This weekend I got to do something that no one else (that I know of) has ever done: I stripped with my grandma. Yes, I guess in polite society, that seems very ‘Springer’ of us, until you know that my grandmother is Philadelphia burlesque legend Penny Starr (why I am a ‘Junior’). However, it is no more weird to us to strip on stage together than scrap-booking together is for other muggles. So we don’t put stickers of anchors on photos of us by the beach; we are more likely to make anchor pasties (or in Penny’s case, nets). It wasn’t until recently that I found out that not only was I raised by Penny Sr. until I was four and a half, but that she would take me to gigs, popping me in a wash basket and having the other gals keep an eye on me until her show was done on stage. This wasn’t unusual; as she puts it, ‘there were always babies in the dressing room.’ Pasties were an early plaything, and it certainly explains why, at the age of ten, when I was allowed to see, All That Jazz, that world felt comfortable to me, instead of the cautionary tale it was supposed to be. We were kept apart by my mother until I was seventeen.
In fact, I had performed burlesque a few years before I let her see me. This was a woman who, like all the legends, had an agent, contracts, hired by the clubs themselves, union dues (American Guild of Variety Artist), ordered her costumes from a designer… It was so different than what neo-burlesque looked like from my vantage point: DIY on all levels, maybe we had some dance classes, made our own costumes, booked our own shows, and showed up for a split off the door with nothing more than a handshake deal because you liked the producer. I brought her to Burlesque Hall of Fame in 2006 and I performed my pink and yellow librarian act to Zip from Pal Joey (with eighteen zippers in the skirt and fan dancing with copies of both Satre and The Kinsey Report). Her response to that number was, ‘You got it kid,’ and it was the first time that night I exhaled. In 2007 we did our first duet, dressed in identical top hat and tails (me wearing her costume from her heyday) to Paul Anka’s cover of Van Halen’s Jump (her choice).
This year, we created a new duet to her favorite song, ‘Harlem Nocutrne’. The differences from exotic dancing then to exotic dancing now really played out. First, she hated the mash-up I did of four different versions of the song.
‘That’s not my music’ I was told. ‘That’s not Earl Bostic.’
But it’s still Harlem Nocturne, and it’s Duke Ellington.
‘Duke Ellington is not sexy.’
Because, of course, it was understood that the arrangement to dance to was Bostic’s. Then, the costume she had made for her by a friend who sews was all wrong – the belt on the panels was too big, the duster too stiff, the dress not tight enough. Poor Penny Sr. had been dropped into neo-burlesque feet first. She wasn’t aware that iTunes could provide you with fifty different versions of Harlem Nocturne, that dancing with a partner means compromising on what is sexy (Ellington isn’t sexy?), that just because someone can sew, she’s not going to inherently know that the best fabrics Allentown can provide still aren’t right for a flowing negligee.
While we waited backstage to go on, I was provided with a unique experience being in the green room with a dozen of stripteasers older than me (usually, a position I hold in my own dressing rooms). Val Valentine was cracking me up – thinner than I am, she was concerned that the extra layer of fringe she added to her bottoms made her look lumpy under her sheer overdress. Someone – who shall remain nameless – came out of the dress room in street clothes, holding a body stocking in her left hand, and scratching her stomach and boobs with her right. No one had a pair of scissors (some things never change). I encouraged Penny to talk to the other dancers. ‘
They all worked west coast,’ she said.
‘Yes, but you have more in common with these women than anyone. These women knew what it’s like to come into town and have to go to vice to get your work card, or how to rehearse with a band, or when to wear nets.’
At the Q and A the following afternoon, that idea, that despite the location, whether they started in the fifties or the seventies, they were all part of a sorority of sin, was best summed up by Velvet Ice (and I am paraphrasing): ‘You had to love the work because you were going to be ostracised.’ And there’s the essence of it – these women, the pioneering feminists, my grandmother, were not the kind of women who wanted to go in the typing pool. (My grandmother had two kids to feed when she started stripping.) Maybe they did not have the community we have now because competition was so fierce for those few jobs in show business. But because of neo-burlesque, because of the Burlesque Hall of Fame’s undying devotion to bring our ‘elders’ into the picture, they have that now. They can once a year listen to us cheer for them, these comrades-at-arms, this band of sisters.
After spending three years making the documentary, ‘The Velvet Hammer Burlesque’, it was no wonder that Penny decided to pick up the mantle held by her grandmother, Philadelphia burlesque dancer, Penny Starr. Or, as Penny Starr Jr. puts it, ”You can only live with the circus for so long before you want to join!” (She and Penny, Sr. have performed the first and only grandmother/granddaughter striptease act.) One year later, in 2004, Penny Starr, Jr. became First Runner-Up at the annual Miss Exotic World (Burlesque Hall of Fame) burlesque pageant.
She has performed and/or instructed at a number of legendary venues, shows and festivals, including the Va Va Voom Room, Starshine Burlesque, Margaret Cho’s ‘The Sensuous Woman’, the Slipper Room NYC, Tease-o-Rama, BHoF, BurlyCon and the New York Burlesque Festival.
In addition to dancing and performing, Penny is the founder of the All-Star Burlesque Classes, and produces and directs the Princess Farhana line of belly dance and burlesque instructional DVDs. A centerfold and columnist, Penny has also consulted on such shows as ‘Chuck’ (including a cameo as a bachelor party stripper), ‘Castle’, and has recently taught tassel twirling to the cast of ‘Water for Elephants’.