The Stripteaser’s Education

Dear Constant Reader,

I performed “The Stripteaser’s Education” at Hot in Topeka’s fundraising show in June. It’s an act that’s been around for a long time and seen some changes.

It’s adapted from Gypsy Rose Lee’s famous talking act. Rather than do a strict recreation, we changed and updated some of the wording. She references people and places that wouldn’t mean anything to our current audiences. Our version has changed over the years and we’ve thrown in a few New England references. For example, Gypsy used to say she’d attended Sweet Briar; I say Wellesley. Neither statement is true.

When I performed it in Topeka, I checked with the producer about using some local references. She gave me some suggestions and I worked them in. Instead of Wellesley, I used Washburn University plus a few other references specific to Topeka. From the cheers, they went over really well.

When I first started performing the act, I just wore gowns and gloves from my wardrobe, nothing special. In 2011, we gave the act to Devora for Madame Burlesque. We had a costumer for that show (our first tour!) and she made a lovely costume for D.D. based on a photo of Gypsy.

        

I used mostly the same costume when I did the act (we had to make a matching bra to fit me).

When I got the word I was going to do this act in Topeka, I decided to upgrade the costume, really make it match the photo. I had asked for advice in finding a hat like that when I learned, to my shock, we’d been laboring under a false assumption. That wasn’t Gypsy! It was Burgundy Brixx *as* Gypsy! Clearly our costume designed hadn’t done her research very well, but I admit, I hadn’t looked closely enough.

Well, there was absolutely no reason to recreate someone else’s interpretation of Gypsy. I went back to photos that I know were actually of Gypsy and picked out some of the hallmarks of her costumes — full skirt, modest blouse with a big collar, stockings, wide-brimmed hat.

The skirt came from The Wrathskellar. It was sort of inspired by a saloon girl look, with alternating panels of black lace over black jacquard and embroidered green lace. It has matching panties and a bra, so I figured I would use them. I also had a garter belt that coordinated nicely. The next challenge, the hat and the blouse.

I didn’t want to use the hat D.D. is wearing above. It doesn’t fit me very well and it doesn’t pack easily. I wanted to do this trip with just a carry-on and I also wanted to be able to have my ubiquitous sunhat. After some fruitless searching, I was in Emporium 32 and they had the perfect hat! Big brim, black straw, good price. I decided I’d give my signature leopard-print sunhat a break (I’ve been wearing it every summer for almost 20 years) and make this my new everyday hat, as well as use it in this performance. If I’d had more time, I would have added some big white roses and a new hat band for the show.

I looked all over for a blouse with the right look and just found nothing. I ended up grabbing the blouse from my “Li’l Red Riding Hood” act, but while it has the right shape, it’s a sturdy white cotton and didn’t blend so well with the lacy skirt. Fortunately, I still had some of the two kinds of lace I used to make the skirt. I used it to make a big collar, like Gypsy had in some iterations of her costume. It helped tie things together, and since it was just pinned in place, I can easily transfer it to a more appropriate blouse once I find or make one.

Lastly, I upgraded the pasties. They had just been black brocade with a ring of green rhinestones around the edge. Good for The Wrathskellar, but not exactly projecting glamour. Some radiating lines of more stones and they had sufficient sparkle.

And here’s a bit of the act on stage at Jayhawk Theatre.

Photos by Sarah Kietzman

M2These writings and other creative projects are supported by my Patrons. Thank you so much! To become a Patron, go to my Patreon page. Or you can just tip me if you liked this.

Published in: on 7 August 2019 at 11:05 am  Leave a Comment  
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Review: More Havoc

Dear Constant Reader,

Today we return to the life of June Havoc, Gypsy Rose Lee’s younger (and most say more talented) sister with her second memoir.

More Havoc by June Havoc (1980)

More Havoc begins where Early Havoc leaves off. June, barely in her teens, has fled her overbearing mother and the grind of constant work. She longs to be a legitimate actress, but has to sustain herself as a marathon dancer. She looks back at her childhood in vaudeville for a few chapters, but the rest is a straight-forward narrative, without the shift between past and present of her first book.

June, a pro on the marathon dance circuit, leaves the grueling competitions when a promoter falls in love with her and has his syndicate hire her as his driver while he looks for new venues. Really, it’s a cross-country camping vacation, but she’s getting paid for it. She also reconnects with her husband, Bobby. She doesn’t want to be tied to any man, especially one who doesn’t want her to follow her dream, and decides to leave them both and have her own family.

