Author. Filmmaker. Actress. Model. Entrepreneur. Some women in the world make you wonder how or why men had so much power and control for so long. Some women live in disregard of those stereotypes that plague us and they change the world along their path, not only making waves, but controlling them while they move us collectively forward and make their mark.
One such woman is Leslie Zemeckis. Over the years, burlesque and the women that performed it, have been misunderstood and misrepresented. Many people pass off the very word “burlesque” as trashy or somehow related to pornography or an indecent form of entertainment. And after all of these years, that is finally changing, thanks in part to none other than Leslie Zemeckis. With her film and follow-up book Behind the Burly Q, Zemeckis reveals much more about the burlesque life and times, and how it shaped a part of our history that has been largely forgotten because of the not-so-clothed performers.
We had the chance to talk with Zemeckis about her career, her works and her future in film and writing. With Behind the Burly Q, Leslie was able to shed light on a subject very few people know about. Burlesque performances aren’t really something you’re taught in history class. Once in a while you see a movie come and go that has a scene or two featuring a quick burlesque performance though giving no real commentary or attention to it and its place in our country’s past. And of course, it’s not something we teach our youth, except for perhaps a few college courses that brush on the subject lightly. As noted in the film, burlesque has origins in France, Greece and Great Britain and became widely popular in the United States half way through the 20th century.
Much of the performances in American Burlesque included comedic sketches that lampooned the life and times of the era, from upper classes to high art, opera, Shakespearean drama and even classical ballet. The emphasis was of course on the female form, featuring minimal clothing, sexually suggestive humor, dance routines, quick witted puns and more.
Although it all sounds quite tame by today’s standards, this was of course well before the internet and our seemingly numb acknowledgement of everything sexual in nature, at present day. One could not simply push a button and be exposed to anything the world has to offer. At the height of burlesque, as noted in the film, a man could pay a dime and slip into a theater for a show, completely forgetting his troubles, losing himself in the array of comedic entertainment and beautiful women, scantily clad. Can you even fathom that? You had to leave the house and go out into the world, into public to be entertained.
Behind the Burly Q takes the viewer behind the scenes to the lives of both the men and women at a time so far from our own, it seems foreign. And it does this by showcasing the people who lived the experience, enabling them to tell their stories for the first time and share with today’s world a part of American history that rarely gets its deserved attention. Many of the performers were ashamed of their past for years, as does unfortunately happen in American culture, the populace often damning that which it does not fully understand, or that which the media and the powers that be regularly glaze over to cater to the lowest denominator of an audience, paid for by a sponsor that no doubt wishes not to be connected to such a thing as burlesque.
Thankfully, power women like Leslie Zemeckis exist, along with her producer Sheri Hellard, who stood up to the neglectful and dismissive eye of the past and traveled across the country to tell the story of burlesque in a way no other has. The film went on to premiere at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival in Dublin, as well as get nominated and showcased up and down the globe for its awesomeness. At the time of this writing, the film still holds a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is quite difficult to say the least.
Zemeckis is also the author of the book Goddess of Love Incarnate telling the story of Lili St. Cyr, noted by journalist Mike Wallace as being the “highest paid stripteaser in America.” Wallace once said that of all the celebrities and presidents he interviewed in his very long career, Lili St. Cyr was the one that stuck out in his mind. Her beauty was unlike anyone before or since. Zemeckis was able to write the definitive biography on the subject with the help of Lili’s sister and the result is a story seldom know but should. Once you look into the life of Cyr, you wonder why she is not remembered as much as or more than the likes of Marilyn Monroe and others.
But it doesn’t all stop there with Zemeckis. Having a constant determination to continue making thoughtful and powerful entertainment that goes back many years, she also directed the award winning documentary Bound by Flesh, telling the almost unbelievable story of the Hilton sisters, Siamese twins sold at birth and brought up in life as “freaks” and a “sideshow” for circuses and other traveling shows of the time.
Right now, Leslie is just a couple weeks out from finishing her latest documentary Mabel, Mabel Tiger Trainer, which tells the story of Mabel Stark, the world’s first female tiger trainer. She is almost finished editing it and has promised to keep us updated on its status, and when the world will get to see it!
Since Boomsy is all about empowering women, as artistically as possible, we genuinely feel that more people should not only know of Leslie Zemeckis, but be more like her. Tell the stories that other people will not. Ask the questions from which others shy away. Dig into the subjects and the people the world has forgotten, bringing their plight to today’s audiences who in some cases, simply do not know where to look or start. History has a tendency to forget not only the little people, but even the more influential people who can not be stuffed into the same box as everything else on the more “safe for work” spectrum.
We suggest you check out all of Leslie’s works from books to film and future ventures. You can follow her work and career at the links below and we suggest you do, because she’s awesome.