Mention the names Gypsy Rose Lee, Lili St. Cyr, Blaze Starr, Abbott and Costello, Al Jolson, or Jackie Gleason, and you'll most often engender these thoughts, in the respective order: that one musical -- some lady mentioned in the opening number of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a just-okay Paul Newman movie, "Who's on first?", that one guy that did blackface before people were offended by it, and The Honeymooners.
What probably doesn't spring to mind at first mention is burlesque, even though these stars from the early days of modern entertainment all got their starts doing exactly that.
For the past 20 years in general, and the past eight years locally, burlesque and its theatrical cousin known as Vaudeville have been experiencing a revival of sorts.
And while burlesque originated as a form of entertainment based on caricatures of serious books, plays and musicals, it eventually evolved. By the 1930s, it involved a kind of entertaining striptease -- tame by today's standards -- and one that bears no resemblance to anything involving heels, bikinis and dancing poles.
In honor of this bygone (though re-emerging) art form, the Nightingale Theater presents Farmer's Daughters this weekend and next, a Vaudeville and burlesque show right here in Tulsa and right now in 2012. And it features some pretty big names from the pantheon of modern burlesque stars.
One of those stars, and the reigning champion of the Kansas City Burlesque Festival, is Sara Wilemon, known onstage as the very saucy Ilsa the Wolf. She recently spoke of the show -- essentially a cabaret free of any overarching plot -- what it was, and why it matters.
Shotgun Wedding. Performers in Nightingale's Farmer's Daughters are trying to be true to the original art form of Vaudeville and burlesque.
"It's not a play but it is a full-scale show, so we like to try to do two a year," she said. "This is our spring one, and we'll likely do another in the fall."
Audiences of Farmer's Daughters will be transported to the early-20th century, because what these performers are doing is trying to honor the form by sticking to it.
"We focus on Vaudeville and burlesque. We have the sketch comedy like they had, and that's where the Vaudeville comes in, we have a live band, and then we have the burlesque," Wilemon said.
"There's classic striptease, there are comedy bits with some striptease, and fan dances, which is what I do a lot of."
Now, regarding the elephant in the room, this kind of stripping ain't exactly what you have in mind.
"The barest we get is a g-string and pasties," Wilemon said. This comes as either a relief or a disappointment, depending on who's reading this article.
Anyway, it ends up being a pretty big group of performers, and also a pretty diverse one.
"We have dancers, we have actors, we have some people who are strictly Vaudeville players, and some who are just strictly dancers. There's definitely crossover," Wilemon said. "I'll be dancing, but I'll do one of the comedy bits, too. It's very involved."
And when you think about it, that's one thing about this type of show that lends itself to pulling in more performers, according to the fan-dancer.
"Everybody does a little of everything in this show, but you know not everybody wants to do a striptease. That's what's cool about it. You have a certain amount of people playing all these different roles," she said.
Regarding the material itself, Wilemon said it's a combination of new and old, allowing for preservation of the art forms' respective pasts, as well as more modern homage.
"The last one of these shows we did, [Nightingale artistic director] John Cruncleton wrote a lot of the sketch comedy stuff," she said. "We throw in our own concepts, but we also take some old, original Vaudeville stuff. The original concept is from those old Vaudeville shows."
So if a theater like the Nightingale -- wildly famous for pushing the envelope, if not completely ripping open, shredding and pissing on said envelope -- does Vaudeville, and they're creating their own stuff, can audiences expect anything hard-hitting, bitingly satirical, and/or outright profane?
Not so much, Wilemon said.
"It's all very much light and fluff. Vaudeville and burlesque--there's no heavy-handed message. It's slapstick. It's racy, but it's not that daring by today's standards," she said.
This makes sense, really, considering the obvious love for these two forms that the folks at the Nightingale have.
"Classic Vaudeville appeals to us, so we try to stick to that. One of the fun things for us is thinking about how this stuff used to be really daring, but it's not today," Wilemon said.
Now, what if, like me, you have a wife, you have kids, you go to church, and your dad is a minister? (Okay, that last part might not apply all that broadly, but the rest of it does.) Are you going to get in trouble for going to a show that largely features women taking off their clothes?
"It's not anything like going into a strip club," Wilemon said.
So nobody needs to stop at the QuikTrip on the way to change a twenty for some singles?
"I guess Burlesque has been around in this town since the revival here in about 2004. I don't know that audiences originally knew what it was, but audiences today sort of know what to expect," Wilemon said. "So nobody tries to give the dancers dollar bills. It's a performance. They're the audience and we're the performers, so there's no physical contact of any kind. It's nothing like a strip club."
Again, depending on the reader:
One last bit of interesting information revolves around the list of special guest performers, which differs from night to night, sometimes. Foxy Von Trap will represent Kansas City proper on the first weekend, while Tulsa's own "draglesque" queen Nikki Trash leaves her current state of Texas to revisit the theater and the type of show she started out doing.
Wait, wait, you say. Special guests? I've never heard of those chicks.
Well, then you need to go see this show. As it turns out, people who are in the know are already completely aware of them.
"Madame and Foxy are with Kansas City's Burlesque Downtown Underground. And Nikki is a drag queen who started here in town. I feel like if you know these shows and go to them, you know these people," Wilemon said.
Farmer's Daughters opens Friday, March 30 at 8pm at the Nightingale Theater, 1416 E. 4th St. The show runs Friday and Saturday for two weekends, closing on April 7. Tickets are $12, available at the door or by visiting brownpapertickets.com.
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