Pregnant, she begins working hard as a entertainer, saving for her daughter (she’s sure it will be a girl). Ultimately she has to go back to New York and live with her mother, who is running a social club for lesbians out of the spacious apartment Gypsy bought her. At first June is told to hide in her room during the parties, but is soon pressed into service dispensing bathtub booze and plates of cheap spaghetti to her mother’s clientele. This arrangement lasts until the sisters discover that their mother was charging them both for June’s rent and Gypsy’s boyfriend gives June some cash (which Mother tries to filch) to get her own place.

June is ecstatic to start a new life with her daughter, April, but she has no real support and no job. Her mother offers to adopt April and “do for her what I tried to do for you”, but June is never going to be that desperate. After struggling to get by, a lucky break lands June a job as a mannequin, modeling gowns for a fashion house. With every scrap of free time she makes the rounds of booking agents. She finally lands a performance job which leads to another and another.

She marries (and divorces) a Harvard man who fancies himself a writer. She abandons “Jeannie Reed”, her name from when she was hoofing with her husband, which she also used during the marathons. She panics as she’s writing “June Hovick” on a contract, since her sister was forced by prudish Hollywood to perform as Louise Hovick and her movies failed. Instead, it comes out “Havoc”. She doesn’t like it, but it sticks.

Then comes Pal Joey. June is cast in the new musical as Gladys Bumps, a small comedic role that keeps getting bigger and bigger as the director discovers her talents. At last! A Broadway show! And then Hollywood comes calling… Soon June is shuttling across the country between Hollywood and Broadway. June and Gypsy become closer. For a few years, the sisters live together in Gypsy’s huge house in New York City.

The book ends with June’s show-stopping performance on opening night of Mexican Hayride in try-outs in Boston. Her sister, in disguise, is in the audience, having stayed up all night to help June with her costume.

It’s impossible to tell the story of the Hovick sisters without acknowledging the dominating presence of their mother. Gypsy’s memoir portrays her mother as a needy woman, beautiful and fragile, humorously eccentric, in a fantasy world of her own devising. Gypsy deliberately makes her “Mother stories” amusing, even after her mother’s death. In this book June depicts a greedy, delusional, sociopathic woman who emotionally and occasionally physically abused her daughters. Both June and Gypsy try to break free of their mother, but only June succeeds. Despite leaving her mother’s control, June is still shadowed by her presence. This memoir is even bookended by scenes of her mother’s deathbed. All June wanted from her mother was love and approval, but once she becomes independent she might as well be a stranger. Mother did not create June Havoc, so she can’t live in reflected glory. To her, June is a failure. Gypsy is the one she clings to and the one she curses as she dies.

This memoir is certainly more positive and uplifting than the first. However, I liked it less. It wasn’t the story; it was the writing. Early Havoc felt more genuine and the writing of this one feels a little forced. Burlesque-wise, there’s more about Gypsy in this volume, as the sisters spend more time together, but not too much about her performances.

M2These writings and other creative projects are supported by my Patrons. Thank you so much! To become a Patron, go to my Patreon page. Or you can just tip me if you liked this.

Published in: on 20 May 2019 at 3:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review: Early Havoc

Dear Constant Reader,

A book review! I know I’ve been remiss in writing these and I’ve let a huge stack of books just pile up. Today’s book is not so much about burlesque as it is adjacent to burlesque.

Early Havoc by June Havoc (1959)

June Havoc was Gypsy Rose Lee’s little sister, the former Dainty Baby June, vaudeville sensation. She wrote two memoirs about her life in show business. Early Havoc is a bit harder to find, but Scratch used his excellent hunting skills to find a first edition, which had been signed by the author.

Early Havoc alternates chapters between June’s time in vaudeville and her first dance marathon. June was a dance prodigy and from the time she could walk, her mother put her on stage. She was a vaudeville star and even made some movies. As she grew up, the act she had been performing since childhood grew stale and vaudeville declined. June’s mother adamantly refused to let June have an education or any training in dance or acting. She kept her daughter frozen in childhood, unwilling to allow any change. When June was 13 (she thought she might be 16 and her forged birth certificate claimed she was 18) she was desperate to change her life and secretly married Bobby Reed, a dancer from her act. The newlyweds ran away to start a new life and double act.

