When one hears the word “burlesque” two references often come to mind: For theater geeks it’s the Broadway musical Gypsy, based on the memoirs of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee. For pop culture junkies it’s Burlesque, the recent sequin-studded spectacular starring Cher and Christina Aguilera. But what exactly is burlesque? Is it all about singing strippers or is there more to it than we assume?
To find out more about this misunderstood form of entertainment, MM spoke with director Leslie Zemeckis about her first feature documentary, Behind the Burly Q, which explores the history and influence of burlesque. The doc, which was executive produced by Leslie’s husband, director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump), features interviews with Lorraine Lee, Tempest Storm and Blaze Starr, who were successful performers during the peak of burlesque’s popularity in the first half of the 20th century.
Samantha Husik (MM): How and why did you become interested in burlesque? What made it seem an appropriate topic to tackle with a documentary?
Leslie Zemeckis (LZ): I was doing a burlesque inspired show and began to investigate what really was burlesque. I looked for documentaries and found none besides a few that dealt solely with comedians who came from burlesque and some of the few famous stripteasers. The documentaries I watched didn’t tell me who these people where, where they came from, what their family thought of them being in burlesque, what was it like on the road, did they have children, all the details of their lives. And then what happened when burlesque died? The more I learned and the more I discovered how important and misunderstood and maligned burlesque was, I knew I had to tell the story—in the artists’ voices themselves. We would not have the comedy we have today without burlesque—no “Saturday Night Live,” no “Carol Burnett Show.” Burlesque entertained thousands and thousands of people and employed thousands, yet it’s mostly thought of today as merely a strip show, when it was a huge big variety show with some very talented people.
MM: Why do you think burlesque is so often misjudged and misrepresented? What do you hope audiences take away from Behind the Burly Q?
LZ: I hope people see the film and take away the human side to these performers. So many were simply performers who loved doing what they did, they were a bit “us against the rest of the world” because they were thought of as second-class. When our country had hard economic times and Broadway shows closed because of the expense, burlesque entertained people. It was at one time a family show; it was humor. It was a place someone could go to and forget their troubles for a few hours. And, economically, at the time women had less choices; striptease elevated them out of some tough circumstances.
MM: Considering the subject matter, was finding financing for the project difficult? How long was the movie making process—from fundraising to completion?
LZ: I was so passionate about the subject and after talking to so many who had worked in burlesque and because of their age (my oldest was 97, a lot were in their 80s) I knew I couldn’t wait for financing. I threw myself into the project, and with the help of my producer—who ran the camera—we just shot as many people as we could. We thought it would be a short process, I didn’t think so many would still be alive, but it snowballed and once former performers heard about me, they contacted me. They wanted to tell their stories, some for the first time. I promised them it would be their voice, their point of view, their story. Some stories were sad and rough, but that is the way it was for many. We filmed for about two and a half years traveling around the country, getting everyone we could find. We filmed over 100 hours, from the bayous after Katrina, to New York to Florida to San Francisco. I included authors, musicians, strippers, novelty acts…. they ultimately became my friends and are still in close contact today. I honor them; they were so open with me, they let me into their houses, opened scrapbooks. They were not put off by any type of personal question. And I’ve seen some buried, which has been sad.
MM: You’ve been in the business for a while and are surrounded by folks, like your husband, who surely know the ins or outs. But what’s the one thing that still surprised you about directing your first film?
LZ: Nothing. I guess I was naive and threw myself into it. Nothing was going to stop me. I was convinced I could interview (I’m great at research and questioning and the order of the questions—so I guess that surprised me), I could do it pregnant (I was largely pregnant for nine months of travel and shooting), edit (with the help of an amazing editor), sell it and get distribution. Every time someone told me I couldn’t do it, or it would be hard, I didn’t give a damn. I knew I could do it—that what I had no one had, nor would ever get again. I have amazing footage and stories on tape!
MM: Any new film projects in the works?
LZ: Yes a couple new documentaries are in development. Can’t tell you yet what they are about, but they have a cultural bent, a misunderstood group bent and I’m completely obsessed by them already and hope to shed light and make others fall in love with the subject. I’m also working on the book version of this and another book on one of the burlesque women. Oh, and I have three small kids…
Leslie Zemeckis’ Behind the Burly Q is now on DVD, courtesy of First Run Features. For more information, visit http://www.behindtheburlyq.com.