Leslie Zemeckis sashays into the history of burlesque

Leslie Zemeckis

Leslie Zemeckis performs onstage at the opening night of her burlesque revue act "Staar" in Los Angeles in 2005. (May 17, 2013)

During the shabby final days of the last of the burlesque houses that once dotted State Street near Congress Parkway, three of us — in possession of a few bucks and self-confidence fueled by fake IDs — entered the Follies Theater and saw a show that featured, among long-forgotten performers, a dancer named April Showers.

I dust off this memory because Ms. Showers is not among the many, many creatively named burlesque stars — Tempest Storm, Candy Cotton, Blaze Starr, Candy Barr, Val Valentine, Tee Tee Red, the list goes on — interviewed at poignant, amusing and enlightening length in a new book, “Behind the Burly Q: The Story of Burlesque in America,” by Leslie Zemeckis.

The author is a former actress, film director, mother of three and wife of Robert Zemeckis, an Oscar-winning director of such films as “Back to the Future,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Forrest Gump” and, most recently, “Flight.”

He is also a proud child of the Roseland neighborhood on the Far South Side and still has friends and relatives across this area. He married Leslie in 2001 and started a family that now includes the creatively named daughter Zsa Zsa (5) and sons Zane (8) and Rhys (9); he has a son, Alexander, by a previous marriage. The family lives most of the year in Santa Barbara, Calif., but since 2007 has owned a home and spent a great deal of time here.

It is a handsome apartment with a lovely view of the lake, and it is filled with all manner of artwork and other items, such as Gypsy Rose Lee's suitcase, that Leslie has accumulated in her lengthy relationship with burlesque.

“This was a wonderful place to do research. I can't remember how many times I walked over to dig through files at the Chicago History Museum,” she says. “This was a very important city on the burlesque circuit. Everybody played here.”

Indeed, Chicago has a long history with women who famously disrobed.

Fareeda Mahzar, later to be known as “Little Egypt,” danced at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and was acknowledged as “the first of the sensational girlie dancers.” At the 1933 Century of Progress, Sally Rand caused a sensation with her ostrich feather fan dance and balloon bubble dance. She was arrested four times in a single day during the fair, due to perceived indecent exposure, but a reporter/critic for the then very prim and proper Tribune deemed her act “graceful, handsomely staged, and free from any suggestions of vulgarity.”

Both of these women are featured in “Behind the Burly Q,” a book that is the logical, if who-knew-it-would-be-so-much-work, outgrowth of what started nearly a decade ago.

That was when Zemeckis created a one-woman show for herself called “Staar: She's Back and Mistresser Than Ever!” (She later wrote and produced a “mockumentary” based on the character that starred Carrie Fisher, Jeffrey Tambor and Fabio.)

Staar was a showgirl who strutted her stuff in a cabaretlike revue in various Los Angeles clubs, including a six-week residency at The Conga Room in 2005. The show featured four male dancers, a band and such songs as “You've Gotta Have Boobs.”

In reviewing The Conga Room show for Variety, Joel Hirschhorn wrote that Zemeckis was “a contradiction in terms — a restrained burlesque queen. … Echoes of breathy Marilyn Monroe seductiveness and all-knowing Mae West vulgarity appear, but the attractive Zemeckis lacks a style of her own. … The evening, despite butt-slapping and crotch-grabbing, feels like G-rated naughtiness, a dated production that might have been titillating half a century ago and has lost all power to shock.”

Says Zemeckis, 44: “I called it burlesque, but I didn't really know or understand what that really meant. I began to do some research, and in so doing began to meet some of the people who were part of the world. I was fascinated by their stories.”

She sponsored a 2006 reunion of former burlesque performers at the then-soon-to-be-demolished Stardust hotel in Las Vegas on the condition that those attending agreed to be interviewed on camera about their lives and careers. More than 50 showed up.

Working with her “dear friend, co-producer and cameraperson Sheri Hellard,” Zemeckis' weekend grew into a two-year project “crisscrossing the country interviewing everyone I could find that had worked in a burly show.”

“During some of the time I was pregnant with Zsa Zsa, but Bob was so supportive,” Zemeckis says. “After we had shot all we could shoot, Bob helped with the editing.”

The film version of “Behind the Burly Q” was released in 2010 and played at the Siskel Film Center here. It was not reviewed by any of our major newspapers, but New York was all over it, The Village Voice calling it “utterly entertaining,” and film critic Manohla Dargis of The New York Times writing that it was “charming. … It's great that (Zemeckis) immortalized these women.”

It was also reviewed by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker when it was released as a DVD in 2011. She wrote: “Zemeckis likes fun, but she asks important questions.”

Zemeckis was pleased by the reviews, but there was greater satisfaction for her.

“I am a history buff,” she says. “I can't stand to see stories get lost. I had so much material that wasn't used in the documentary that I just had to write this book.”

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