One of the first blog posts I shared my feelings about making space for change when popular icons pass and leave the rest of us to grow into a new era. It’s unbelievable to think that one person or group of people can have such an impact on others, just by creating art or sharing their story. Musicians, dancers, writers, actors, performers... we are the voices of today to create a better tomorrow. Sometimes using your art as expression is incredibly challenging. And other times it comes naturally. And for some of us, performance doesn’t seem “revolutionary” or like a way to express ourselves. To many, it’s a job: sometimes burlesque pays the bills. And who would know better than our very own burlesque legends?
Our legends were continually pushing the boundaries in their days, and many still do. They were the definition of glamour, cheeky humour, personality, innovation... but did they know it at the time? Some did... not all. Most of them were just working. Burlesque has evolved so drastically since our beginnings, it’s almost impossible to even imagine the beginnings. We have such a rich history, and the more I discover our origins, the more I admire and understand both our legends and where we currently are as an industry and community.
This year has been an emotional one for me in terms of our legends and their health. People pass on; death is a part of life. Each year we lose more of our history and those who were a part of creating it. But now I am at the point of seeing the performers who I have personally met or admired reaching the end of their glitter trails. And now it feels more personal. I can’t do much for them other than spend time with them at festivals and conventions... send them and their loved ones well wishes... maybe send a post card with money when I get the opportunity... and pass on their impact on me and the community, as I know them. So here it goes, some of my brief reflections on some of my biggest influences these last few years.
Satan’s Angel (September 18th 1944 – April 11th 2019) was the first legend I really started to learn about and appreciate. She was one of the first legends that made me realize how innovative and fierce our legends are. They were fearless and full of passion... which often meant that they meant business. She was one of the most fiery legends and truly lived up to her name. She was famous for spinning fire tassels and lighting a fire in everyone's hearts. On top of being an exhilarating performer, she was a leading trailblazer for all LGBTQ+ performers, being an open lesbian throughout her career. There is so much I admire her for and I am very grateful to have seen her perform live in her last tour before retirement and her passing.
Camille 2000 (August 7th 1946 – July 28th 2019) was always this ominous force. She was one of the first legends that stuck out to me when I started to get involved with the outside burlesque community. Other performers would mention her constantly and she was this mysterious legend that I instantly wanted to meet because of her influence. She was the mother of neo-burlesque who took no shit. In the second half of her career, she transitioned from classic burlesque to a style that fit her better. Instead of trying to fit into the definition of “burlesque,” she made burlesque fit into her definition. It’s funny... I met Camille briefly and watched her perform at my first year of the Burlesque Hall of Fame. I’ve been twice now, and I don’t have a signed print of hers. Attending BHOF with a limited amount of funds and about 30-50 legends each year, means you have to be conscious with your spending. Camille was always so lively. I figured that I would take advantage of the opportunity to have prints signed by legends who I may not see the following year: only to learn that despite her gusto, my opportunity with Camille would pass. She was a fighter right through to the very end.
Toni Elling (Born 1929) I have very limited words for exactly how grateful I am to have met her. The moment I met Miss Elling, I instantly felt comforted and welcomed. I am constantly in awe of her composure and love for life. She has always been, and will continue to be, one of my favourite legends. At the time of writing this, Toni is still with us, but she has made such an impact on our community, she deserves to be praised and remembered at this time.
This year we have seen the passing of some of our most treasured legends. Some have fought longer than we had expected, while others left us too early. It may seem difficult to grasp the idea of burlesque as an industry these days, with the amount we discuss community and expression. But we have that freedom to make burlesque whatever we desire – an industry, a job, a form of expression, a community, a way to bring awareness to the world – because of our legends. And now we are in the era of transitioning between legends. Those who came before us resting in our memories, and those of us today who are currently paving the way for both present and future performers. It’s a constant cycle of performers and innovators. We need to honour our past and those who made it possible for us to perform today. We can only grow into a stronger tomorrow, if we acknowledge the challenges, success and life of yesterday.
Some other Legends who have left us this year. Each one has made their own lasting impression on our community:
Alexandra the Great 48 (1939 – February 22nd 2019): International Headliner, who performed worldwide for 15 years until the late 1970s. She performed to crowds over 3,000 and she was a highly admired mentor to many other legends and performers along the way.
Tammie True (1936 – July 9th 2019): Head performer of the Carousel Club, owned by Jack Ruby. The man responsible for the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Kitty West/Evangeline the Oyster Girl (1930 – August 18th 2019): Famously known for her portrayal as Venus coming out of the Oyster shell. What made her even more famous is the infamous publicity stunt of her smashing a water tank during another performer’s performance, Divena. Whether this was a planned stunt or not is still debated, but regardless, both performers made headlines and grew with fame, as those were the days of “any publicity is good publicity.”