Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Burlesque: Its History And Its Present

At the end of September, my boyfriend Greg and I attended a fabulous show at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor called Pick a Card: a Burlesque Exploration of Tarot. I learned about it from the person passing out flyers. She came into the bookstore and asked to put one up, and not only did I say yes, I wanted to know all about it! The people involved in the show, and the subsequent Sirens and Spooks: Halloween Burlesque that some of the performers re-united for a month later, were so incredibly talented, I am grateful she thought to come into our shop with a flyer.

The day of the event, I had an interesting encounter with a customer who came in to buy his wife a tarot deck (and then asked me where he could pick up a bouquet of flowers, as well). It turned out she was one of the performers in the burlesque show, Miss GVS Mynx as the Queen of Swords. I expressed my excitement and said that I was going. This is a paraphrasing of the conversation that ensued:

Customer: You should totally come out and watch my wife strip!
Me: I can't wait to watch your wife strip!

(It didn't seem weird to me until later. And, by the way, she was sensational. He's a lucky man to be with someone so talented.) 

These performers are true artists, and though burlesque is supposed to be sexy, sometimes a bit raunchy, it's also supposed to be fun, funny, dazzling, and any other number of adjectives that describe entertainment. Neo-burlesque, shows like Pick a Card and Sirens and Spooks that we go to see nowadays, are live entertainment, like going to a play or the ballet. When I first started going to burlesque shows, I heard a lot of people badmouth the performers that didn't strip or didn't strip "far enough" as "not burlesque." In a lot of people's minds, burlesque = strippers. That is not the case. Though strippers became an integral part of burlesque early on, they are not, and were not, the end-all be-all of burlesque. (Though most say they were the end to burlesque.)

I recently found a book at Crazy Wisdom called Behind the Burly Q: The Story of Burlesque in America by Leslie Zemeckis ($16.95 paperback), and I snatched it up! If you are at all a fan of burlesque, modern or no, read this book (or watch the documentary upon which it is based). I have such a better understanding of what burlesque is and where it comes from. 

According to the book, a typical heyday burlesque show had the following format: 
  • Opening Act: The "tit singer" (actual term) would sing a song while about 15 scantily and glamorously clad chorus girls would parade on stage.
  • A skit between the comic and his straight man.
  • A striptease and/or novelty acts.
  • Another comedy skit.
  • A song/dance number.
  • Middle Production "Picture Act": another huge act that lasted about 10 minutes.
  • The co-feature (a stripper).
  • If there was a chorus line, here they would do a build-up for the feature performer. 
  • The Headliner or star stripper. 
  • The Finale with most of the cast on stage.
This all lasted for 90 minutes. Not bad for the dime it cost you to get in! I think we paid $20 each for Pick a Card, which was divided into two acts and well worth it. (The acts were mostly strips, but also included aerialists and hoopers (shout out to Tea who does the coolest black light hoop strips ever!!). Sirens and Spooks also featured a sideshow performer. Neither had comedians, but there was definitely comedy within some of the performances.) 

Later, going into the 50s and certainly 60s, strippers began to take over because burlesque shows had to compete with movies and we all know that sex sells. Performers began showing more of their bodies and doing progressively "lewder" acts, like grinding against poles and curtains, etc, which previously had been banned as indecent across much of America and Canada.

Speaking of bans, there were some good ones. People generally found a way around them, though. For example, many cities had laws that stated a person could not exit the stage with less clothing than they had arrived with on stage. Oh no! No stripping! Right? Wrong. There were at least two ways of getting around this:
  1. Performers would dance around the stage, parade to the side, step backstage, quickly remove an article of clothing, then pop back on stage. Rinse and repeat.
  2. Do what is called a reverse strip. Arrive on stage with nothing, put clothing on (in a sexy way), and leave fully clothed (or at least with more than was started with). Stepping from a bubble bath, for example, and dressing for an imagined party.
In some places, "bumping," or any provocative sudden thrust of the hips, was deemed "lewd" and illegal to perform. Blonde performers were sometimes required to wear certain colored panties, like black, so no one could "mis-see" what she was wearing and think she was nude or flashing her lighter public hair. I guess there's nothing you can do about performers with dark hair, and by God, someone had to be punished for audience arousal somehow! 

