L.A.’s a hot spot for burlesque


On a recent Saturday night, Lili VonSchtupp (yes, that’s her legal name, changed in homage to the Madeline Kahn character in “Blazing Saddles,” with altered spelling) attended three different burlesque shows. As producer of the weekly revue “Monday Night Tease,” VonSchtupp can also recall the not-so-distant era of several years ago, when “there was maybe one or two burlesque shows per month besides my show.”

“Today, you’ve got four weekly shows, seven monthly shows and a tremendous amount of one-offs,” she says. “Burlesque in L.A. is booming.”

Some 15 years after troupes such as L.A.-based Velvet Hammer ushered in the era of neo-burlesque performance, the burlesque scene in Los Angeles has assumed the proportions of a lavish Las Vegas buffet, both in its abundance and heterogeneity.


This year alone a number of new shows have cropped up, such as the monthly “Rendezvous” at the King King Club, where sophisticated choreography and slick production values fuse with a commedia dell’arte theatricality, while the grittier but equally compelling “Monday Night Tease,” now in its sixth year of weekly performances, sells out on a regular basis and features individual striptease acts with a vaudevillian vibe. And in December, the Actors’ Gang theater organization will present three evenings of burlesque performance.

While these productions generally involve some stage of undress, they ban total nudity and emphasize a tongue-in-cheek attitude that hearkens to a more innocent, pre-modern-day strip-club era.

Inside the Hollywood bar Three Club’s intimate cabaret space, which seats about 70 people, the “Monday Night Tease” show a few weeks ago attracted an over-30 crowd, with almost equal numbers of men and women. The host, “Buster Balloon,” a husky man decked out in formal suit, spats and a bowler, performed magic tricks and told slightly dirty jokes in between acts that included a performance by magician Christopher Hogsworth, who combined card tricks with striptease. More often than not, sheer stage presence and a sense of humor trumped virtuosic movement, as in the case of the “French Fry Fan Dance” by performer Ali Oops, who wielded cardboard cutouts of McDonald’s French fries in their large-sized serving containers and eventually revealed a hamburger-themed G-string.

In Los Angeles, “burlesque is not as fringe as it used to be,” says Augusta Avallone, a documentary filmmaker turned burlesque maven who goes by the stage name Penny Starr Jr. She’s the founder of the Striptease Symposium, a 3-year-old local burlesque school offering classes in tassel twirling, striptease techniques and hair and makeup preparation.

Avallone says that her school’s business “has doubled every year. Most women wouldn’t go to a strip club, but burlesque is more accessible because of the glamour and because it’s playful.”

But it also appears that the art form best associated with the bump and grind is poised for mainstream recognition beyond Los Angeles and the other big cities with thriving neo-burlesque scenes, such as New York and Seattle. “Burlesque,” starring Christina Aguilera and Cher and written and directed by Steven Antin, is set to premiere Thanksgiving weekend and targets a PG-13 audience.


“I was inspired to steer people away from tawdry notions of burlesque,” says Antin, who had collaborated with his sister, Robin Antin, founder of the Pussycat Dolls, back in the days when the famous all-girl pop group was a burlesque troupe.

In a phone interview, Antin takes great care to distance his film from the pasties and G-string aesthetic of many contemporary burlesque performances. He identifies the parodies in the European theater dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries as “original burlesque.”

“There’s a real misunderstanding of burlesque as a 20th century convention rooted in second-rate striptease. I wanted to bring back what burlesque originally was. For me, burlesque is about the tease, not the strip,” he says.

According to Rachel Shteir, the author of “Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show” and a recent biography on burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, burlesque began in the 19th century French cabaret and brothels, spread to other parts of Europe and arrived in the United States in the late 1860s, courtesy of the British showgirl Lydia Thompson. Burlesque as striptease took off in America during the Jazz Age.

“The question of what burlesque is and isn’t has reappeared throughout history,” says Shteir, a DePaul University drama professor. “Historically, there are two consistent things about it. One is women in some stage of undress moving around, and two is that it’s done with a sense of humor.”

In the movie, Aguilera’s Ali flees her small town and heads to Los Angeles in search of big-city stardom. She gets hired as a waitress by Tess, played by Cher, owner of the Burlesque Lounge. Set in contemporary Hollywood, the club serves as the setting for Antin’s vision of authentic burlesque performance, and if the trailer serves as any indication, the film’s glitzy song-and-dance numbers contain plenty of nods to stage and film musicals such as “Chicago,” “Cabaret” and “Moulin Rouge.”


“All kinds of shows and musicals became a dictionary of information for me, but that’s what original burlesque was … a pastiche,” says Antin.

Antin’s goal to create mainstream burlesque entertainment echoes the efforts of choreographer Lindsley Allen and producer Shana Sosin, whose show at King King, “The Rendezvous,” features a troupe of eight highly trained dancers, a soundtrack of mostly classic rock, intricate choreography involving fans, hula hoops, chairs and other props and two actors who play lovers with communication problems in the commedia dell’arte style. On a recent Thursday night, the darkly lighted club projected a seductive yet playful atmosphere and the sold-out performance seemed to attract a mix of well-dressed groups of women out for a night on the town, Hollywood industry types and the merely curious.

While “The Rendezvous” has plenty of sexy shimmying, hip swivels and lingerie, “we wanted to do something that set us apart from other burlesque shows, to create something that my mother or my niece could see,” says Sosin.

Allen, an original Pussycat Doll and a recently featured choreographer on “Dancing With the Stars,” had studied commedia dell’arte — a highly physical, comedic acting style originating from 16th century Italian theater — with the Actors’ Gang theater ensemble. She wanted her show to be “sexy but classy.”

“Part of that comes from being very specific about the dancers I hire,” she says. “I also wanted to have a through-line where it wasn’t just choreography and girls, and that’s where the commedia dell’arte comes.”

Both Allen and Sosin feel their show “is not just burlesque,” says Allen. “It’s a fusion of a lot of things and burlesque is such a broad and general word.... It means something different to everyone. But I think burlesque can be mainstream and commercial while keeping its authenticity. The draw is that there are so many different ways to adapt it.”


For Avallone, whose performance repertoire includes a burlesque act with her grandmother in top hat and tails, “the bottom line about burlesque is that it has to be entertaining,” she says. “If you have a dance background, you should be dancing. If you make great costumes, then that’s your hook. Use whatever is going to help your act.”

Avallone also sees nothing salacious about the strip element in striptease and considers it integral to burlesque. “There’s a power to standing there at the end of your act in pasties and a G-string. Your whole life, you’re told you’re not supposed to do things like that,” she says.

VonSchtupp points out that in an era of Internet porn and specialized strip clubs, burlesque is actually “very innocent. In a four-minute act, you’ll see a girl’s boobs for 10 to 15 seconds and it allows women to be sexy without becoming a piece of meat,” she says.

Personally, VonSchtupp feels an obligation to preserve the art form that “women performed when it was really taboo. I loved the Pussycat Dolls and maybe the new movie will be wonderful, but to me, burlesque is about variety arts and the strip,” she says, noting that Antin’s choice not to show women in pasties “is not representative of what’s going on in neo-burlesque across the country.”

Arguments of authenticity aside, it seems clear that burlesque in its current incarnations can be checked off the endangered species list of performing arts. “There’s a definitely a critical mass of burlesque performance,” says Shteir, who went on a recent book tour and met women from all over the country. “Women would come up to me and they’d be from places in Maine and Vermont and they’re asking me how they can start their own burlesque troupes.”