Exotic World and the Burlesque Revival
Produced by Courtney Hermann
- Society, Culture, Arts, History, and Portrait
In 1983, Dixie Evans, the postwar era â€œMarilyn Monroe of Burlesque,â€ cleared out a former goat barn on a ranch near Route 66 and built a history museum dedicated to burlesque (a.k.a. striptease), a sexual and comedic dance form that emerged in the United States in the nineteenth century.
Twenty-odd years later, â€œThe Exotic World Museum,â€ funded by Dixieâ€™s social security checks, finally began drawing exuberant crowds; developing into a Mojave Desert haven for burlesque legends of the 1940s-60s and ground zero of the latest burlesque revival (the fourth of which since the late 1800â€™s).
- Show treatment
The major organizing structure of the film is chronological; plot points mark the decay and fall of the Exotic World Museum, and the simultaneous rise of a vibrant burlesque revival. Dixie Evans is the central, POV character, not only because she is engaging and intelligent, but because she and her museum are situated at the junction of the legends of burlesque and the young revivalists who populate and give meaning to the story. There are three main arenas in which the narrative plays out, as follows:
1. The Museum
The museum itself is the physical center of the narrative of Exotic World and the Burlesque Revival. The original structure, a former goat barn, now incorporates a hodgepodge of trailers, cinder block and drywall rooms, all jammed with 8x10 photos, hand-sewn costumes, and an assortment of once colorful, but now faded memorabilia.
At first, the viewer experiences the museum as a kitschy, wacky, train wreck; a frivolous roadside amusement. But in the hands of Dixie Evans, it becomes a sincere and fantastic documentation of the history of a desire industry--how it was manufactured, who its laborers were, and its undeniable influence on American culture.
While giving tours, Dixie periodically alters her normal voice and takes on a quiet, breathy, ultra-feminine affect. This signals her transformation into her stage character, the Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque. She moves through the museum, as she has hundreds of times before, imparting a surprisingly detailed amount of information, dates, names and places about the artifacts cluttering the tiny, poorly lit rooms.
â€œThese arenâ€™t just a bunch of 8X10 photos slapped on a wall,â€ Dixie emphatically asserts in her everyday voice, â€œEach one of these girls waited on an old lonely train platform at 3 in the morning. These girls worked 7 days and nights a week.â€
The museum is not as well maintained or archive-friendly as it should be. It is clearly in a declining state, and we are told as much by the museumâ€™s rag tag volunteer staff, who lament its dusty, spider-infested condition and are appalled by recent thefts of artifacts and the several places in the ceiling where water has cascaded onto the collection during the brief rainy season.
By the end of the film, the museum has become a familiar and delightful place, where we have marveled at Dixieâ€™s depth of knowledge, witnessed tough old burlesque broads breaking down among the artifacts of their lives, and watched as wide-eyed young city girls realize the historical reach of the trip theyâ€™re on. When Dixie plants a kiss on the portable storage container where her beloved museum is eventually packed, waves as a truck pulls it away through the â€œgrandâ€ iron gates of the Exotic World compound, and succumbs to a rare display of sorrow, the viewer feels and understands her grief.
2. Legendsâ€™ Reunion
The film reveals the seldom told stories of legendary postwar burlesque dancers, who first began toting their scrapbooks out to the desert for an annual reunion at Exotic World in the 1980s. These include Ricci Cortezâ€”who breaks down after seeing her 8x10 picture on the museum wall for the first time; Tura Satanaâ€”who describes teaching Elvis the bump and grind; and Tempest Storm--who discusses pillow talk with John F. Kennedy.
Legend and reunion attendee Bambi Jones walks through the museum touching things gently, remembering the friends whose photos hang on the wall. She reflects, â€œWeâ€™ve all gone through trauma in our lives. And to go up there, onstage, you had to be tough. You had to be a broad. But when youâ€™re up there, sometimes itâ€™s just a nice control feeling. Youâ€™ve got that audience there and you can take them anywhere you want.â€
Performances of legends in their 60s, 70s and even 80s, in a special showcase at the reunion, are also documented. These performances at first seem strange: wrinkled bodies reshaped by age are featured under colorful stage lighting, sequined costumes recently pulled from the mothballs are removed seductively, and tassels twirl on sagging breasts. The sincere and boisterous admiration emanating from the crowd is a normalizing force, and invites the viewer to join the love fest. These performances transform from weird to powerful, as the dancersâ€™ sexual prowess and youth flashes to the surface; their skill and stage presence enlivening their dance, egging on the ecstatic audience.
Sixty-some-year-old legend Satanâ€™s Angel awes the crowd with her bawdy and aggressive bump and grind. Afterwards, she smiles conspiratorially at her applauding admirers, exits the stage and flops heavily against the wall. â€œI couldnâ€™t even hold my stomach in. Too old. Smoke too much, party too much. Fuck! When youâ€™re 30, when youâ€™re 40, give it up!â€ This outburst is somewhat genuine, but also feels like false modesty combined with a flair for the dramatic. She knows she just killed.
3. Revival Contest
As word spreads of Dixie and her museum, one by one, young women from all over the nation begin making pilgrimages to the desert, each seeing in burlesque a shared sexual and comedic sensibility, and in Dixie Evans a fairy godmother.
They pay homage to the museum and to the living legends of burlesque, and compete for the coveted title of Miss Exotic World. In the blazing desert, each dancer bursts out short, sexy and often comedic dances about female desire and femininity.
Dirty Martini (Miss Exotic World 2004) muses about the nature of striptease, and with trademark mirth offers, â€œItâ€™s more about the clothes then it is the nudityâ€¦.when I go onstage, the main thing Iâ€™m thinking about is how beautiful my dress is.â€
The seriousness of the role of dance and playfulness in our culture and its history is present in each revivalistâ€™s unique act. Their love of the art form is contagious, and spreads to the viewer. And like all art, this art animates new ideas and concepts and also reinforces held beliefs; in this case, about sexuality and pleasure.
- Running time
- 90 minutes
- Courtney Hermann ... Producer
- Red Vaughan Tremmel ... Director, Producer
- Prod. Co.
- Red Vaughan Tremmel, LLC
- United States
- Years of Production
- Helendale, CA; New York, NY; San Francisco, CA; Las Vegas, NV; Chicago, IL
- Release year
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