Rick Delaup Helps Bring Burlesque Back On Stage
Once upon a time and not so long ago, Bourbon Street was nothing like it is today. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, it was lined with jazz clubs headlined by such top names as Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, Leon Prima and others of big name stature. Sharing the famous street along with the jazz clubs were the so-called "strip clubs" where burlesque dancers with colorful monikers displayed as much of their anatomical assets as the law would allow for paying customers who came to see them perform their sultry, suggestive routines.
Back then, "striptease," as it was condescendingly termed, was considered rather low-brow entertainment, aimed at stimulating the prurient fantasies of a mostly male clientele for the price of admission and a few (or maybe more than a few) drinks. Today, thanks to aficionados like New Orleans native Rick Delaup, burlesque dancing has been elevated to a high art form. Not quite on the level of classical ballet - yet - but the gap is closing. Both involve intricate, expressive movements choreographed and honed to perfection, and serious culture lovers are starting to take notice of the similarities.
Founder and executive director of Bustout Burlesque, Delaup is passionate about his subject and those who work under his charge. A documentary filmmaker by trade, he became enamored of burlesque while filming in and around the French Quarter in the early 1990s. A series of articles about Bourbon Street in the '50s and '60s by David Cuthbert in the Times-Picayune were what initially stirred his interest.
"I set out to make films, and when I discovered burlesque, it was kind of a calling," Delaup recalled. "It was something I became really passionate about. And now I am driven to do it. To bring these shows back. I really wanted to re-create that art form and put on a show for everybody to discover what it used to be like."
Now, after more than a decade of involvement with the burlesque art form, Delaup's efforts have evolved into an occupation that is full-time and then some. He is off in multiple directions with his love for what he does. He has a very busy month coming up in September, with an all-male striptease revue ("STRUT"), the 4th Annual New Orleans Burlesque Festival, and the Bustout Burlesque troupe he founded will be performing its regular monthly gig at the House of Blues (see sidebar for more details on these events). Plus, a reenactment of Bustout Burlesque's 2008 participation in the "Greasing of the Poles" at the Royal Sonesta will be airing on the HBO series "Treme", and an episode for MTV's MADE featuring the troupe will air around Sept. 20.
"Our show has been a big hit. It has been listed as one of the top 10 burlesque shows worldwide by the Travel Channel. We get lots of great feedback from it," Delaup proudly noted.
Prior to veering off into burlesque, Delaup had already begun to establish himself as an innovative documentary producer. With a filmmaking degree from Chicago's Columbia College, he began shooting in the French Quarter, documenting vignettes of the street life he observed there. During those shoots, he met "Ruthie the Duck Lady" and produced a highly acclaimed documentary on her. He also collaborated with Quintron and Miss Pussycat on two videos, The Drum Buddy Show and North Pole Nutrias. He started a website called Eccentric New Orleans, which spotlighted some of the more unusual characters for which New Orleans is widely known.
But Delaup's interest in the French Quarter and its quirky cast of characters didn't stop there. After learning about its burlesque history from the 1950s and 1960s, he set out to uncover more. Cuthbert's profile of Evangeline the Oyster Girl, he said, "really piqued my interest in what Bourbon Street used to be like. Up till that point I didn't know much. Once I found out, I decided I would document the history of burlesque on Bourbon Street."
It turned out to be a larger task than he imagined. He contacted Evangeline and gleaned key information from her, then dug around to find other dancers, comics and musicians who had performed in the burlesque clubs of the Quarter. He interviewed them and amassed countless hours of interview footage. Some of the legendary dancers, including Evangeline and Wild Cherry, are still alive. Others he spoke to like Linda Brigette, Alouette Le Blanc - the Tassel Twirler and bandleaders Tommy Yetta and Sam Butera have passed on. From each of these individuals and others, plus independent research he conducted, he learned enough to become an authority on the subject.
