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Commentary: St. Louis Has A Thriving Drag And Burlesque Scene

In the past couple of months drag shows and a lively burlesque scene in our city have been brought to my attention.

In January, drag shows moved from the bars to such places as The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts where Tyler Cross (stage name Siren) performed with other drag divas and Washington University's 7th annual drag show was for the first time held in the mainstream Danforth University Center.

The art and history of drag was showcased at the PHd Gallery in the thriving Cherokee arts district and there was an exhibition on the history of drag at The History Museum.

Or own Lola van Ella is an international burlesque singer, dancer, producer, instructor and emcee. One of the premier names in burlesque, she performs frequently and produces many shows, including the international Show-Me burlesque Festival, and Beggar's Carnivale with her partner Sammich the Tramp. Lola is the CEO of VanElla Productions and Studio, which is the home of burlesque, vaudeville and a variety of education and entertainment in St. Louis. In 2008 Alive Magazine named her one of St. Louis's most influential people.

An article on the internet talked of Miss VanElla' recent collaboration with David Clewell of Webster University. Clewell at one time was the Poet Laureate of Missouri. The article talks of Clewell's poem which uses Jack Ruby as a subject. Ruby  owned a Dallas nightclub at the time he shot Lee Harvey Oswald to death in 1963. His nightclub, The Carousel, featured showgirls-it was a burlesque club; in the language of Clewell's poem, a "burleyque".

Since Clewell is local and St. Louis has a thriving burlesque scene with intelligent and collaborative characters like Lola in it, it made sense to put together a performance with a score, live with the poet, a jazz trio, and Lola's burlesque act.

These performances are a fresh new look at drag and burlesque which are certainly not new on the horizon. They feature high style fashion, makeup and even nail art.

The Washington University Library publication "Off the Shelf" had an article entitled "Burlesque St. Louis and the Harry Wald Collection.” The article states, "Between the 1930's and 1960's, St. Louis was a city where live theatrical performance and burlesque flourished. One of the main theater owners and producers responsible for that was Harry Wald, whose mid-20th-century burlesque films were recently acquired by Washington University's Film and Media Archive."

The article is an interview between Alison Carrick and two of Wald's children.  His daughter, Susan Kleinschmidt says, "Before I started school, my mother and I would go down to the theater in the evening. There was a restaurant next door, and the show people would gather there. I got to meet a lot of these people and go backstage. At that age, I was fascinated with the makeup and costumes. I met Rose La Rose, Phil Silvers, Red Skelton, Red Buttons, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Jimmy Durante, Sammy Davis and his uncles. My father was a friend of Karl Wallenda (acrobat). lt was a festive atmosphere, like a big family.”

If we look at the history of drag, we find a long history including a wide range of cultural as well as artistic traditions. Think of the many Shakesperian plays where there is a confusion of the sexes. The same goes for opera.

According to Wikipedia, "In Baroque opera, where soprano roles for men were sung by castrati, Handel's heroine Bradamante, in the opera “Alcina,” disguises herself as a man to save her lover, played by a male soprano; contemporary audiences were not the least confused. In Romantic opera, certain roles of young boys were written for alto and soprano voices and acted by women "en travestie" (in English, “trouser roles").The most familiar trouser role in pre-Romantic opera is Cherubino in Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro” (1786).

Burlesque has a similar history going way back in time.

As usual, I've been wowing out-of-towners and often our own St. Louisans, by telling them of how "up to date" we are right here in the Midwest with our definitely not so underground drag and burlesque scene.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for some thirty years on numerous arts related boards.