The Exotic Dancers League

There wouldn’t be a Burlesque Hall of Fame and Museum if there hadn’t first been the Exotic Dancers League.

As theatrical burlesque began its decline after WWII and the main venue for striptease moved to the nightclubs, striptease performers found themselves increasingly detached from the support networks the burlesque circuits and booking agencies had provided. This, coupled with the bias against striptease kept them from being treated like other cabaret entertainers, even though they signed contracts through the American Guild of Variety Artists.

Jennie Lee and others may have been discussing the idea of a Union for strippers as early as 1951, but it was not until the fall season of 1954 that discussions took serious shape. By summer of 1955 a meeting was held to incorporate, and the Exotique [sic] Dancers League of America was formed with Jennie as founder and eventual president.

The Union fought for better billing, a percentage of the door, and clean, safe dressing rooms, and other issues. But it wasn’t in the general ongoing battles that they made their mark. Soon after their formation a “make or break” situation presented itself when several performers were hired by a club to appear underwater as mermaids. But no one checked, and while underwater the performer’s pasties washed off. The women were arrested for indecent exposure, and the club cut them loose. They were fired, and in jail, facing hefty legal bills and unemployment.

The EDL mounted a work stoppage, demanding that the club rehire the fired performers, provide lawyers, cover their bail and all legal expenses and fines, and calling for a customer boycott of the club. Jennie’s mastery of publicity and public relations won the day and the club owners gave in to the combination of public pressure and bad publicity. The EDL emerged as a viable organization with industry clout and respect.

The American Guild of Variety Artists recognized their previous oversight and approached the EDL to join them while retaining a semi-autonomous status. The EDL accepted.

To retain their unique status, Jennie created an annual awards party to celebrate burlesque, uplift it, present it as a legitimate, reputable entertainment form and show that those in it had a sense of humor about themselves. Starting in 1957, she held special meetings/parties for the union. She also formed baseball and bowling teams for union members; both teams were called the Barecats.

Jennie also instigated the Fanny Awards and wrote a column on burlesque and striptease. Her column saw several incarnations over the next thirty years and was published in different magazines.

As classic striptease began to be replaced by go-go, Jennie began to save memorabilia from her career and also collected materials from her friends in the EDL. Jennie owned and operated her own clubs/bars, which became a haven for EDL performers who were still working and for young performers who wanted to go beyond go-go.  Decorated with striptease memorabilia, Jennie’s establishments were precursors to the Burlesque Hall of Fame. As time went by, the EDL became more of a social organization than a functioning union.

When Jennie relocated to Helendale, she opened the current Burlesque Hall of Fame and Museum, intending it to be staffed by EDL members who might live on premises in fancy trailers and would donate their career memorabilia to the museum. She continued to have EDL meetings and parties as well as writing her column and giving out Fanny Awards. Sadly, the 1990 EDL Reunion Meeting became Jennie’s wake. The Burlesque Hall of Fame is the legacy not only of Jennie Lee and American Burlesque; it is the legacy of the first stripper’s union created 50 years ago, the Exotic Dancers League.

—–Ben Urish

7 comments to The Exotic Dancers League

  • […] its risque glory, the Reunion Showcase has its roots in the annual gatherings of dancers held by EDL (and Burlesque Hall of Fame) founder, Jennie Lee, beginning in 1957–a tradition we’re […]

  • […] its risque glory, the Reunion Showcase has its roots in the annual gatherings of dancers held by EDL (and Burlesque Hall of Fame) founder, Jennie Lee, beginning in 1957–a tradition […]

  • Elayne Sikelianos  says:

    My mother was an “exotic dancer” throughout the mid-West mid 1930s thru 1950s and had her own dance studio in Detroit, MI. I remember her often talking about the AGVA ~~ American Guild of Variety Artists. I am in the process of putting together her memorabilia and will make copies for the Burlesque Hall of Fame. I know she had well-known friends herself ~~ Emmett Kelly, Lester Lake (magician), and Sammy Davis, Sr., among others, because she was a hoofer, had studied ballet and tap, as well as Greek dancing. I will stay in contact and follow up on this,if i hear back from your organiation. My mother, Melanie Marko, the Golden Greek, Marko, the Cat Girl believed in the union! Regards, elayne sikelianos….Detroit, MI

    • Dustin Wax  says:

      Wow, that’s pretty incredible! We’d love to learn more about your mother’s career — you can reach us directly at info@burlesquehall.com

      • Elayne Sikelianos  says:

        Re: Melanie Marko, The Golden Greek AKA, Marko, The Cat Girl:: i will get back with you as soon as i have more photos, memorabilia compiled. Needless to say, being the daughter of a burlesque dancer was wonderful & difficult! Now that I’m older, I see the grit & courage of her life! Regards, and thanks for respecting and digging those dancing women! elayne sikelianos Detrot, Michigan

        • Elayne Sikelianos  says:

          I forgot to mention that I knew “Sparkly Devil”…she was from the Detroit area and we ALL loved her to pieces. I’m glad to see she was so well loved that there is a scholarship in her name at the Las Vegas meet-up. Regards!

  • T’Aint Fair – Silent Porn Star  says:

    […] more information on The Exotic Dancers League see here and […]

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