

Prior to Thursday’s “Movers, Shakers, and Innovators” showcase, Toni asked me if I would mind helping her put her eyelashes on.  “Sure! I mean, I’ll do my best”, I stated out loud as other thoughts ran through my head.  “Awesome. Let me just poke out this beloved legend’s eye on DAY 1 of the weekender.”  I’d never ACTUALLY put someone else’s lashes/make-up on other than myself, let alone an 87 year old burlesque star.  However, I was determined to do right by her despite my terror.  Sensing my fear, Toni instantly put me at ease stating that they would be perfect regardless because *I* was doing them for her.  What a sweetie!  She proved to be such an empowering and uplifting force to everyone she encountered that weekend, especially me.

Heading out to show # 1, Toni warned me to watch and see what happened as we started walking through the casino together towards the showroom.  “You think you know, but you don’t know… just wait,” she said, referring to how many times we would be stopped in this short jaunt.  She was right!  It was a phenomenon! Fancy people came out of the woodwork from every angle to get a piece of Ms. Toni, and she would stop and engage each and every one of them with love.  On the plus side, I didn’t have to worry a second about initiating a single conversation throughout the weekend.  Seriously, if you have any social anxiety issues, slap a Legend on your arm for BHoF Weekender, and you are socially SET!  On the minus side, I learned quickly that we would need to do a lot more pre-planning to assure we got to all of the events on time.  Regardless, the fanfare was a delight to encounter.  “Why do they ALWAYS cry?”, Toni repeated multiple times throughout the weekend, adorably, each time someone began to weep with joy at a chance to meet and hug her.  It really hit me in those moments that these women NEVER would have expected that another generation would honor their efforts and work.  The Thursday showcase was diverse and delightful with the perfect amount of tease to start the weekend off right.  (Side note: The VIP show seats I received as part of the scholarship were outrageously perfect to see all of the action up close and personal!)

Tessa von Twinkle with Toni Elling

Tessa von Twinkle with Toni Elling

Friday was Toni’s big day, and mine was filled with the business of assuring that it all unfolded smoothly for her.  I wanted to be sure that all of her needs were taken care of for her Legends of the Year step-down performance that evening, which she mentioned she was oddly nervous for.  “I have NEVER been nervous like this,” she stated, “NEVER.”  Nonetheless, I repeated some familiar words back to her that she had mentioned to me the night prior, “Well, Toni, like you said…If you can’t convince yourself, then how will you convince the audience?”  She was tickled and encouraged that I was using her own words against her.  My partner and I were happily on call for anything she needed that day, and let me tell you, BHoF fills these legend’s schedules TIGHT!  We were hustling considering how much time we needed to lump in for the casino floor fanfare journeys, which could take anywhere from 30-45 minutes with all the hug-stops!  At tech, Inga Ingénue sweetly came over to Ms. Elling, opening up a stunning rhinestoned set of underthings she had freshly embellished for Toni just moments before with stones provided by Indigo Blue.  So many people coming together to assure that each legend was at their personal best was a beauty to experience.

Having unofficially tagged myself as, “The Glamour Nana of Burlesque”, I was more excited for the Legends showcase than any other event of the weekender.  Something about these Legends playing out a piece of history after so many had put burlesque on the shelf for years has always been touching to me.  Not only do “they still have it”, but they REALLY still have it, and can teach us so much.  The World Famous *BOB* opened The Titans of Tease show by warning the audience that either they WOULD be crying that evening OR that they were surely soulless vampires.  Having never cried at a burlesque show before, and also not having prepared at all to become a crying make-up mess, I was worried about my soul and my face.  Her words would prove to be true, however, and I would prove to not be a soulless vampire after all.  My weeping-mess moment came when the beautiful Dee Milo took the stage wearing one of her original costumes, a red dress, which was the only remaining relic from the dancer’s past burly-life.  For a moment, all sense of time passed from me, and I easily could have been watching her back in her hay day.  I relished in imagining this moment occurring at another time and place.  Though Dee’s performance ultimately was the one to move me to tears, every single Legend was ON IT and wonderfully entertaining that evening.  So many curtains humped, and so much “granny glam” rolling around on The Orleans Floor!  Burlesque is indeed timeless for those who live it.  I cherished every moment I was able to watch.

