Legends reborn

The setting is the tarnished glitter of Fremont Street in old Las Vegas. Dozens of young women mill in front of the Celebrity Theatre, their pin-curled hair bedecked in feathers, their sequined gowns winking under the neon lights that dance along the street. Among the tattooed neo-pinups and whiskey-swilling hipsters stand two septuagenarian African-American women from Detroit, looking alternately perplexed, overwhelmed and elated.

Dressed simply but elegantly, each grasps a glass of champagne, but the bubbly is jostled and spilled as the two women are periodically mobbed by a throng of exuberant young ingenues who are literally tripping over their feather boas to greet them.

"It such an honor to meet you!" squeals one, her cherubic face flushed with excitement and champagne. "We're soooo thrilled you could make it!" gushes another, as she envelops them in squeeze, smearing glitter on their faces in the process.

Lottie "The Body" Graves and Toni Elling are a bit overwhelmed by it all, but basking in the attention as guests of honor at the 16th Annual Miss Exotic World Pageant, the world's biggest neo-burlesque competition and one big sparkling bridge of the ecdysiastical generational gap. During three days busting with sequins, fan kicks and tassels twirling so fast they make your corneas spin, Lottie and Toni, exotic dancers from Detroit some four (or five) decades ago, rub elbows with burlesque neophytes young enough to be their granddaughters, who hoist them atop glittering pedestals, worshipping them as living relics.

The new burlesque has been steadily growing in recent years, as women (and a handful of men) in their 20s, 30s, and sometimes 40s, have revitalized the lost art as a form of self-expression, empowerment and just plain fun. And the Exotic World burlesque museum is the holy mecca of burlesque old and new; formerly located in the scorching center of the Mojave Desert, showgirls from across the globe compete for the coveted title of Miss Exotic World at the annual pageant. The key component of this event is the melding of past with present; Museum volunteers track down the few surviving stars of the golden age of burlesque, dubbed "living legends," and bring them to the pageant to interact with today's young starlets.

Last year, I wrote an article on Lottie and Toni ("Paradise Regained," Metro Times, Aug. 3, 2005). Shortly afterward, Laura Herbert, a primary force behind Exotic World, contacted me to see if they might be interested in attending. She was particularly eager to recruit living legends of color to illustrate that burlesque wasn't — and isn't — monochromatic. Despite the constraints of time, money and health issues (Lottie has arthritis and a troublesome leg, Toni has recently struggled with bronchitis and pneumonia), the Exotic World team pulled together to bring them out to the pageant's virgin run in its new Las Vegas home.

As the weekend progresses, dozens upon dozens of today's brightest burlesque performers swarm them. A few young gals even confess they're too intimidated and nervous to approach Lottie and Toni — a notion that quickly vanishes at first contact with the effervescent Lottie, whose customary first greeting for anyone is a bubbling, "Hellooooo my boo-boo!" and a warm embrace.

The show kicks off Friday night at the Celebrity, a small but lovely theater draped in pink and white tension fabric structures, and so much glitter on the floor it looks like David Bowie spontaneously combusted. The second performer out of the gate is Daisy Delight, a living legend from the '60s who performs a graceful striptease, from a billowing black peignoir down to sparkling tiny pasties. Lottie is whooping it up, and I mean whooping. "Work it girl! Oh yes!" She yells longer and harder than half the young'ns in the audience. Tears spring to Toni's eyes, moved by the older woman's elegant strip and the vigorous applause from the audience of several hundred primarily twenty- and thirtysomething men and women. Lottie is then ushered on stage to begin her share of the emcee duties. She introduces Toni, who is gracious but actually quite a shy creature. The two play off each other — then suddenly Lottie stops, cocks her hip and says in her trademark, gloriously charming attitude, "Um, this is a dance show, can we get some music, please!" The DJ strikes up a sultry wail, and Toni and Lottie start an impromptu bump and grind around the stage. The entire audience responds with thundering applause, leaping to its feet. Among all the screaming, half the audience is dissolving into tears at the sight of these two ol' gals strutting away as if several decades ago were just yesterday. Later, Toni confesses she couldn't look directly at the audience because she was overwhelmed. She says dozens of people approached her over the weekend, commenting on her hit-and-run shimmy. "What did I do up there anyways?" Toni asks, as if she was so caught up in the moment she can't even remember. "People been coming up to me all weekend and saying something — I must have strutted."

Honey, you sure did.

And so it continues: awe, accolades, curious cross-generational bonding and mascara-streaked tears (not all of us had the foresight to wear waterproof eye makeup). At one point Lottie and Toni stride into the hotel restaurant and are met with a round of congratulations and applause. "I feel like a celebrity!" Lottie beams.

The highlight of the weekend is the Sunday afternoon pool party at the hotel's rooftop patio. As young and old converge, overheard are snippets of advice on tassel-twirling, coping with wardrobe malfunctions and the dissection of the perfect shimmy. The DJ has the '50s sock hop tunes jammin' and the girls start up an impromptu dance circle. Tai Ping, one of the living legends, observes the proceedings with a quiet smile from her wheelchair. A dancer grabs Tai and wheels her into the middle of the circle, as the girls erupt in boisterous cheers. Again, tears sparkle in Toni's eyes, at the sight of these coquettish modern pinups in vintage bikinis hootin', hollerin' and prancing a circle around a grinning little old lady in a wheelchair. "You all are not like young people these days," she sniffles.

Perhaps the best part of the weekend is watching the two women's distinct personalities emerge. Lottie was quite a name in her day, and continued on as a local celebrity long after she retired, landing regular emcee gigs in jazz clubs in Detroit. She relishes the spotlight, and is bursting with more life than most women half her age. Toni is more reserved, and, while successful in her day, faded into relative obscurity after retiring her pasties. She is floored by the reception she receives.

"Honey, I never thought I'd be a legend, alive or dead," she laughs.

And both women get around to meeting Dixie Evans, known in her time as the Marilyn Monroe of burlesque, and the proprietress of Exotic World. After graciously thanking them for attending she tells them both they simply must come back next year — and next time, they should perform.

When Toni expresses some reservations, the 79-year-old Dixie, a timeless beauty in her immaculately curled white hair, fiery lipstick and sparkling crimson dress, simply drawls, "Honey, you got a whole year to work on your act."

Sarah Klein is a burlesque performer and the culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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