HELENDALE, Calif. -- In the middle of the desert, by the Mojave River and the Santa Fe railroad, past meets present as people from all walks of life gather to honor a lost art form. The place is Exotic World. The art is burlesque.
The Miss Exotic World Competition and StripTease Reunion, held annually on the first weekend in June, is an exercise in nostalgia and a chance to see some of burlesque's legends strut their stuff. It is also an opportunity to romanticize the past and deplore the present state of striptease.
In those bygone days, women undressed before crowds with elegance, style and class -- or that's the way Dixie Evans, the one-time "Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque," remembers it.
Now in her 70s, she is the proprietress of the 40-acre Exotic World Ranch and Museum and the enthusiastic hostess of today's festivities, which emphatically will not reflect modern versions of striptease. "Stripping has become very explicit today," she laments.
"There's nothing left to the imagination," agrees Tempest Storm, another legendary dancer who still performs and will be today's headline act.
Sheila "The Hungarian Bombshell" Rae, now 69 and retired, remembers those golden days. "Women kept the element of tease in their acts," she says. "Today's strippers get on stage and are undressing three minutes later."
Dee Milo (aka Venus de Milo) puts it bluntly: "I don't think you have to show your tonsils from the bottom up."
No one will show off her tonsils today, and no one will uncover completely; nudity is banned at the Miss Exotic World Competition.
While most of the performers strip down to either glittery pasties and G-strings, or sequined bras and panties, they are not obliged to. The competition is about honoring a time when glamour and entertainment went hand-in-hand.
"The young stars today miss what glamour is all about," says Storm, glamorous herself in fiery red hair and a white designer pants suit. "It's about always wearing makeup and acting like a star."
Exotic World traces its origins to the 1950s, when a small group of strippers began gathering to reminisce about old times. The organizer, Jennie "The Bazoom Girl" Lee, sensing that her art was passing into oblivion, started the Exotic World Museum in 1968 to preserve memorabilia from burlesque strippers, baggy-pants comedians and Hollywood stars. When Lee died in 1990, the torch was passed to Evans.
Each room in the museum is wallpapered from top to bottom with thousands of 8-by-10-inch photos of strippers past and present. The main foyer displays petite, 4 1/2-inch high-heeled shoes from Sally Rand, whose fan dance electrified the Chicago World's Fair in 1933.
A locked glass case displays the autobiographies of Storm and Gypsy Rose Lee. On a pedestal sits an urn with the ashes of Sheri Champagne. Framed in glass is a sequined G-string worn by Blaze Starr at Baltimore's 2 O'Clock Club. There are dresses from Marilyn Monroe and Mae West, playbills from Paris and Jayne Mansfield's heart-shaped pink ottoman.
Four o'clock is show time. As an ethereal curtain rises, Evans, in black evening gown and rhinestones, saunters onto the red-carpeted stage to greet the crowd and introduce a comic burlesque skit by the Peek-a-Boo Follies of San Francisco.
For the next three hours it's all striptease -- 15 acts in classical burlesque style.
First up is Cynthianna, a retired burlesque queen who prances around the pool and onto the runway and stage. At 63, her wholesome, motherly good looks belie the "red hot mamma" nature of her act. She gyrates her hips and shimmies her shoulders. "Take it off," shouts a chorus of female fans, and Cynthianna proudly does, down to black and silver pasties.
Great performers of the past alternate with younger dancers of today. Returning to this year's pageant, Dee Milo shimmies and shakes in a red evening gown, jiving to a saxophone belting out a steamy "Night Train."
Ivy Holiday, 26, of Minnesota is nervous about going on next. "Dee Milo is a hard act to follow," she admits.
Most of the performers make their costumes, some spending up to $1,000. "They should be elaborate," insists Daisy Delight. Too many dancers today, she scoffs, just go on stage in their underwear. Not Daisy Delight. A leggy blonde, she strides the runway like a Las Vegas showgirl in a sequined costume under a bright red feathered headpiece.
Catherine D'Lish dazzles the crowd in a fabulous peacock costume and finishes her act sitting on a perch in an oversized bird cage, costume-less and gleaming under a shower of water in the hot desert sun.
While costumes play a major role in deciding the winner, other factors take priority. Explains Arnold Hiott, a frequent pageant judge from San Diego: "They are also judged on their ability to feel comfortable on stage, their stage presence and their ability to incorporate burlesque-style elements into their performance."