But that was then, and most of these laws, if not gone, are at least ignored. Many venues still ban complete nudity, but total nudity was never the arena of burlesque performance and there is no reason it should be now. 

Some things will never change. Performers still make the bulk of their own costumes, which makes them not only wonderful performers and choreographers, but dazzling designers and dressmakers. People were once very protective of their acts, especially their music, and I once read that today, the music that performers use is either trademarked or copyrighted to them, and many are still reluctant to share it. (Which is occasionally a shame because I have heard some phenomenal remixes that I wish I could hear again.)

When working clubs (as opposed to theaters, carnivals, etc), performers were expected to mingle - some even had their pay determined by how many bottles of champagne they could talk customers into buying - and we still see performers mingling with the crowds today, though usually after the show in the lobby, posing for pictures with attendees, and sometimes at the merchandise table where they sell pictures, T-shirts, handmade pasties, and all manner of things. (I also occasionally run into them in the ladies room, but I wouldn't call that mingling.)

This summer, I wrote about why I like burlesque, and after reading Zemeckis' book, learning the history and the stories of the women and men who lived it, I feel like I have an even greater love and respect. I wish I had pictures to share of my favorite performers, but I don't have the kind of camera-phone that takes pictures in low-lit environments, and some of the shows I've been to were a little strict on what photos were taken, by whom, and where they were shared. You'll just have to go see one yourself!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Petoskey and Charlevoix in the Off Season

Not too long ago, my boyfriend Greg and I took a mini vacation to Mackinac Island (Mackinac Island Mayhem), the UP (Shipwrecks in the UPLakenenland and Snowbound in Marquette), and various places around Northern Michigan (Hartwick Pines State Park).


We finished our trip in Petoskey (peh-TAHS-kee), staying at the famously (and happily) haunted bed and breakfast Terrace Inn. Greg was beyond delighted by the place. The wooden stairs were uneven and tilted to one side (in some places quite dramatically), but it was comfortable, and had quite a bit of old charm. It would have been nice to have spent more time there relaxing, and I could be persuaded to stay there again. We stayed on the top floor above, but not in (to my knowledge) a room that had many reported incidents. There is an entire binder kept by the Inn documenting reports of hauntings and other strange happenings, though numerous attempts on our part and by the staff to locate it ended in failure. Every year, the Inn hosts a paranormal weekend around Halloween, which, sadly, we were destined to miss.


A very short drive away is downtown Petoskey, a much larger area than I think either of us was expecting. Yes, there were a number of kitschy, artsy souvenir shops, the kind you usually find in beach resort towns, but there were also a number of bars, restaurants, breweries (we loved Beards), and totally normal year-round stores that one expects to find in a city. (There is a full-sized JC Penney! Not in a mall!) It was nice to find a functioning downtown, and not just a tourist trap. In some tourism books, we saw the downtown area referred to as the "gas lamp district," though we never quite sussed that out.

We did find the statue of Ignatius Petoskey (aka Petosegay - spellings were not exactly set back then), the Ottawa-French metis merchant and fur trader who founded the original village. He looked like a formidable guy, contrasting with the rather genteel surroundings.

Fun trivia: Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, though born in Detroit, grew up in Petoskey. You know who else has strong ties to Petoskey? Ernest Hemingway. Plaques abound of where Hemingway did this, which buildings served as inspiration for which scene in which story, etc. Hemingway spent his summers growing up in the Petoskey region, returned to recover there after being wounded in war, and placed many of his stories there. The city is very, very proud of him.

On our way out of Petoskey, we made a stop in Charlevoix. (Pronounced SHARR-luh-voy. "Oi" is pronounced "oy," not "wah" in French-Canadian. We see this also in "Detroit," which was once - and still is in French-Canada - pronounced "duh-troy." I assume the British added the "t" sound, which is only fair considering there is a "t" there. Michigan was French territory before it was English, so we have a lot of French names. Also many Ottawa and Chippewa names, hence Petoskey and Michigan respectively.)

Charlevoix is another summer tourist town. It also has its quirks. Our first stop was Castle Farms, the history of which is far too long for me to post here. Nowadays, it is predominantly used as a wedding venue (they have multiple rooms designed for this purpose), but it also is a great way to spend an afternoon! The various gardens are well-maintained and delightful, many with a fairy tale theme (this is a castle, after all). The pond around back was populated with a hundred water fowl. Or more. It was difficult to count with them all running at me for food scraps. I haven't been mobbed by that many ducks since I lived with Kimmy in Southport!


