How Burlesque Works

Masters of the Tease

The real Gypsy Rose Lee, circa 1938.
The real Gypsy Rose Lee, circa 1938.
Frederic Lewis/Getty Images

With the burlesque striptease suddenly front and center, the performers who truly mastered the art became stars. Gypsy Rose Lee and Sally Rand are among the best known. Both began their burlesque careers in the early '30s. Rand (Helen Gould Beck) was famous for two routines that became synonymous with burlesque: the fan dance and the bubble dance. In each, she danced gracefully to classical music, apparently wearing nothing but high heels (whether she was truly naked is still a bit mysterious). In the fan dance, she hid what she had to using two massive ostrich feathers she manipulated throughout the dance; in the bubble dance, she used a 5-foot (1.5-meter) balloon [source: Gold].

Gypsy Rose Lee (Rose Louise Hovick), whose memoir "Gypsy" inspired a Broadway show and a movie, juxtaposed sex with brains [source: History Link]. Starting out in voluminous petticoats and ruffles held together by pins, Lee pulled the pins out while reciting high-brow monologues in a finishing-school accent, telling intellectual jokes, or just making generally witty comments. In the end, all that was left on her body was glued on [source: Frankel].

There was also Blaze Starr, whose trademark involved lying on a settee and triggering a stream of smoke that shot out from between her legs while fire-colored streamers blew around the stage [source: Doherty]. Lili St. Cyr writhed around in a bubble bath inside a solid silver bathtub [sources: Kenrick,American National Biography Online]. Other headliners included enormously well-endowed redhead Tempest Storm, Marilyn Monroe-dead ringer Dixie Evans, and future screen star Mae West.

Through it all, legal problems plagued the show. It was not uncommon for authorities to shut down burlesque clubs, and arrest their headliners, for violating decency laws [source: American National Biography Online]. Nonetheless, burlesque remained a force through the '40s and '50s. Its audiences were increasingly all-male, though, and what it couldn't survive was the sexual revolution: By the end of the 1960s, sex was everywhere. Hard-core pornography was easy to find. The burlesque striptease was obsolete [source: Kenrick].

Or was it? Although burlesque was deep in hiding by 1970, it was to have a sensational rebound in later decades.