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Robert Zemeckis’ Wife Does a Documentary on Burlesque

from – Burlesque is often misunderstood.

It was not the kind of stripping that we think of today. There were no poles, no overtly dirty songs and the women didn’t get totally nude, according to the new documentary “Behind the Burly Q.”

“The young people think it was just striptease — no, it was a big, gaudy theatrical show,” said Dixie Evans, an ex-burlesque performer who appears on screen.

The world of burlesque performers and their lives behind the scenes is what Leslie Zemeckis, wife of Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis, hoped to uncover when she set out to make the documentary “Behind the Burly Q,” which is screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center through Thursday.

Zemeckis, in her directorial debut, weaves stock footage and photos of burlesque performers with interviews of the “stars” of burlesque in the early 20th century, including Dixie Evans, Tempest Storm and “MASH” star Alan Alda, whose father was a comic and sang a show’s opening song on the burlesque circuit.

The film premiered in February, but the idea for the movie came to Zemeckis in 2006, when she was performing in “Staar,” a stage show about a faux mistress and burlesque performer.

“I was doing a one woman show that had elements of burlesque in it, and I realized that I didn’t really know what burlesque was,” Zemeckis said. “I started researching it and I got hooked up with this group of women and men who were all former burlesque performers. I told them that I would sponsor a reunion of them all in Vegas if I could interview them about their lives.”

Although in the film the women seem willing to share insider stories, getting them to open up was very difficult at first, Zemeckis said.

“A few of them had done previous interviews and they didn’t like how it came out,” Zemeckis said. “I would write them and send them photos of my kids to let them know who I was, and I just told them that I wanted to tell their story. Once a couple of the key ones knew who I was and spoke with me, everybody would speak with me. I was known and it was, like, ‘She is OK.'”

Chicago was a part of what was known as the Eastern burlesque circuit, Zemeckis said, which went from Boston to New York to New Orleans to Chicago, stopping in smaller towns along the way.

“Chicago was a very important city on the burlesque circuit,” she said. “You had the World’s Fair in 1893, with Little Egypt (a belly dancer) who really started it all, and then in 1933 and 1934, Sally Rand and Faith Bacon were here doing their fan dances. … This was the center of the country and it was a regular place that everybody came to play.”

June Lauter, 82, attended a screening of “Behind the Burly Q” on Saturday and said she remembers seeing Sally Rand and other burlesque performers at the Chicago Theatre when she was young.

“Every Saturday my mother and I would go see a vaudeville show and it always had a lot of different acts, but at least one of them was a burlesque type of performance,” Lauter said. “I didn’t really think anything of it; it was just a part of the show. It was included in the ticket price.”

The rise of the porn industry in the 1960s marked the decline of mainstream burlesque, according to the film, but some well-known performers continued to dance well into their later years in smaller clubs.

“Tempest Storm is still dancing in her 80s,” Zemeckis said. “Sally Rand danced into her 70s, and there were other not-so-well-known ones that danced into their 50s or 60s. As long as they could bring in an audience, they danced.”

Along with learning burlesque’s history, Zemeckis said she picked up a newfound love of documentary filmmaking. Although she was tight-lipped about possible subject matters, she said, “There are definitely at least a couple more documentaries that I want to do.”


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