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A preview of New Orleans Magazine’s September cover feature
I’m very excited to give you a preview of New Orleans Magazine’s upcoming cover feature on burlesque. More than just a primer as to what the art of tease is, the piece (the work of over a year by myself along with performer/producer Trixie Mix) covers burlesque’s history from its first appearance to today, with a special emphasis on New Orleans’ history and what local performer/producers think might be its future.
Through our research, we uncovered many interesting people, facts and places, but didn’t have the space to include it all.
During burlesque’s first heyday, New Orleans had several performers who sparkled on stage and off. Here are short descriptions about 10 of the most famous and infamous that didn’t make it in the piece:
Blaze Starr started life as Fannie Belle Fleming in April of 1932 in the hills of West Virginia. But showing off her voluptuous body and auburn mane was her calling, and was billed as the Queen of Burlesque. She started stripping in the 1940s and was clever and handy with tools, going so far as to create an act where she set her chaise on fire on stage, taking a couple of peach cans and wiring them to waft smoke underneath her body. She worked with dangerous cats and had love affairs with influential men, including, according to her biography, former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, John F. Kennedy and former Louisiana Governor Earl Long.
Evangeline the Oyster Girl was born in 1930 as Abbie Jewel Slawson. At the age of 16, she left home and moved to New Orleans where she started dancing, calling herself Kitty West. As the Oyster Girl, an act she created where she emerged out of a giant oyster shell, she headlined the Casino Royale. She is also known for her feud with fellow dancer Divena, who performed an underwater tease in a 300-gallon tank. When Divena received high billing, Evangeline took an axe to the tank during a show – and a reporter from Life happened to be there to document the whole thing.
Jezebel was born Suzanne Robbins in Ashville, North Carolina in 1837. She ran away to New Orleans at 16, becoming one of Bourbon Street’s featured performers in the 1950s and early ’60s, dancing under the name Frenchie, and then Jezebel. As Jezebel, she headlined the Poodle’s Patio, a club named after her pet poodles.
Kalantan the Heavenly Body was born Mary Ellen Tillotson in 1928 in California. It was in the late ’50s as she performed exotic interpretations of Afro-Cuban dance on Bourbon Street that she gained her nickname “the Heavenly Body.” Night Spot Magazine named her the “Most Photogenic Body of 1955.”
Lilly Christine the Cat Girl was born Martha Theresa Pompender in 1923 in Dunkirk, New York. She began dancing in ’48, and quickly became a top attraction on Bourbon Street. Though she was booked primarily for her eponymous “Cat Dance,” she was also known as Zaza, and performed her “Voodoo Love Potion Dance “ and “Harem Heat” to hypnotic beats. She appeared on the covers of hundreds of girlie magazines and in a few B-films, making her Broadway premier in the 1950 Bert Lahr show Burlesque.
Georgia Lambert was born in 1939 in Winnsboro. After marrying at 13 and having a child at 14, she was working as a cocktail waitress in Baton Rouge where she saw Candy Barr perform. Inspired, she became a performer herself. In the late 1950s she moved to New Orleans and Linda Brigette the Cupid Doll performed at the Gunga Den on Bourbon Street. When she took over Lilly Christine’s headlining role after her death, Brigette was billed as “the Cupid Doll” and “America’s Most Beautiful Exotic.” In 1966 she was charged with obscenity while performing “Dance of a Lover’s Dream,” and made headlines when then-Gov. John McKeithen granted her a pardon.
In 1868 The New York Times called Lydia Thompson “a blonde of the purest type, saucy, blue-eyed, golden-haired and of elegant figure.”
We can thank Thompson not only for bringing burlesque to the states, but possibly locally for the Krewe of Rex’s official song, “If Ever I Cease to Love,” which was adapted from one of Thompson’s shows, “Bluebeard.” Thompson happened to be in New Orleans in 1872, the year of the first Rex parade. Also visiting was the Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia (aka Grand Duke Alexis). Legend would try to link the two with the song and a supposed romance, though there’s no evidence that the two even saw each other during their visits. There is no doubt, however, that Thompson had popularized the song even before her arrival.
Gloria Bramande (married name Dillon) began as an exotic dancer at 13 in 1956, at the club where her mother, Tina Marie, was a waitress. Known as Tajmah Jewel of the Orient, for an act of the same name, her most well known act, “The Spider and the Virgin,” was performed with her mother, and newspaper ads called it “the most unusual stage production ever seen.” She headlined at the 500 Club, and invited her priest (she attended Mass regularly at St. Louis Cathedral) to approve the act, which he did.
After winning an amateur striptease contest at 17, Tee Tee Red, otherwise known as Joy Pelletier, began performing as what she called an acrobatic comedienne-contortionist. She was the protégé of famous 1940s dancer Zorita, appeared briefly as “Rock Candy” in The Bellboy and spent three years performing on Bourbon Street at the 500 Club and the Sho Bar. She, too, had Gov. Earl Long’s eye, as Starr mentioned in her biography, Blaze Starr: My Life As Told to Huey Perry.
Frieda Dewald LaBreche was born in the mid-1960s and raised in a circus family. As a teen, she began dancing in the girlie shows. She moved to New Orleans in 1958, got a job dancing at the Mardi Gras Lounge on Bourbon Street performing under the name Torchy. However, her fiery temperament and penchant for arguing and getting into fights, she became known as Wild Cherry. She performed an “Oriental” into Afro-Cuban style, dancing in clubs across the French Quarter into her mid-40s.