Which brings us to the near-naked ladies of Boston.
For all its Puritanical shrouds, Boston actually has a rich history of burlesque. Scollay Square (now Government Center, where all the politicos roam) was, in the early 1900s, the hub of all things burlesque, most notably, the legendary Old Howard theater. The original Howard Athenaeum building was a temple built by an ultimately disappointed sect of doomsday cultists and then converted to a theater in 1845. Over its long history as a legit theater, a music hall, a burlesque house, and a seedy movie theater, the Howard hosted everyone in show biz from John Wilkes Booth to Phil Silvers and Lou Costello to Minsky’s Burlesque star Ann Corio to an “exotic Indian dancer” named Princess Lahoma. After a few fires, some reconstruction, and several vice raids, the place was torn down in the name of urban renewal, in 1962.
Nearly a century after Boston’s burlesque heyday began, the city is now home to several burlesque troupes; each with its own vision of what burlesque revival should look like. There’s a purist troupe; a band of kitschy, rockabilly chicks; a troupe inspired by the scream queens of B-movies; a bevy of socially relevant modernists led by a former ballerina; and a collection of self-described “fatties” whose dance moves are larger than life. Most of these troupes will be shaking their thangs at the upcoming Great Boston Burlesque Exposition, a four-day public-invited convention, held February 16 to 19 at the John Hancock Hotel and Conference Center (see burlesque-expo.com).
(GIRLIE-Q: Meet the women of Boston's burlesque scene | SLIDESHOWS:Babes in Boinkland | Through the Keyhole Burlesque | Thick & Boston Babydolls)
A sliver of black fishnet peeks out from under a chaste coverlet of chiffon and sequins and lace, criss-crossing her legs like sinful tic-tac-toe.
When the Boston Babydolls’ Miss Mina (a lot of burlesque artists insist upon revealing only their stage names) takes the stage, you can sense that her coy strut is the calm before a tempest. A demure-looking redhead with a delicate frame, she’s actually a bumping, grinding powerhouse.
“I’m really very, very shy,” she says, “and, as a lot of people have noticed, I don’t smile very often. The easiest way for me to be on stage is to be remote and aloof. It draws on my actual personality, but it’s a little bit bigger. More aristocratic.”
With a background in acting and Middle Eastern, Renaissance, and belly dancing, Miss Mina can slice through that self-proclaimed shyness with a single swivel of her hips. One act she’s perfected is the Film Noir Detective: draped in a trench coat that nearly swallows her whole, she wiggles out of a Humphrey Bogart–type uniform to reveal herself in all her femme-fatale glory, twirling the tassels on sparkly pasties with a hand thrust triumphantly in the air, still clutching her fedora.
Devilicia of Black Cat Burlesque. Click the image to learn more about the burlesque stars of Boston.
According to Babydoll co-founder and manager, Scratch (his stage name), the troupe takes a page from the olden days, but is still au courant enough to be considered relevant, even borderline taboo. “We recreate a golden age of burlesque that is retro flavored,” he says. “It’s reminiscent of an age of innocence.”