- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2008

Murray Hill is that his name probably is not Murray Hill - oh, and that he may not be a he.

At New York’s oldest surviving burlesque show, there is little point in feeling sure about anything.

The lights are dim, the wasp-waisted cocktail glasses are brimming, and the orientation, including gender, of performers and the few dozen guests crammed into the tiny theater is open to speculation.

“Showbiz!” Mr. Hill, as master of ceremonies, exclaims in a suspiciously high-pitched voice.

Brooklyn Bombshell, takes the stage, with just three leaf-sized pieces of cloth and a sprinkling of body glitter between her and a violation of New York’s anti-nudity laws. Everyone cheers at the bawdy dancing.

Burlesque, mixing comedy, exotica, erotica and musicals, was a huge hit in U.S. urban culture at the dawn of the 20th century. Eclipsed by the 1960s sexual revolution and the triumph of mass entertainment, the genre died out or was replaced by outright striptease.

Today, burlesque is back in major cities as audiences rebel against an increasingly homogenized, commercialized society.

Mr. Hill’s following is so strong that there is talk of moving his show up to Broadway and the big time. For now, though, his troupe performs in a secretive upstairs room at Corio restaurant in the trendy Village neighborhood, far from the regular tourist beat.

Rudolph W. Giulani, has embarked on a crusade to make New York the safest, most smoke-free, fat-free, clean-living place on Earth, but the atmosphere at Corio’s recalls an edgier time.

For all the chorus-girl numbers, complete with high kicks, tap-dancing, red bodices, feather headdresses and a raucous rendition of New York, New York,” this definitely is not Broadway. The red curtains are fakes stapled to the wall.

After the show, performers say their niche is growing rapidly. Many are in New York to attend a three-day festival awarding Golden Pasties in categories such as biggest diva and classiest dame, among the gentler categories.

“A decade ago, you could have put all of us burlesque performers into one taxicab,” says Rosa 151, showing off glossy lips, big white teeth and big, equally pearly cleavage. “Now it’s spreading across the States. An American art form is making a comeback.”

The charm of burlesque for performers, Rosa 151 explains, is that women of all shapes and sizes are welcome. “There aren’t enough parts in the theater world for women who aren’t superskinny or who don’t look exactly like each other,” she says.

Another performer, Tennessee, deep in the socially conservative Bible Belt.

“They’re starting to realize that it’s not completely sordid and debauched,” she says, then giggles: “Well, it is debauched, of course, but there’s joy, too.”

Producer Chase Tyler says he’s working to take burlesque from off-Broadway to Times Square, navel of Broadway’s Great White Way.

He says there would be high demand, particularly from foreign tourists, but he acknowledges the pitfalls in pulling burlesque from out of the shadows and into the neon-lit capital of commercial entertainment.

“You need to bring Broadway production values, uptown production, to downtown humor,” he says. “We just need to make sure we can bring this to a larger audience without compromising what it is.”

Caprice Bellefleur, the more talkative of two transvestites in evening dresses, says burlesque would continue to thrive in New York in whatever form it took. “Look at us,” she says, pointing to partner, Tawdry Heartburn. “We’re as different as they come, and there’s plenty of room for us. If there’s one place in the world that celebrates diversity - then it’s New York.”

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