Burlesque queen Kitty West made her Evangeline the Oyster Girl act famous at the Casino Royale club on Bourbon Street in the late 1940s. As the eerie sounds of a clarinet led a jazz band, Evangeline emerged from her oyster shell in search of a mate. The alluring West dyed her hair seaweed green for the act and performed an Afro-Cuban-inspired dance with her pearl instead of a mate.
It was her signature act, and she took it on tour to cities with big burlesque theaters. She stopped performing when Bourbon Street clubs began to change in the 1960s. Recorded music replaced live bands, and there was a lot less tease in the strip. West wasn't interested in the new style, and her act didn't fit anymore.
"It's not just dancing," West says from her home in Bay St. Louis, Miss. "It's a story. You have to do the story."
Besides the large props like her oyster shell and swamp backdrops, the act followed a mythical tale created by West and ventriloquist and emcee Phil D'Rey.
"Evangeline comes up from the water every 100 years and looks for a mate," West explains. "If she can't find a mate, then she has to go back in the shell for another 100 years. But she doesn't want to go back, and she dances with her pearl."
Since the beginning of the burlesque revival, West has wanted to pass on her act to a new dancer. There were a couple of short-lived attempts in the 1990s, but neither arrangement worked. Bustout Burlesque and New Orleans Burlesque Festival Founder Rick Delaup helped connect West with the new Evangeline, Ginger Valentine, who will debut her full Evangeline the Oyster Girl act Saturday at Bustout Burlesque.
"It's beautiful and sexy entertainment," Valentine says from her Dallas home. "And it's historical."
Valentine grew up in Texas, where she studied ballet, idolized the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders and sneaked peeks at her father's Playboy magazines. She attended Louisiana State University and went on to join a traditional ballet company in Arlington, Texas. But she also liked the Pussycat Dolls and the Los Angeles troupe's take on burlesque.
"I was interested in merging sexuality and sensuality with dance," she says. "I didn't want to be a cheerleader."
She also was inspired by the glamour of figures like Gypsy Rose Lee in the musical about her, Gypsy. Valentine began performing in a combined cabaret/burlesque show, and eventually focused on burlesque. The New Orleans Burlesque Festival was the first event she entered outside of her home, and now she performs in Bustout Burlesque six times a year.
"I usually do a straightforward strip," she says. "A classic striptease with a little parading and then bump and grind."
When she learned Delaup was helping West look for a new Oyster Girl, she was interested.
"It's different from what people are used to [from me]," she says. "The Oyster Girl is a story with emotion and a narrative, and that goes back to ballet for me."
Delaup shared video of West at previous burlesque events. Valentine watched them and started to talk with West on the phone. This summer, Delaup and Valentine visited West in Mississippi so they could work on the act together.
West is excited about passing on the shell and pearl to Valentine.
"[She] is a fabulous dancer," West says. "This girl does a beautiful act, and I am happy to see someone who is sophisticated and beautiful doing it."