Photo exhibit pays tribute to burlesque's sassy showgirls

Women's history collective organizes display of vintage images

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The women whose pictures loom 6 feet tall in the windows of Downtown's Skinny Building once strutted across the stages of local burlesque theaters, and their names are memorable: Tempest Storm, Rusti Marsh and Sherry Darlin.

There's Pat Holladay, dressed in a leopard print outfit that would entice any of the buff men who played Tarzan and inspire envy in would-be Janes. In her alluring costume and perky hat, Phyllis Gayle looks like a demure, turbo-charged Rockette. The face and form of Florida (her single stage name) evoke statues of a Roman or Greek goddess.

Throughout April, people who pass the Skinny Building at Forbes Avenue and Wood Street can look up and see vintage publicity photos of these women, who appeared at the nearby Casino Theater and The Burlesk in the 1930s, the 1940s and 1950s.

It's part of an exhibition assembled by Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails, or LUPEC, a group that successfully serves popular and long-forgotten cocktails along with women's history.

Sharon "Mama" Spell, one of the group's charter members, says that LUPEC is "a guerrilla women's history collective that's focusing on women's history but preserving and releasing into the wild these endangered cocktails."

So, Spell added, "people get a dose of this information in a painless and fun-filled way."

The vintage photographs, which evoke a smoky, urban glamour, were a natural for LUPEC, whose members serve such drinks as the Marlene Dietrich, Call the Undertaker and the Fine and Dandy. (Recipes for these and other drinks can be found at lupec.org)

"Once we found the collection of the women together and imagined them the size of one of those plate glass windows, that just got the ball rolling," Spell said.

"You look at these ladies and you want to know their stories," added Jennie Benford, a LUPEC member and Carnegie Mellon University's archivist.

After their performances, these Burlesque entertainers often sipped cocktails at The Wheel Cafe on Forbes Avenue and, for 50 years, some of their pictures hung throughout that establishment until it closed in 1985. The Wheel Cafe took its name from the circuit of clubs the women traveled in the United States.

Burlesque, a flirtatious entertainment that includes ribald jokes, music and striptease, shocked Parisians between the two World Wars. Burlesque often imitates serious, well-known work, and a revival of it began in the 1990s in New York, London and other major cities.

One of the reigning muses of burlesque's renaissance is Dita Von Teese, who started out as Heather Sweet from Michigan. Dita, who made her London debut last year, has appeared in the 2002 Christmas edition of Playboy, vamped on the catwalk for fashion designer Louis Vuitton, published a book about burlesque and is designing a lingerie line. Photos of her wedding to Brian Manson, leader of the band Marilyn Manson, appeared in Vogue......

The local exhibition poses a larger question about whose stories are told, respected and saved.

"We hope we are respectfully using these images to engender discussion about what is saved and what isn't," Benford said.

Another LUPEC member, Jen Gottschalk of Regent Square, said the publicity photographs "were really well done. They were black and white and artistic. If that was your grandmother, you'd frame it and put it up in your house."

Foxy Moxie, a local performer who has since left Pittsburgh, also inspired the exhibition when she appeared before a Wednesday night performance of a play by Quantum Theatre, Gottschalk recalled.

"We thought she was great," said Gottschalk about Moxie's act, where she used boas, feathers and balloons.

To install the photos, LUPEC members worked with Al Kovacik, an architect and preservationist. Since 2001, Kovacik has volunteered his time to mount exhibitions at the Skinny Building, including one on sportscaster Myron Cope.

To celebrate women's history month in March, LUPEC passed out fliers about women of the underground, including those who led slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad and women of the French Revolution.

"Burlesque was kind of an underground culture," Kovacik said.

Indeed. One of its practitioners, Rusty Warren, liked to say, "If I embarrass you, tell your friends."

A city of Pittsburgh employee, Kovacik spent hours lighting the ladies of burlesque so they will show up at night, too.

"When it's all lit up at night, you get an appreciation for the three-dimensional aspects of the building. It's like a beacon in the Fifth and Forbes district," Kovacik said.

And, better still, a beacon of burlesque.

Click photo for larger image.Click photo for larger image.Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
Tempest Storm, top, and Pat Holladay, middle, are among the burlesque queens gracing the windows of the Skinny Building Downtown, above.
Click photo for larger image.

Post-Gazette staff writer Marylynne Pitz may be reached at 412-263-1648 or mpitz@post-gazette.com


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