It was the Great Depression. Vaudeville was dead. June realizes that between her life in show business and her mother’s, let us just say, eccentric view of the child rearing, she has absolutely no idea how to behave in “normal” life. June and Bobby split up in hopes of finding work as solo performers. A $5 booking led June into the brutal world of dance marathons. She took the job at first because the promoter promised 6 meals a day. In a dance marathon, partners have to stay on the dance floor, constantly moving, for as long as possible, in this case, up to three thousand hours. The dancers only get one 11-minute rest break every hour or, later in the marathon, only every two hours. They have to keep moving during meal time and even when called up on stage to entertain the audience with a song, specialty dance, or comedy routine. The teams that stick it out to the end win a cash prize.

June is naive about the dirty dealings on the dance floor, but quickly becomes a pro, a “horse”. After falling victim to tricks from her fellow participants to injure her or make her sick, she learns to keep going no matter what, to lug her sleeping partner around the dance floor, to look pathetic and weak during her time on the performance stage so as to get better “floor money” (tips). She also has to survive the sadistic stunts of the event promoters and their underhanded tactics to make as much money as possible off the backs of the desperate dancers. The marathon participants are pushed beyond exhaustion with grueling “sprints” and “grinds” and “treadmills”. The crueler the events, the more audience they get.

The book ends with the conclusion of the marathon. After making it all the way through, June discovers she’s been cheated out of most of her earnings and prize money. She swears she’ll do just one more marathon, now that she’s wise to the tricks.

What’s the burlesque connection? Throughout the books, when June mentions her sister, it’s to speak in awe of Louise’s intellect and her beauty, but she has little talent for singing and dancing. When June first arrives in New York, desperate, her mother boasts about Louise’s career and all her accomplishments, while treating June as someone she vaguely remembers meeting once upon a time. It’s a shock to discover her beloved older sister is now Gypsy Rose Lee, staring in Minsky’s Ada Onion from Bermuda. June is awestruck by Gypsy’s beauty and stage presence. She describes watching Gypsy’s famous act as Bobby gushes about her sense of humor and good looks. Gypsy herself is a distant presence, hardly noticing her little sister. However, Gypsy kindly gets June and Bobby a spot in the show doing their dance act, but they’re fired after two weeks. Nothing personal — management just has to change up the show.

The whole book is less a tale of show business than a memoir of survival. June knows she’s got a lot against her — raw talent but no training, little education, a selfish and manipulative mother, no support — but she’s determined to make her way in the world. Her story is painful to read at times, especially her assessments of herself and her awkward interactions with “regular” people.

The book ends leaving many questions unanswered: Does she make it out of the world of marathon dances? Does she get out from under her mother’s shadow? Does she find success on stage? Does she ever have a relationship with her sister? Fortunately, there’s another memoir, More Havoc, published 20 years later, answers some of those questions. I’ll review that one next.

One little tidbit — I was excited to realize that the last theatre Dainty June played before she escaped her mother was the Jayhawk in Topeka, KS. I’ll be performing there on June 22 with Hot in Topeka as part of a fundraiser for the theatre!

M2These writings and other creative projects are supported by my Patrons. Thank you so much! To become a Patron, go to my Patreon page. Or you can just tip me if you liked this.

Published in: on 6 May 2019 at 2:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review: Lady of Burlesque

Dear Constant Reader,

Lady of Burlesque: The Career of Gypsy Rose Lee by Robert Strom (2011).

This was a gift from one of my Adoring Fans who indulged me in something from my wish list.

I’ve already read a number of books* on Gypsy Rose Lee and wondered what new information I could possibly glean from this, but it wasn’t the expected biography. Mr. Strom presents a year-by year timeline of Gypsy’s career, from 1930 until her death in 1970. He cites his sources (a newspaper article, a contract, &c.) and frequently quotes entire articles. The book is peppered with photographs, some I’d not seen before. The book is rounded out with appendices, like a discography, productions of Gypsy, and more.

Not what I would call a gripping read, but a fine reference book.