The footage he gathered up is still in raw form, existing only as an archive collection that he eventually hopes to edit and produce one day. However, by this time his interests were going off in another related direction. By the mid- 1990s, Delaup was part of the collective conscious that started a revival of burlesque in several cities around the country. He wrote articles on burlesque for local magazines, and made a plan to re-create the Evangeline the Oyster Girl act, which ended up in the 2001 A&E documentary It's Burlesque!
"Burlesque was such a fun form of entertainment and we needed to bring it back," he said. He got involved with the Shim Sham-ettes at the Shim Sham Club on Toulouse Street and videotaped all their shows. He gathered up some of the old Bourbon Street club legends like Kitty West, Linda Brigette, Tajmah and Wild Cherry and organized autograph sessions at a table where they would sign and sell their old pictures before and after the shows. He helped out on promotion of the shows and many other details that needed to be handled. And all the while, he was learning more about the dance routines from the older dancers themselves and absorbing that information for future use.
In 2001, he worked with Tease-O-Rama, the world's first burlesque festival and convention. When the Shim Sham-ettes disbanded, Delaup stayed on with their successor, the Shim Sham Revue. From January 2003 until June of that year when the Shim Sham Club shut its doors, Delaup worked a paid position as creative director.
"After the club closed I decided I wanted to put my own show together," Delaup said. "I wanted to keep the concept of the live band and make the show seductive and sexy like you would have seen on Bourbon Street in the 50s and 60s. As authentic as I could make it." That was the start of Bustout Burlesque.
It took him until March 2005 to finally premiere his new troupe. He took the band from Shim Sham Revue but none of the dancers. Assisted by choreographer Dollie Rivas who had Las Vegas showgirl dance experience, he held auditions and hired the best ones - a blonde (Stormy Gale), a brunette (Leila), a redhead (Cassandra) and an African American (Anais Patterson St. John), along with an emcee, Sean Patterson. Marci Hesseling also came aboard as a singer.
Bustout Burlesque opened at One-Eyed Jacks and ran there for three months every weekend. As its popularity grew, Delaup started looking for a bigger venue. The show was supposed to open at The Parish, upstairs in the House of Blues in September 2005, but Hurricane Katrina spoiled those plans. Delaup's house in Gentilly took on about 10 feet of water, and all of the show's costumes and props that were stored there were a total loss. Delaup and his wife ended up in a FEMA trailer in Baton Rouge, then moved around to several other places before finally returning to the New Orleans area this past January.
Starting over from scratch, Bustout Burlesque returned in March 2006 with shows staged on Saturday nights at Tipitina's French Quarter location. The show closed there in December of that year and was immediately picked up by the House of Blues where it has been staged once a month ever since.
Delaup points with pride to some of the dancers who got their starts with him and earned widespread acclaim. Trixie Minx, one of the best-known burlesque dancers in New Orleans, started out with him and after about three months, she organized her own troupe. Perle Noire, who still performs with Delaup's troupe, has won awards from the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Vegas, tours the world, and performs regularly with Dita Von Teese. Other current members, Athena and Foxy Flambeaux, have also been rave reviewed.
After creating The Annual New Orleans Burlesque Festival in 2009, and STRUT in 2011, Delaup brought Bustout Burlesque to perform three consecutive shows at the Orleans Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas to an audience of 2,400 people, as part of "Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend."
So, with these great successes to his credit, where does Delaup see himself going from here? His answer is this: "There are two things I want to do. I want to open my own burlesque club and I want to have a run in Las Vegas. If I was given a chance to do a casino show, either here or there - I would definitely do it. But I'll never give up my roots in New Orleans. This is where it all began for me."
For more information on Bustout Burlesque, visit bustoutburlesque.com.
Upcoming Burlesque Events
STRUT, "America's most original male striptease revue." Sept. 1, House of Blues, 225 Decatur St. 8:30 & 11 p.m. shows. Tickets and details available at strutshow.com.
4th Annual New Orleans Burlesque Festival - Sept. 13 - 15. Harrah's Casino, 8 Canal St. Tickets and details available at neworleansburlesquefest.com.
Bustout Burlesque - Monthly shows at the House of Blues, Saturday nights. Visit bustoutburlesque.com for schedule.