The ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s were exceptional times for striptease artists. Hundreds of theaters and clubs across the country catered to burlesque and even Hollywood came calling. Hundreds of extraordinarily beautiful women made careers teasing eager audiences with carefully planned and, by today’s standards, modest displays of flesh. What makes a classic burlesque queen? Here at Simply Burlesque the criteria is simple:
- beauty: the performer had to be easy on the eyes with a stunning figure to match
- dance ability: the best burlesque strippers could easily glide across a stage and keep a beat
- striptease ability: since burlesque is about the art of teasing, the queens of this field were the ones who could be seductive without being lewd
- gimmicks: whether she used a fan, her stockings, an animal or balloons, classic burlesque queens always had a little something extra to captivate the audience
- performance: song choice and costumes play a part in whether a performer was memorable, but a real queen knew how to engage the crowd, had sex appeal, and could keep all eyes on her at all times
After exhaustive archival research on over 50 burlesque dancers spanning over four decades, the following 15 ladies were ranked accordingly. There were so many wonderful performers during that era, but these divas ruled supreme.
15) Faith Bacon: an ex-Broadway star (she was in Earl Carroll’s Vanities, Fioretta, Earl Carroll’s Sketch Book, and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931), Bacon turned to burlesque when she couldn’t get anymore work on The Great White Way. Sadly, she committed suicide in 1956.
14) Lilly Christine “The Cat Girl”: this blonde bombshell got her nickname from a routine she originated in New Orleans’ clubs where she stalked around like a cat. She eventually took the act to Broadway and had a burlesque career spanning two decades, starting in the late ’40s. When not stripping, she posed as a pin-up girl for various men’s magazines. Christine’s career was cut short in 1965 when she died of peritonitis at age 41.
13) Dee Milo “The Venus of Dance”: “‘Sentimental Journey’ was my signature act. The music and the words tell the story. I’d come out in street clothes carrying a suitcase, take a negligee and gown out of the case, and then have the gown drop from under the negligee. If we had a young man in from the audience I would get on his lap and “claim” him. Then I would then place myself on the bed, the man would walk over, and they’d wipe the lights. It was a very well-liked number, and the women in the audience would comment on how nice it was that I left the stage dressed. I would do this number in every show I did, and if I did a nightclub gig I would do just this number. You could always push the envelope more in nightclubs’,” Milo said (Quote source)
12) Rosita Royce: known for stripping with doves, this raven-haired beauty brought both the funny AND the sexy in her routines.
11) Sandra Storm: another funny lady with a sometimes manic style of dance, Storm had an inate ability to bring a certain air of naivete to her sassy performances. She can be seen in director Charles Keating’s Vintage Erotica (Burlesque Edition) Vol. 2 (Buy now)
10) Ann Corio: after failing to make it as a bigtime Hollywood film star, Corio moved back East to perform in summer stock theaters. She played sultry characters like Maggie in Tennesse Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Princess Kakilima in The Barker. Theater director (and Corio’s eventual third and final husband) Michael Iannucci persuaded her to perform in a burlesque revival show This Was Burlesque, which premiered in Boston in 1961. The show would go on for more than 30 years, appearing on Broadway twice, touring across America, spawning countless television specials and being filmed twice by HBO.
9) Josephine Baker: Ernest Hemigway allegedly called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw” and it’s no wonder. This singer/dancer/actress was known for appearing practically nude onstage, dancing around with bikinis made of bananas, and combining African and European dance styles to create energetic performances that few could match. Though she never quite had the same success here in the states that she had in France, Baker was one of the pioneers for black women in burlesque.
8) Betty Rowland “Ball of Fire”: Rowland’s nickname came from her long red hair that would whip around as she bumped and shimmied across a stage. She was elegant and playful, modest yet alluring, and always a class act.
7) Zorita: this burlesque legend was known for snake routines and other avant-garde routines (including a half-man/half-woman number) as well as her preference for female companionship. She can be seen in HBO’s 2005 documentary, Pretty Things.
6) Blaze Starr: while she wasn’t the most graceful striptease artist to break out in the Golden Age of Burlesque, Starr was certainly one of the most beautiful women to ever hit the scene. With a killer body and a sweet smile, this living legend of burlesque became the fantasy of men and women alike in the ’50s. Today, she owns the Two O’Clock Club in Baltimore, Maryland and still does burly conventions today.
5) Sally Rand: known for her infamous fan dance and balloon bubble dance, this artist was one of the most talented and regal performers on the scene. The blonde beauty defined precision and glamour, quickly becoming one of the biggest names in the business. She died in 1979 at the age of 75.
4) Gypsy Rose Lee: movies and musicals have been written about this iconic figure’s life. Everyone from Bette Midler to Angela Lansbury have paid tribute to her stunning career. But Lee will always be remembered as the “intellectual stripper” – a woman who took it off while reciting poetry and whatever else she happened to be reading at the time. Not only was it funny and enticing, but it was also innovative for the time and something that hasn’t really been seen since.
3) Jennie Lee “The Bazoom Girl”: an incredible bustline that seemed to defy the laws of nature cemented this curvy blonde’s status as a sex symbol for the ages. Lee worked burlesque stages all across the U.S., Canada, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Manila for over 30 years. Swinging her tassels like nobody’s business was her signature, but she remained one of the classiest ladies in showbusiness. “I had a natural rhythm and a nonchalant way of working – a smile and a little bounce,” she said to Jane Briggeman. “I was always sexy, but never vulgar.” (Read Lee’s Bio here)
2) Lili St. Cyr: Those eyes. Those lips. Those fabulous legs. Lili St. Cyr was an actress and burlesque performer like no other. This video honoring the late statuesque diva pretty much says it all.
1) Dixie Evans: dubbed “The Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque” by Harold Minsky, Evans made her mark on the striptease circuit parodying the Hollywood icon until Monroe’s death in 1962. The 82-year-old Las Vegas resident is still as active and zany as she was in her heyday, working with such notable photographers as David LaChappelle and hobnobbing with current burlesque queen, Dita Von Teese. To get in touch with this supreme burlesque legend, visit her MySpace page http://www.myspace.com/dixieevans.