Liz Smith: More Tales of Burlesque

tumblr_lgbzc5IzW41qa7boko1_1280“MOST AWARDS, you know, they don’t give you unless you go and get them. Did you know that? Terribly discouraging!”

So said young Barbra Streisand, back when she was first receiving armfuls of awards. Since then, she’s mellowed a bit about being adored.

WE REALLY have to call her “Dr. Streisand” now. On June 17th, Barbra will receive an honorary doctorate of philosophy from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The movie star will be recognized for humanitarianism, civil rights, dedication to Israel and the Jewish people.

Streisand already holds an Honorary Doctorate in Arts and Humanities from Brandeis University.

Well, after Elizabeth Taylor was made a dame of the British Empire, she did insist on being introduced as “Dame Elizabeth Taylor.” So, “Dr. Streisand” isn’t such a leap.

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SPEAKING OF Miss Taylor — Elizabeth’s super-devoted assistant of many years, Tim Mendleson, e-mailed us from Cannes, happily floored by the experience of seeing all four-plus hours of the restored “Cleopatra.” He wrote: “I had no idea! I’d actually never seen it before. People in the audience were screaming and applauding all the way through. It was wild.” He added: “She took so much of that movie with her for the rest of her mortal life. She never spoke of it much, and now I cannot understand why?”

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MY GOOD friend and associate Denis Ferrara and I were astounded recently when we wrote about a new book by Leslie Zemeckis titled “Behind the Burly Q: The Story of Burlesque in America.” We never dreamed we would cause such an outpouring of interest. I had also recently seen the dramatic play on Broadway, “The Nance,” which surprised me because it tells the story, partly, of how Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia drove vaudeville out of New York and it turned into stripping, which then became burlesque as a result. (Vaudeville and burlesque offered up some of the greatest comics of our age. They then went to work in early television. Their jokes, japes and comedy became priceless.)

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THIS ALL reminded me of the days of the rise of Billy Rose, who began as a fast shorthand taker and played his skills into a friendship with financier Bernard Baruch. This catapulted Mr. Rose into the ranks of master producer of musicals, girls, girls, girls, shows and refined stripping. At the time of the 1936 Centennial of the State of Texas, Dallas was the be-all and end-all of where this celebration was taking place.

billyThe Dallas “enemy,” only 30 odd miles to the West, was Fort Worth. This town went behind the back of Dallas and its Chamber of Commerce and hired Billy Rose to bring his glamorous showgirls to Texas and put on something he called the Casa Mañana there.

Before graduating high school in 1940, I well remember dancing with my father on the very same stage where Billy Rose offered his dazzling, sexy and daring extravaganza. They even adapted the music of “Gone With the Wind” into something nearly the same, re-titled for legal reasons, “Gone With the Dawn.” Before they opened the Casa Manana to public dancing, I was a rapturous teenager watching the great Sally Rand do her dance behind gigantic fans. Later, she refined this to a big balloon dance where she appeared to be in the all-together behind the ball.

Too naughty and too thrilling for the Southern Baptist nature of Fort Worth. Remember, these were times when people could still be shocked by nudity or assumed nudity; Everybody said Sally wore a skintight leotard and wasn’t really nude. At the time the dirty limerick going around was: “Billy Rose asked SallyRan(d)/If she would dance without her fan. Sally danced without her fan/Billy Rose and Sally Ran(D)”

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Many years later, I was on tour with a musical starring Phil Silvers called “Top Banana.” The comics would take us out every Saturday after closing at the theatre to see what was left of Burlesque. There, I experienced the thrill of Lili St. Cyr who I think was called “The Atomic Bombshell.” She came onstage, fully clothed — and not just in bra and panties, removed all her divine clothes, took a leisurely and sexy bath, got out, re-dressed head to toe, hat and gloves and left the stage, leaving audiences panting!

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After we wrote here about the publication of the book by Skyhouse, I received an outpouring of burlesque memories. Reader Ellen Easton writes me: “Lili St. Cyr was once wed to Armando Orsini, the restaurateur who owned Orsini’s in Manhattan long ago. He was prominent in the founding of the discothèque era. Lili had helped Armando at the beginning of his career and long after they were divorced, he continued to support Lili in her later years. All of his restaurants were elegant and fun. He cut quite a swath with the ladies who lunched.”

Ms. Easton has sent me some nostalgic memories of the Sixties and Seventies and we will undertake remembering them after we get her permission to do so.

This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 5/24/13

One comment so far.

  1. avatar Community Manager says:

    Classic Liz!