After the first half of the show, I switch modes from crying super-fan to glamour assistant for Ms. Elling, who would be rounding out the second half of the show.  Walking backstage with her was surreal, as a mixture burlesque Legends and current icons were prepping side-by-side.  I squinted a little and tried to imagine myself in a cramped burlesque dressing room back in the 50s or 60s and wondered if would have been similar to the current display.  It was a beautiful thing, with performers busy in backstage prep business, all the while, laughing and enjoying each other’s company and catching up.  Toni was excited to unveil a new version of herself, wearing purple in a different way than she ever had before: on her head.  Yes, she had the sweetest little purple bob wig and she thought the audience and her friends would get a kick out of this new sassy reveal.  Of course, it would be stunning on her, but not before Ms. Indigo Blue jumped in to help out with some prep and primping.  Thank goodness that Indigo noticed me struggling out of the corner of her eye, and kindly came to the rescue with a teasing comb and some hair pins.  Magic was made, and I was grateful for the help.   It was a moment that once again reminded me what BHoF is all about; the current crop of burlesque stars, fans, and hopefuls paying respect (and tribute) to some of the first generations who paved the way for our art form.

Big Fannie Annie

Big Fannie Annie

The beautiful Fannie Annie, whom I’ve e-creeped on for years, had created one of her luxurious Star Boas for Ms. Elling to use for her grande performance.  She had a few other extra boas that she had brought along backstage “just in case” and was thoughtfully offering them for use to any Legend passing by.  “Do you need a Boa, Honey?” she kept saying with a smile.  It was beautiful, kind, and giving of her to do.   Of course, I had to literally bite my tongue to keep myself from piping in, “Yes, I’ll take one of those!” at the thought of the opportunity to drown myself in the elegance, if only for a moment.   But alas, I had other, more pressing duties at hand than rolling around in the “eleganza” of a Star Boa backstage… this time.

Once Toni was in full glamour mode and set to go, I watched and observed as she communed with many other Legends, most of whom she had met through the BHoF community and events throughout the years.  I’m certain that there is a bond they all share unlike any other, as no one else in this world really knows what it was like for them as burlesque performers in another era.  Now, because of The Burlesque Hall of Fame, they can come together and share their similar experiences with each other and us.  In part, I’m sure it feels like home for them, like a safe place, and a true “I’ve found my people” experience.  This comradery is something worth preserving, so that our generation and ones to come have that same feeling of interconnectedness that will follow us throughout our lives, well past our burlesque careers.

Despite having passed on a full run-through at tech, Ms. Toni Elling killed it in on stage that evening in her purple with and gigantic Star Boa.  She even gave the audience a surprise pastie reveal, courtesy of Foxy Tann’s gifting of a fabulous pair of “Hardcore Pasties”.  Though many of our Legends beautifully and painstakingly choreograph their “Titans of Tease” routines, I think it’s important to note the beauty in the improvisational moments many shared that evening as well as in their pasts. As a lover and procurer of improvisational live band burlesque, myself, I love to witness these organic moments that occur in “the heat of the moment” for one time and one audience only.  What a treat and inspiration for all of us in attendance!  I hope that as performers in the new burlesque movement that we all allow ourselves the opportunities to deviate from our choreography or let go to the abandon of the moment from time to time to keep this aspect of burlesque alive and well.

It was clear that after a full day of activity and a successful performance, Toni was starting to lose steam.  That is, until her adoring fans and friends came around.  That fantastic woman loves to interact with people and is so gracious to her followers.  The love she received from the community kept her going for another couple of hours that evening so she could hug up so many of her claimed “sons” and “daughters” of burlesque outside of the showroom doors and all the way back up to her room. Friday was a truly magical night and a reminder to us all that BHoF started with and is all about the Legends and our burlesque past.

