Out in the desert somewhere between Victorville and Barstow, a woman crammed into a stifling cardboard barrel is just praying that her makeup stays fresh. The barrel, disguised as a giant can of Campbell's Soup, sits atop a makeshift stage on a dusty ranch where nearly 300 people have assembled to see the crowning of Miss Exotic World 2000.
A lusty male voice intones, "Ladies and gentleman, she's mmm, mmm good . . . Miss Christi Campbell!" Emerging from her fetal crouch, the Las Vegas dancer is wearing lingerie and a lacy apron--both of which will be peeled away during a Betty Crocker-esque stew of erotic moves that includes suggestive writhing on a cloth-draped tabletop and self-inflicted I'm-soooo-bad swats with an out-sized spatula.
Campbell will return to Vegas with first place in this contest, staged June 3 at Dixie Evans' Exotic World Museum and Burlesque Hall of Fame. Despite her 18 years in the business, the 36-year-old Campbell is among the younger dancers attending the gathering, which began 43 years ago as an annual reunion of performers from the nearly extinct world of burlesque.
After all the gloves and garters are retrieved from where they've been flung, Dixie Evans, a dusty blond 74-year-old once known as "The Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque," reflects on the proceedings, more or less pleased, but also concerned about "some not-so-complimentary comments about a couple girls who went too far." She hadn't held auditions, so Evans was unpleasantly surprised by unprecedented displays of total nudity. "We've always been sort of old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy," she says, alluding to burlesque's traditional preference for the artful tease over full-frontal disclosure.
Evans' conservative values extend beyond pasties to the flag-waving pageantry and national anthem that open the program every year. Not surprisingly, one of her favorites among this year's contestants was Cherry Malone, a 20-something Sacramento dancer sporting a stars-and-stripes gown, a Miss Liberty tiara and what Evans calls "a sweet, unspoiled quality."
Roughly half the contestants in fact are Gen-X scenesters eager to fan the flames of the cabaret revival. Among these, the Cantankerous Lollies, a cabaret ensemble from San Francisco, arrived with a band that churns out bump-and-grind rhythms throughout the contest along with rim shots for the emcee's smarmy one-liners.
Burlesque distinguishes itself from the fleshy monotony of contemporary striptease with its comic interludes, and several of this year's acts are more geared toward jokes than jiggling. Gloria Pall, a friend of Evans' since 1951, does not dance at all but, instead, delivers a deadpan series of Mae Westisms, a curiously expressionless counterpoint to her outrageous combination of frothing lace, fishnets, Bo Peep hat, and taffy curls.
The finale appearance of Tempest Storm, the only stripper to have made it to Carnegie Hall, sends photographers scrambling to the roof and sprawling around the runway. Once romantically linked with men from Elvis to JFK, and now in her 70s, Storm is rail thin but still totes what Dean Martin dubbed the "two biggest props in Hollywood."
"Oh, she's soooo cute!" cries a tattooed dancer from the Cantankerous Lollies.
"Her I pay," Evans says later. "The limousine, her hotel, a fee. It's a scramble every year, trying to find the funding, trying to buy the chairs, the tarps for shade. A couple nights before the show, I'm terrified--what if the audience doesn't show up? What if the girls don't show up? But when it's all over, I can't believe it--the musicians come up to hug me; coming all the way from San Francisco to play just for a blue ribbon, and they're thanking me!"
Exotic World is a shoestring operation, one Evans started after moving to the desert to look after ex-stripper Jennie Lee, who had become disabled and had breast cancer. When Lee, who began the annual tradition in the late '50s, died in 1989, Evans took over, and Lee's ashes make for a sobering stop along the museum's tour of G-strings and feathered fans.
Evans, in turn, is now assisted by Toni Alessandrini. Almost two decades younger than Evans, Alessandrini's dead-ringer Marilyn Monroe is patterned after her mentor's act from the '50s. Alessandrini speaks with breathy Norma Jean enthusiasm about her role in this year's program as well as her work as Evans' understudy--not that Evans is going anywhere. In fact, she's already making arrangements for 2001.
"Right before Tempest left," Evans says, "she wanted to know, will we be doing this next year? What could I tell her? I just said, 'I'm leaving that one up to you.' "