M2 *American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose, Gypsy Rose Lee, Writing & Stripping, Stripping Gypsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee, Gypsy and Me: At Home and on the Road With Gypsy Rose Lee, Mama Rose’s Turn: The True Story of America’s Most Notorious Stage Mother, Gypsy: The Art of the Tease, and of course, Gypsy: Memoirs of America’s Most Celebrated Stripper

Published in: on 12 January 2017 at 3:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review: The G-String Murders

Dear Constant Reader,

Time for another book review. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read this particular book.

The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee (1941).

Although she’s better known for her memoir, this was Gypsy’s first literary offering. From the beginning there was controversy about whether she penned it herself or it was the work of a ghostwriter. I’m going to ignore all that and just review the story.

The tale is set backstage at a fictional burlesque show as told by one Gypsy Rose Lee, a fictional character, of course. The show is populated by squabbling strippers, ambitious chorus dancers, mysterious stagehands, and a variety of comics. Right off things get exciting when the show is raided and someone tries to strangle Gypsy as she flees the cops. Soon after, a haughty “Russian” “princess” joins the show and tensions grow even greater. Things finally come to a head at a party to dedicate the new toilet in the principal dancers’ dressing room. The new fixture is unveiled as well as the body of the much-disliked Prima Donna, strangled with a g-string. And she won’t be the last victim.

There are so many motives swirling around — missing stock certificates, cheating lovers, gangsters, blackmail — that anyone could be the murderer.

As mysteries go (and I read a *lot* of mysteries), it’s not fabulous. As a look backstage at a burlesque show, it’s amazing. The details are wonderful: the language, the daily routine, off-stage antics, beauty tips, &c. In general, it’s a fun read.

I was awfully disappointed in the ending where Gypsy’s boyfriend, Biff, sweeps in, saves her, and solves the crimes. She’s rightfully annoyed at him for using her as bait and then claiming all the credit. Then he proposes to her. And instead of showing the spunk she’s demonstrated for the entire book, she just melts into a puddle of romantic goo. That may have been wish fulfillment on the part of the actual Gypsy, but it’s out of character for the fictional Gypsy. I was kind of hoping she’d kick him in the shins.

The edition I have ends with an afterword by Rachel Shteir and selections from “Letters to My Editor”, a publicity pamphlet for The G-String Murders, containing letters between Gypsy and her editor, Lee Wright, about the progress of the novel.

Now I’m going to look for a copy of Mother Finds a Body, the sequel, which was no where near as popular. Also, I think I’ll rewatch Lady of Burlesque and see what kind of amazing liberties Hollywood took with the story.

M2

Published in: on 2 April 2014 at 11:36 am  Leave a Comment  
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Happy New Year!

Dear Constant Reader,

Gypsy Rose Lee had a tradition of eating 12 grapes at midnight, one at each stroke of the clock, for good fortune in the coming year.

And I wish you all good fortune, with or without grapes.

M2

Published in: on 31 December 2013 at 11:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Happy Birthday, Gypsy

Dear Constant Reader,

My apologies, this goes out a day late, but your faithful correspondent was at the dentist yesterday and her entire schedule went keflewie (that’s a technical term) as a result.

A very happy 102* to the greatest Lady of Burlesque, Gypsy Rose Lee!

For your pleasure, here’s a little picture of Gypsy:
gypsy inside
This is the program from her 1949 tour, from The Boston Babydoll Collection. And here’s a photo of her autographing one of those very same programs!

And just for fun, here’s Devora Darling, all dressed up for her Gypsy tribute act, “A Stripteaser’s Education” during the Madame Burlesque tour and the photo that inspired the costume.

devora as gypsy grlsmaller

For more Gypsy goodness, you could read her famous memoir, Gypsy: Memoirs of America’s Most Celebrated Stripper, her novels, The G-String Murders and Mother Finds a Body, or listen to her on the albums Gypsy Rose Lee Remembers Burlesque and That’s Me All Over. Not to mention all the movies inspired by her writings: Gypsy, Lady of Burlesque, and Doll Face.

There’s also her son’s memoir Gypsy and Me: At Home and on the Road With Gypsy Rose Lee (also called My G-String Mother: At Home and Backstage with Gypsy Rose Lee).

And then there is a plethora of other books about her: American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose, Stripping Gypsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee, Gypsy: The Art of the Tease, and Lady of Burlesque: The Career of Gypsy Rose Lee.

Not bad for someone who described herself as “no talent”!

