All photography by Krystal Ramirez
Buildings are completed by laying a cornerstone. Ships are christened by smashing a bottle of champagne. And burlesque museums are launched with a striptease.
Or at least that was the case when Miss Exotic World 2005 Michelle L’Amour showed her skills and twirled her tassels to inaugurate the new location of the Burlesque Hall of Fame before an audience that included local politicians and UNLV professors, Strip starlet Melody Sweets and hostess with the mostest Blanche DeBris, Bob Fosse dancer Marinka and the O.G. of burlesque, Tempest Storm. “We’re super-excited to give burlesque a home in Downtown Las Vegas, where it’s been so much a part of history,” says BHoF executive director Dustin Wax.
“It makes sense,” says founding BHoF board member Laura Herbert. “It’s in the historic district; Vegas’ heyday was similar to burlesque’s heydey. We share some key entertainers, music and style.”
The newly built and freshly pink-painted space in Downtown Las Vegas’ Arts District is a long way from the museum’s original home on burlesque queen Dixie Evans’ ranch in Helendale, California, in more ways than one. There, items were tacked to walls or jumbled into boxes in improvised storage areas. “To say Helendale was ‘indoors’ was kind of an overstatement. It wasn’t exposed to the elements but it wasn’t exactly protected from them,” Herbert says. “Here, there are actually four walls and its air-conditioned and climate-controlled.”
Though items from the collection were featured in a tiny space at Emergency Arts, this is the first time the entire assemblage is in one place since Evans’ ranch. It features photos, poster and memorabilia from early stars of vaudeville such as Mae West and Sophie Tucker all the way through to current stars of neo-burlesque like Dirty Martini and Ms. L’Amour. There are artifacts from golden-age burlesque icons such as Sally Rand’s fans and Gypsy Rose Lee’s trunk, along with items from Strip-headlining bombshells past and present, including Jayne Mansfield’s hot pink loveseat and Dita Von Teese’s mirrored martini glass bathtub.
“It’s amazing to see how these women’s careers progressed,” says collection assistant Darby Fox. She points out that it’s not just the improved display space that benefits the collection, but also the space people don’t see, where the museum’s collection can be catalogued and preserved. “We want people to be able to come in and use the archive and do research.”
The archive contains everything from pasties and pumps to scripts and contracts that can now be properly preserved. And it allows these women about whom so much has been said to tell their own stories. “In terms of history and how it’s depicted, it is kind of like the mob. They tell this amazing story through something that’s not mainstream. Movies and plays were based on this culture that romanticized it for so long,” explains Fox.
The Burlesque Hall of Fame removes some of that soft-focus glamour from its subjects in favor of shining a light on them as people. There’s a life-size poster of a performer named Marie Annette, a circa 1945 dish from her ankle-strap heels to her red-lipsticked smile. She seems like nothing so much as a compliant dream girl, but her posted quote tells another story: “I do not see how women live their whole life in a house taking care of kids and a husband and never do anything exciting or different in their life.”
Wax is excited about the possibilities for the new space: “We want to start doing classes. We want to do parties, special events, film screenings,” he says, adding that the museum is considering adding a film festival or other event to augment the annual Miss Exotic World weekend.
“We’ve always had this feeling of impermanence,” says Herbert. “When [Evans] put it in a goat barn, [it was like] ’That’ll do.’ This is the first time we’ve gone from ‘That’ll do’ to ‘This is amazing.’”