Gabriella Maze

Gabriella Maze

Feeling the weight of performance day off of our shoulders, Toni did some R & R on Saturday morning while I soaked in a few more Finishing School classes with the Legends.  On Friday morning, before the whirlwind began, I had the honor of attending Gabriella Maze’s “Sensuality and the Cape” class, where I left inspired by the movement, motion, and simplicity of fabric as a prop.  Students each took their turn giving it a whirl with Gabriella’s favorite cape, while receiving feedback and pointers from the star.  Following that, Bic Carroll, whom I had embarrassingly not heard of prior to the weekender, enthralled his students of the “Burlesque and The Mob” course with glimpses of the seediest side of burlesque history.  Oh, how I would love to see his biography on the big screen someday!  That class could have been two hours longer in my opinion!  I loved his oral history and wanted nothing more than to curl up with a nice coffee and blanket for more story time!  Saturday morning’s classes were equally special, as we got a chance to connect with some Legends after their big night and after having seen them work their magic.  Val Valentine was “Cupid’s Cutie” indeed, and like many others, her class was very interactive.  She called performers up one by one to have a go at starting sensual routine.  Giving subtle guidance, she led the performers closer and closer to an “Artful Tease”.  For many, you could see the marked improvement from their first go, to the second, after she had given some helpful suggestions and perspective.  Finishing School overall seemed a huge success. These ladies and gentleman have so much to teach, and merely being in their presence was an impactful experience!  I urge all future BHOF attendees to get in on these Finishing School classes!

Val Valentine

Val Valentine

After stuffing my brain with burly-knowledge, and some much needed rest, I led Ms. Elling to the exclusive sneak preview of the documentary “League of Exotic Dancers”.  Let me tell you, I cannot WAIT for this moving glimpse into the lives of our Legends to be released to the public!  Director Rama Rau and her crew did a beautiful job capturing the lives of our Legends both in performance and life.  It was moving, impactful, and displays to the viewer just how special these legend’s lives and realities are.  Toni was featured in the film, interviewing from her home as had many others.  It was a very intimate and honest perspective, featuring legend’s families, day-to-day perspectives, struggles, and of course, triumphs related to their unique career and live paths.  It’s a must watch for sure!

The remainder of the weekend was spent soaking up all of the ridiculously talent-filled shows and assisting Toni in doing the same.  I feel forever changed after experiencing BHoF from the perspective of an escort and encourage others to do the same.  There was much hype about the hashtag #BeBHoF this past weekender, and having finally experienced it myself, I now truly feel that I know what that means.  To me, “Being BHoF” is more about how we can give back than anything else.  The Burlesque Hall of Fame was created to document and preserve this unique history that we all share.  Yes, we all aspire to make history and be a part of it… and we are every single day.  However, we can never become legendary as performers, producers, or people if we don’t respect and give back to those who came before us.  Everywhere I looked throughout the Weekender, I could see people working hard, giving of themselves, and all for no personal gain.  This stood out to me more than any crazy outfit or jaw-dropping performance.  There are so many who have tapped into the spirit of service to this community, and it’s what will keep BHoF and The Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender alive for years to come.

With this, I want to urge everyone out there who made it to the end of this perspective to look into how you can give back to the burlesque community and cherish our burlesque history.  Befriend a Legend, glean from their knowledge, be a BHoF or BHoF Weekender volunteer, sign up to be an escort, create a Legends Challenge, or get creative with new ways to give back.  I know that burlesque has changed me for life, and I have a huge debt or gratitude to repay for that.  I’m sure I’m not alone in this area.  Thank you to the Burlesque Hall of Fame, Dustin Wax, the entire Weekender production team, all the volunteers, and to the Sparkly Devil Memorial Scholarship Committee for granting me this rare opportunity to experience the Weekender in this beautiful way.  Thanks also to the absolutely best BHoF weekender date I could have imagined, Ms. Toni Elling, for being a shining star and letting me come along for the ride.

Love and Sparkles to all!

Tessa von Twinkle

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