Her bet's on the burlesque scene

Kara Harris finds that the genre is popular again

November 07, 2003|By Sarah Schaffer | Sarah Schaffer,SUN STAFF

Arts and history buff Kara Mae Harris and college just didn't mix.

But when the Prince George's County native dropped out of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2000, she didn't retreat to her parent's house in Beltsville. Instead, the feisty 18-year-old quickly moved to the city and got a full-time job.

"I fled to Baltimore as soon as I got the chance," said Harris, now 22 and working as an administrative assistant for a downtown temp agency. For her, the old port town was more authentic and down-to-earth than stuffy Washington, a city where she'd whiled away many hapless teen-age nights.

Soon after establishing a household, she set up another, unofficial, residence at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, spending hours poring over old documents, books and articles on the city's past, looking specifically for insights into the city's leisure trends from days of yore.

What she uncovered was a detailed chronicle of a tawdry time - the heyday of Baltimore burlesque.

It was a discovery that would change her life, taking her from college dropout to underground impresario.

The tales Harris found at the Pratt merely piqued her interest, and she longed to know more about the lives of local legends such as Blaze Starr, a dancer who became world renowned in the 1950s for a shimmy that was developed on stage at Baltimore's Two O'Clock Club.

What she couldn't find at the library, Harris gathered on the Internet. She scoured online auction sites for vintage magazines, purchasing pricey issues of Cabaret and other hard-to-find 1950s burlesque mags.

At times, however, the obscure material was disappointing. The personal and professional lives of the dancers were not revealed in the old publications, which usually limited coverage to talk of the trade and business angles, with posed, pinup style photographs of the vampy vixens as accompanying art.

But in 2001, just when Harris had begun to exhaust all of her resources on the old burlesque, a new breed of dancer began to saunter across her radar.

Women of all shapes, sizes and talents were creating a neo-burlesque movement, and the revival was picking up steam in other cities across the country.

From the steamy bars on Los Angeles' Sunset Strip to the salty sideshows of Coney Island, the art of the tease was back. For Harris, it meant contact with a whole new set of lovely ladies. And it was a creative opportunity, as well.

She started a company called Viva Vavoom! Productions and began networking with every up-and-coming performer she could find.

Her first production - a burlesque show, of course - was held in 2002 at the Ottobar, a Baltimore nightclub. The event, which featured performers from across the country, was a success and inspired yet another prospect.

The dancers, she thought, were fascinating women - and they needed an outlet, a publication that was exclusively theirs. And so it was that Star & Garter was born.

The first edition of Harris' magazine, a 32-page newsprint rag, has just been released to local alternative book shops and online stores. It has a pastel pink cover and is dedicated to all things burlesque.

The glitz, the glamour

Working on the project was not only a chance for Harris to combine her varied interests in writing, burlesque, history and glamour; it was a way for her to give voice to the nation's new community of pasty-clad starlets.

People definitely don't get many chances to read in-depth interviews with women like Dirty Martini, Harris said, referring to one of neo-burleque's stars. "But I think that [dancers like her] have a lot of interesting things to say."

A Q&A with Dirty Martini (an artist who reveals only that her real first name is Linda) appears in the inaugural issue.

Martini has an act that's as much about her shtick as it is about the shake. The 30-something New Jersey native, who has a degree in dance from Purchase College in New York, said the challenge of the trade is creating relevant performance pieces that are under five minutes.

"That's the hardest thing in dance, letting people know what you mean, giving people a little story and have them completely understand you," Martini said, calling from a photo shoot yesterday.

The most talented performers, she believes, do this by transforming grimy back room bars into places where beauty and art exist - if only for a few moments.

Martini's platinum locks, classy jewelry, ostrich-plumed fans and specially made costumes are all a part of a signature act that gives her shows a decidedly fantastical air.

Harris, who happens to be a big fan of the voluptuous tassle-twirling Manhattanite, agreed and said the best in the business, the women like Martini, are concerned with more than just the bump and grind. The women of neo-burlesque want a persona to accompany their moves.

"For a lot of the girls, its about the show ... the glitter makeup, the custom-made costumes. Nobody ever outgrows [getting] the chance to play dress-up," Harris said.

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