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A History of Burlesque

New Orleans in the forties and fifties was often heralded as “The Most Interesting City in America.” Bourbon Street was its epicenter, and it became world famous for its concentration of nightclub shows featuring exotic dancers, comics, risque singers, and contortionists, backed by live house bands. Along a five-block stretch, over fifty acts could be seen on any given night. The street gleamed with neon lights as barkers enticed tourists and locals into the clubs to see the featured attractions whose photographs were prominently displayed in the large windows outside. Clubs included the 500 Club, the Sho Bar, and the Casino Royale. It was a glamorous street where men and women dressed in their finest to take in a show.

New Orleans has a history of appealing to the carnal senses. Storyville, the famed red-light district at the turn of the last century, was known for its many houses of prostitution as well as being the birthplace of jazz music until it was closed down in 1917. After vaudeville, and the success of burlesque, striptease became a mainstay on the nightclub stages. In the Forties, stripteasers were in it for the money, as servicemen passed in and out of town looking for a good time. But, as “Stormy,” one of the most popular Bourbon Street dancers at the time said in Cabaret magazine, “Anything you do–no matter what it is–if you do it well enough, can be lifted to an art.”

Girls competed with each other by creating acts based upon elaborate themes. Imagination was always the key even as props, beautiful costumes, mood lighting, and original music were incorporated into their acts. This only enhanced the natural beauty and talents of the girls. There were a bevy of exotic dancers like Lilly Christine the Cat Girl, Evangeline the Oyster Girl, Alouette Leblanc the Tassel Twirler, Kalantan the Heavenly Body, Rita Alexander the Champagne Girl, Blaze Starr, Linda Brigette, the Cupid Doll, and Tee Tee Red.

The young beauties of Bourbon Street gained star status. They had their own hairstylists, maids, assistants, agents, and managers. They mingled with visiting celebrities. Some exotic dancers were given small roles in films. Lilly Christine the Cat Girl graced the covers of dozens of national magazines, and appeared in a few movies. Considered the top attraction on Bourbon Street, she performed at Leon Prima’s 500 Club. Musician Sam Butera, who worked with “the Cat Girl,” recalls her popularity, “One time they had a hurricane threatening. People were standing outside the 500 Club a block long waiting to get in. That’s how popular she was. With a hurricane warning!”

The French Quarter had a seamier side. Pimps, prostitutes, criminals, and mob figures inhabited the Quarter. And B-drinking, in which strippers tempted men to buy them drinks for a cut of the profit, was rampant–and illegal. And, since everyone dressed up to attend a show, the girls often didn’t know if they were sitting next to a wealthy oil man, or an oily thug.

Politicians courted their own doom by enjoying themselves in the clubs, and it was ultimately their undoing that brought down the final curtain on girlie burlesque. During the 1960s, New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison “cleaned up” Bourbon Street. The clubs were raided, and girls were arrested for charges of B-drinking and obscenity. To cut costs, the club owners first got rid of the bands, and replaced them with records. The sexual revolution of the sixties eventually brought in go-go dancers, porn films, and strippers whose acts focused on flesh more than flash. Top musicians like Al Hirt and Pete Fountain survived, but the great burlesque queens of the 1950s did not.

As the new millenium approached, a widespread interest in the striptease of yesteryear revived the art, at least somewhat. Burlesque revival troupes began popping up across the United States and Canada. In New Orleans, Bustout Burlesque brings the girlie show back to the city that once embraced it. It is the only authentic 1950s-style burlesque nightclub show in the country.

Times Picayune theater critic, David Cuthbert says, “‘Bustout Burlesque’ has authenticity, electricity, and lubricity. It’s a fun night out to savor the lost art of the striptease, lovingly re-created and performed by gloriously good-looking girls who are oh, so naughty, but oh, so nice.

Legends of Burlesque

New Orleans was a burlesque hot-spot from the 1940s through the 1960s. Many striptease superstars called New Orleans home, while headlining nightclubs up and down Bourbon Street. Since 1994, Producer Rick Delaup has been extensively researching the exotic dancers who performed in the New Orleans French Quarter. Do you have something to contribute? Contact us!

