New Orleans Burlesque Festival
Fri.-Sun., Sept. 11-13
Various locations; www.neworleansburlesquefest.com
Rita Alexander's return to New Orleans went nothing like she imagined in her dreams. A French Quarter burlesque queen in the 1960s, the blonde amazon known auspiciously as "The Champagne Girl" relocated to Las Vegas in the early '70s to join the Folies Bergere showgirls. But for more than two decades, when she closed her eyes at night it was a glamorous and bustling mid-century Bourbon Street scene that danced in her head.
"I would be starring at the Sho-Bar, right?" starts Alexander, currently a sexagenarian psychic in Vegas. "Across the street would be the Blue Angels. It was so fabulous. They had traffic. They had barkers. Ronnie Kole was next door. Pete Fountain was down the street. Al Hirt was on the other corner. Billy Holliday and Walter Perseveaux were in their show, Nobody Likes a Smart Ass. Everywhere, if you walked down the street, were barkers and music and action." She stops and gasps dramatically. "Oh! Fabulous."
In 1995, one such vision prompted a flight home, where Alexander's time-capsule fantasy collided with Thomas Wolfe's harsh reality. "I never remembered cheap T-shirt shops," she says, suddenly crestfallen. "And there weren't any stars."
Fifteen years after her last visit, the Champagne Girl of Bourbon Street — so named for a notorious parlor trick involving two filled flutes, an ample bosom and no hands — is flying back this week to be a judge and panelist at the inaugural New Orleans Burlesque Festival (Legends of New Orleans Burlesque, 2 p.m. Sun., Westin New Orleans Canal Place Hotel, 100 Iberville St., third floor) at the inaugural New Orleans Burlesque Festival. The three-day event, organized by filmmaker and Bustout Burlesque founder Rick Delaup, is a collision of the art form's present and past, with stage shows and discussions featuring national stars like Catherine D'Lish, Amber Ray and Michelle L'Amour, as well as French Quarter legends like Kitty West (aka Evangeline the Oyster Girl), Tee Tee Red and Alexander.
Unlike many of the other participants, Alexander needed convincing. "I swear to God, it took [Delaup] seven years to find me," she says. "Ricky, obviously he must have been a club owner that got killed in like the '40s, and he's still trying to get back there. When I met him, I thought, 'Maybe reincarnation does happen.' I'm just amazed. We've been friends now a long time."
"She kind of was trying not to be found," says Delaup, who first began researching New Orleans burlesque in the mid-'90s. "It took me years to track her down and find her, and when I did, I interviewed her, I visited her every year out there. But she hasn't wanted to be a part of any of this — until now."
Delaup speaks of a neo-burlesque revival over the past 20 years that has resulted in multiple troupes in many cities — New Orleans has at least four — and a handful of prominent celebrations like the West Coast's Tease-O-Rama (which originated here in 2001), the Vancouver International Burlesque Festival and the longtime Miss Exotic World Pageant and Striptease Reunion, held in Las Vegas since 2006. Despite Exotic World moving into her backyard, Alexander says her only desired participation was as an audience member. She describes how Delaup, a panel moderator, gently nudged her into a more active role:
"The burlesque [revival], I was like, 'Where is this going to go? Is this going to end up cheap, or tawdry, or insane?' I didn't really trust it. ... Ricky was doing the panel discussion for Exotic World, and of course when he came to Vegas, he says, 'Please let me take you to lunch.' For two years he did it, and the second year I was almost feeding him questions to ask [the panelists]. It was like we were a little team there. He [had] this dream of this thing that he's doing, and I said, 'Well Ricky, if you ever get that on, I will come, I will participate.' And damn, he got it on! I made a promise."
Inspired by the original Tease-O-Rama ("It seems like everybody came into town for that"), Delaup started planning his festival a year ago. "I knew that if I was going to do it, I had to make sure that I got all the best performers that I could get," he says. "There were a whole lot of emails and phone calls and meeting people in Vegas and just talking them all into it, which isn't that hard to do, just because of the fact that it's in New Orleans. That's why this is really the perfect city for it."
The centerpiece Queen of Burlesque competition (8 p.m. Saturday, Harrah's Casino) will feature live jazz accompaniments, a staple of Bustout Burlesque's shows and something Delaup says is too often overlooked. "They always have competitions at other festivals, but they're not set to live music. I think that combination is really important. It's the way burlesque was meant to be presented: girls dancing and stripping to live jazz music."
It will also be Alexander's closest exposure to the women who have picked up her mantle — she's never judged before. "I'll be very interested to see what the young strippers do," she says. "We used so much wardrobe. I'd come out with gloves, fur, a gown, panels. There was a thousand things to take off, right down to my shoes. I'm very curious to see, do they use that? I was really, truly old-time burlesque. Because Sarita, this lady out of Florida, taught Tee Tee (Red). And Tee Tee taught me. So that was three generations of strippers taught the old way, the old-time way."
Delaup says he's already receiving calls and emails from fans and dancers alike anticipating Alexander's return, and she adds that old acquaintances are similarly starting to come out of the woodwork: "I used to be your photographer!" one man wrote.
"People send me stuff, and I think, 'How can people still be fascinated with this?'" the Champagne Girl marvels. "When I go to sleep, you know how sometimes you just want to escape? I will go back to this moment. ... Some of my most fabulous memories are dancing on Bourbon Street, I have to be honest. A lot of people in my family put me down for being a stripper. I always said to myself, 'Oh! Wouldn't have traded this for the world.'"