M2

*Probably. Her mother had a fluid relationship with the truth and thought nothing of forging birth certificates to raise or lower her daughters’ ages when the situation arose.

Published in: on 10 January 2013 at 1:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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From the Archives

Dear Constant Reader,

First, I’d like to thank anyone who came out to see A (Re)Movable Feast this weekend. It was a great kick-off for our summer tour! Next we’ll be in Saratoga Springs, NY to celebrate the birthday of The First Lady of Burlesque, April March.

Second, thank you to everyone who has pledged to our Kickstarter campaign! We are less than $100 from giving every backer a *second* extra gift — and we have 13 days to go!

Finally, today’s treat.

Here is a page from the June 1943 issue of Mechanix Illustrated with an article entitled “The Mechanix Of Gypsy Rose Lee”, about the sets used in her show “Star and Garter”. It’s a serious article about backstage mechanics — scenery and scene changes. Most of the illustrations are similarly serious: a diagram of a “jackknife” scene change or a photograph of a banks of lights. But they manage to sneak in the cheesecake, as you can see from the publicity photo of Gypsy. My favorite is a photo of backstage with the caption “Keep your eyes on the maze of ropes in this picture. They control the sets and drops for Star and Garter. Note the girls among ropes.” As though anyone would miss the showgirls parading toward the stage.

Other articles in the magazine include “War Wonders Of Radio”, “What Your Post-War Pleasure Boat Will Look Like”, “Modern Cigarette Boxes” (with diagrams and instructions), and “Ideas for the Victory Gardener”.

Published in: on 11 June 2012 at 11:06 am  Leave a Comment  
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Review: American Rose

Dear Constant Reader,

Today I review the last of my books about Gypsy Rose Lee.

American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose by Karen Abbott (2010).

Ms. Abbott attempts to strip away the mythology Gypsy created about herself as immortalized in her autobiography and the musical based on it. As well as combing through archives, Ms. Abbott interviewed the two then-living people who knew her best, Gypsy’s son, Erik Lee Preminger, and her sister, June Havoc. Gypsy portrayed her mother as eccentric and driven and the musical turned her into the quintessential stage mother. In American Rose she is revealed to be dangerously unstable and shown to have committed murder more than once. Deceptions abound from the very beginning of Gypsy’s life — she was originally named Ellen June, but a couple of years later her mother gave the name to her baby sister.

The chapters of the book skip around in chronology, starting at the peak of Gypsy’s career, then jumping back to her childhood, then to a chapter on Billy Minsky, then back to 1940, then a return to vaudeville days. It can be a little confusing and is the biggest criticism of most reviews. When Ms. Abbott gets into her subjects’ heads and writes from their perspective, she tends towards the overly dramatic and veers into the realm of fantasy. She’s best when quoting directly from her sources.

I won’t say it’s an enjoyable read, because the portrait she paints is sometimes so horrible that it’s hard to believe either Hovick sister survived their childhood and it’s not surprising that Gypsy grew up, as has been said, allergic to the truth.

Now, there’s at least one more book about Gypsy out there that I’m aware of, Robert Strom’s Lady of Burlesque: The Career of Gypsy Rose Lee, but I don’t have it yet (hint, hint).

Published in: on 2 May 2012 at 12:02 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review: Stripping Gypsy

Dear Constant Reader,

After reviewing Gypsy last week, I thought I would continue the theme and review a book about Gypsy.

Stripping Gypsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee by Noralee Frankel (2010).

Ms. Frankel want to strip away (pun intended) the fictions Gypsy created and find the real woman under all the layers. One of her strong interests is Gypsy’s politics, although that’s not the bulk of the book. A lot of Gypsy’s childhood (which can be found in Gypsy) is skipped to concentrate on the events that shaped her personality. This biography has a fair amount of information about Gypsy’s husbands and lovers (she ends her memoir before her first marriage). She longed to be a legitimate entertainer, but Hollywood feared the wrath of the censors and wasted her talents on screen. Because of her left-leaning views she was labeled a Communist and advertisers were urged to drop their sponsorship of her radio programs. She wanted to be taken seriously as an author, but was constantly overshadowed by her history as a stripper. There’s a constant feeling of desperation for success. The author states that the more she learned about Gypsy “she came to interest me more and I came to like her less.” It’s about accurate.

Published in: on 26 April 2012 at 12:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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