Evangeline, the Oyster Girl (Kitty West) headlined Bourbon Street clubs in the late 1940s and ’50s. Born into a poor Mississippi family, she was one of six children. Her father was a minister, and her mother was a cousin of Elvis Presley’s father, Vernon. In 1947, at the age of sixteen, she left home and moved to New Orleans where she eventually became a stripper. She headlined the Casino Royale as the Oyster Girl, an act in which she rose out of a giant oyster shell and danced with an oversized pearl. In 1949, she made the pages of LIFE Magazine for an impromptu catfight with Divena, the Aqua Tease. Kitty was promptly arrested. Taking her act one step further, she dyed her hair green to represent seaweed. In 2005, Kitty West’s Bay St. Louis, Mississippi home was completely destroyed in Hurricane Katina. In 2012, she collaborated with Bustout Burlesque to re-create the Oyster Girl act with burlesque star Ginger Valentine.
Kalantan, the Heavenly Body was the toast of New Orleans and Las Vegas nightclubs in the 1950s. She performed exotic interpretations of Afro-Cuban dance at the 500 Club on Bourbon Street. Known for her “movements and sensational postures, both in facial expressions and love torturing designs,” Kalantan performed in the Howard Hughes film, Son of Sinbad. Night Spot Magazine labeled her the “Most Photogenic Body of 1955.” Kalantan later married TV and film star John Bromfield. Today, she prefers a life of anonymity.
Lilly Christine, the Cat Girl was the top attraction on Bourbon Street beginning in the late 1940s. An incredibly talented beauty, she performed original routines such as the “Cat Dance,” the “Voodoo Dance” and “Harem Heat” to the hypnotic beat of jungle drums. Christine appeared on the cover of hundreds of girlie magazines, and appeared in a few b-movies. She made a splash performing on Broadway in the 1950 Bert Lahr show Burlesque, followed by a featured role in Mike Todd’s Peep Show, and the 1956 show Strip For Action. Little is known about the enigmatic superstar of burlesque. She died mysteriously in 1965.
Wild Cherry was raised on the carnival circuit. With little education and limited opportunities, she began dancing in the girlie shows. While living in Tampa, Florida, she became fascinated by “The City That Never Sleeps” while listening to radio shows broadcast from New Orleans. Stories about the French Quarter, jazz music, and Mardi Gras enticed Cherry to move there in 1958. She got her first dancing job at the Mardi Gras Lounge. The club owner, Sid Davilla, gave her the stage name, “Torchy,” after a character in the movie Mardi Gras, which was released that same year. Her main dance style was “oriental,” which went into Afro-Cuban. Wild Cherry received her stage name because of her temperament and penchant for fighting and arguing. Cherry danced in clubs all over the French Quarter until her mid-forties when she decided to quit the business. She was married three times, twice to the same man. From 2006 to 2013, she regularly performed a comedic bit in Bustout Burlesque, and signed autographs after the show. She has also danced at the New Orleans Burlesque Festival, and the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend. Wild Cherry passed away in June 2014.
Tee Tee Red began stripping at 17 after winning an amateur striptease contest. She became the protege of famous 1940s stripper Zorita. Tee Tee Red appeared briefly in the Jerry Lewis film, The Bellboy. Her character was a stripper named Rock Candy. She spent three years performing on Bourbon Street at the 500 Club and Sho Bar. She called herself an acrobatic comedienne-contortionist. The red-headed rival of Blaze Starr, Tee Tee also caught the eye of Governor Earl Long, which Blaze mentioned in her 1974 autobiography. Tee Tee threw in the g-string one week shy of her 50th birthday. In more recent years, she has made an appearance at Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend, and the New Orleans Burlesque Festival. She currently resides in New York.
Linda Brigette, the Cupid Doll was the last great Bourbon Street stripper from the glory days of burlesque. Born in Winnsboro, Louisiana, she wed at 13 and had a child at 14. Inspired by a Candy Barr performance in Baton Rouge, Linda became a stripper herself. In the late 1950s, she married a Bourbon Street club owner. After the death of Lilly Christine, Brigette took her spot as the featured attraction at the 500 Club. She was billed as “the Cupid Doll” and “America’s Most Beautiful Exotic.” Her act consisted of a striptease ending with seductive moves on a settee. At just under five feet tall, she was most noted for her enhanced breasts and big platinum blonde hair. Brigette’s other acts included dancing in an oversized champagne glass, fire-eating, and using live animals (a monkey and a python) as props. In 1966, Brigette was busted on obscenity charges while performing “Dance of a Lover’s Dream.” Brigette made headlines when Governor John McKeithen granted her a pardon. In the late 1960s, Brigette married for a third time to her spotlight man in what was publicized as the first nude wedding ceremony. Her maid-of-honor was Morganna, a stripper who later became known as “The Kissing Bandit.” Brigette was married for 18 years. She passed away in 2004.
Tajmah, Jewel of the Orient began exotic dancing as a young teenager in 1956. Her mother was a cocktail waitress in the club. Tajmah’s main style of dance was what was called at the time “interpretive oriental.” At Ciro’s nightclub, she also did a “Spider and the Virgin” act, which was touted in club ads as “the most unusual stage production ever seen.” The Ciro’s ad described the act thus: “monstrous spider casts a hypnotic spell over a bayou beauty.” At 24, she married the club’s drummer who was 17 years her senior. They had two children. In 2005, Tajmah’s New Orleans home was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, and she relocated to Texas.
Jezebel (Suzanne Robbins) originally from North Carolina, ran away to New Orleans at sixteen. During the 1950s and early 1960s, she was a featured attraction, dancing under the name Wildcat Frenchie and then Jezebel. As Jezebel, she headlined the Poodle’s Patio, a club that was named after her pet poodles, which she dyed in different colors. Jezebel also claimed to be friendly with Governor Earl Long. Robbins lived in the French Quarter for 40 years until marrying a wealthy man, relocating to Tacoma, Washington and traveling the world. She passed away in 2006.