Behind The Burly Q: : The Story of Burlesque in America Reviewed By Norm Goldman of
Norm Goldman

Reviewer & Author Interviewer, Norm Goldman. Norm is the Publisher & Editor of

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By Norm Goldman
Published on July 1, 2013

Author: Leslie Zemeckis

Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing

ISBN: 10: 1-62087-691-4: 13:978-1-62087-691-6

Author: Leslie Zemeckis

Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing

ISBN: 10: 1-62087-691-4: 13:978-1-62087-691-6

When I was a youngster growing up in Montreal, Canada in the early 1940s, I often heard the name Lili St Cyr bounced around in conversation among my father's cronies. Lili was a famous American burlesque stripper who frequently performed at the now defunct Gayety Theater in downtown Montreal. She even received the title of the “most famous woman in Montreal” throughout the late 40s and into the 50s.

Quebec's Catholic clergy condemned her act, declaring that whenever she dances "the theater is made to stink with the foul odor of sexual frenzy." The Public Morality Committee echoed these same words and Lili was eventually arrested for "immoral, obscene and indecent" behavior. She was acquitted but the public authorities eventually closed down the Gayety Theater where she performed.

I guess this is one of the principal reasons I picked up a copy of Leslie Zemeckis's Behind The Burly Q: The Story of Burlesque in America as I wanted to learn more more about Lili and Zemeckis didn't disappoint me with a complete chapter devoted to her. I finally understood why she was a Montreal legend. In addition to Lili, Zermeckis's also gives us a glimpse into the lives of other extraordinarily beautiful women who played important roles in the world of burlesque.

Zemeckis poses the question as to why is burlesque still misunderstood and her reply is that we do not have the original shows on tape to analyze, enjoy and dissect. I am sure if these tapes were available we would come to the conclusion that compared to what goes on today in the movies, television and internet, these acts would be considered quite tame.

Nonetheless, as many of the women state in the book, there was always a stigma associated with burlesque which was difficult to overcome. Incidentally, there were several well-known Hollywood actresses that denied they were part of burlesque such as Ginger Rogers, Sheree North and Walt Disney's Tinker Bell who started her career as a burlesque dancer known as Tiny Kline.

Zemeckis does a masterful job in capturing the feelings, struggles, behavior, living conditions and behind the stage activities of these women who even have revealed their fights and feuds, the Stage Door Johnnies and the Mafia, as well as the ups and downs of having to work show after show without a break. As mentioned in the Foreword by former stripper, Blaze Starr, the book is “the only flat-out absolute history of burlesque that is told by the performers themselves from the straight men, comics, singers, musicians and the strippers.” And contrary to what many may believe, most of these women were not hookers.

As Zemeckis points out, the book is the history and evolution of burlesque as told through the performer's voices, how they felt, how they behaved and how they lived. She strongly believes that their stories are an important part of history and should be captured before it is gone,.

Most of the names mentioned in the book were meaningless to me, nonetheless, they did provide some interesting tidbits and soundbites concerning burlesque during the 30s', 40s' ,50s' and 60s. In addition, as Zemeckis points out, burlesque was not only about these beautiful women, it also included the comedians, some of whom became well-known in the movies and television such as Bud Abott, Lou Costello, Robert Alda (Father of Alan Alda), Joe E.Lewis, Pinky Lee, Phil Silvers, Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason many more as well the theater owners as the Minsky brothers.

An insightful book that sets the record straight.

It should be mentioned that this book was preceded by the documentary Behind the Burly Q that Zemeckis wrote, produced and directed and included Alan Alda, Dixie Evans, Tempest Storm, Margie Hart, and Kitty West.

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