Part of what makes Castle Farms a great place to bring kids is the massive train set that you can actually climb in and around. There are also chess boards all over the castle of varying sizes, including at least one with pieces 3 feet or so tall. I would have loved running around this castle as a child! You pay a fee to get in, and are then handed a map with numbers and you are allowed to wander from place to place, following the numbers of the self-guided walking tour or not. While we were there, there were no weddings so we went everywhere, but if there is a wedding going on, obviously you are expected not to crash it.


We chatted with one of the receptionists upon leaving and she asked if we'd heard of the Mushroom Houses. I had, but totally forgotten where they were, and Greg had not. Excited, she ran over to get us a brochure and told us all she knew about them making the Mushroom Houses designed by Earl A. Young our next destination. (After a brief stop for lunch.) No, they are not shaped like mushrooms per se. The homes do seem to grow naturally out of the surrounding environments making use of both natural materials and what people like to call organic shapes. There is a lot of roundness to the homes.

Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures of the Mushroom Houses (so click the link above!!). They are private residences, so I didn't want to disturb anyone, and we just ended up cruising around and gawking from the privacy of our own car. (One guy was definitely giving us the stink eye from his front lawn.) Though the houses may be fancy (albeit quite small in some cases) and probably go for a pretty penny nowadays, they were designed to be affordable at the time. In our brochure, Young is quoted with "There is no use paying rent when you can buy a home at the prices I have places for sale for." Maybe not the most profound statement, but you get the idea.

If you've ever wanted to live in Snow White's cottage or a Hobbit Hole, start stalking the Mushroom Houses now. I don't know this for sure, but I doubt they go on the market often, and when they do, it probably takes some special connections to get inside one. (This has been my experience with the Frank Lloyd Wright homes that are still private residences outside Kalamazoo. The Meyer May House in Grand Rapids is open for tours, though, and it is fantastic.)

And that concludes our Northern Michigan Adventure. I don't know what I will talk about next week. Maybe burlesque. Come back to find out!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Lakenenland and Snowbound in Marquette

On the road from our Lake Superior shipwrecks adventure in Munising to our next destination Marquette, my boyfriend Greg and I encountered something that everyone traveling in the Marquette region of the UP should see: Lakenenland Sculpture Park. If you've been following this blog at all, you will already be aware of our penchant for oddball destinations. (Just check out all the unusual and fun things we found in Berrien County this summer.) 

I was alerted to the existence of Lakenenland by my manager at Crazy Wisdom (because she is also aware of our delight of the weird, and she doesn't even read my blog! ...that I am aware of). It turns out that it's pretty hard to miss if you are driving along M-28. A giant green dinosaur fishing for swordfish gives the park's location away. Do yourself a favor and turn in the drive! You can choose drive the hard-packed dirt path through the woods or park the car by the lovely picnic area and playground and stroll (just be mindful of the people driving - and drivers, watch out for pedestrians!). We chose to drive, which took maybe 10 minutes.
We went to Marquette to drink local beer and check out Snowbound Books, which I have heard about many times from a few different people. There isn't a lot of square footage at Snowbound, but it is warm, cozy, and totally the kind of place I would frequent if I live in the area! It has an obvious personal touch, much as I have been told Crazy Wisdom in Ann Arbor has. (I can personally attest that every book that Crazy Wisdom carries was handpicked by me or one of my associates. It's probably my favorite part of the job.) There were so many titles I wish I could have purchased! (Instead, I copied them down, hoping to track them down at a library later.)

Marquette is a great town, too. The buildings are mostly brick and have an obvious history. To use an awful cliche, it's charming. We had lunch at a bar overlooking the old drydock, a large and somewhat imposing fixture right on the edge of downtown. (I wish my battery hadn't died so I could have taken a picture.) It's too bad that we didn't have much time to spend there as I would have enjoyed wandering through the other shops in the area. I have no doubt we could have filled a day or two just wandering around. 
I really enjoy the UP, and I intend to return someday and explore more. Maybe I will uncover some other oddball thing to share. I already know that Michigan is crawling with them.