In a revealing peek into burlesque, 'Behind the Burly Q' documentary gives performers a chance to set the record straight about their profession.
Despite the fact that, during its heyday in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, burlesque was the poor man's musical comedy, it has largely been left out of the history books.
Contrary to popular belief, burlesque was not only about stripping. A full night's entertainment might include several elaborate musical numbers and a comedy act. But the striptease was the primary lure. Especially during the Depression, stripping provided what the movies and vaudeville did not – cheap titillation at bargain prices.
The documentary "Behind the Burly Q," directed by Leslie Zemeckis, focuses on many of the famous burlesque stripteasers, some of whom are interviewed for the film or whose voices are heard. But it also brings to life, through the filmed reminiscences of actors like Alan Alda, whose actor father, Robert, began in burlesque, the behind-the-scenes tumult of those gaudy, knockabout years. Many of the women who speak on camera, a number of whom have since died, were doing so for the first time, and their desire to set the record straight, or at least semistraight, is palpable.
Taffy O'Neill, for example, would perform at night and every day take her young son for polio treatments. Lorraine Lee, whose mother sold beer, can remember as a young girl dancing for Bonnie and Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd for a quarter. Joan Arline, who was an elder in her church, performed with two Russian wolfhounds. When one of them bit her baby girl, she put both dogs down.
Every stripper had to have a gimmick, whether it was wolfhounds or, like Kitty West, a New Orleans favorite from the 1950s, a routine in which she emerged on stage from a giant half shell. She was known in burlesque as Evangelina the Oyster Girl. Sally Rand's famous fan dance was the biggest hit at the 1933 Chicago World's Fair.