LESLIE ZEMECKIS is the director and producer of Behind The Burly Q, a documentary on Burlesque. She is also an actress and the wife of Executive Producer Robert Zemeckis (Used Cars, the Back To The Future trilogy, Beowulf, etc). Her film details the American history of Burlesque featuring interviews with many surviving performers from a bygone era.
ERIC COHEN is better known to AVMANIACS readers as one of Edwin Samuelson’s cohorts on the internet film review show The Cinefiles. He is currently in postproduction on a documentary about the New York, neo burlesque scene titled Big City Grind. This is a film he has co-produced and co-directed with Cinefiles member Michael Foltz.
ERIC COHEN: So tell me about yourself. Obviously you’ve been a part of the industry for a while. Is this your first documentary?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: First documentary. It was kind of by happenstance. I was doing a burlesque inspired show, really a cabaret show. And I started investigating what burlesque was because I had no idea. I just didn’t know. And really realized that the subject has never been covered. So I said I’m going to go do this. Because the subject’s fascinating.
ERIC COHEN: What inspired you to do this particular show?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: I’m an actress and it’s part of an act that I do. It was kind of a character that I created: a Gypsy Rose Lee/Mae West type character and… I don’t know it was like one of these things: all of sudden now I am mired in burlesque and can’t get out! I mean who knew? I just began investigating and became fascinated by this subject and I hooked up with these former burlesque dancers who already had a group that really kind of emailed each other or worked through another person and I said “look I’ll sponsor a reunion,” which is what they wanted, “in Las Vegas if you let me interview you. I want to do a documentary.” And it just snowballed. I thought it would just be a weekend. You know, I’ll get 20, 30 interviews. It ended up being two years, crossing the country, over 100 hours worth of film.
ERIC COHEN: In the documentary you mention how certain people have now passed away and that went back to 2006-2007. So it seems like you’ve been working on this for a while.
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: Yeah. We started filming 2006. We filmed for two years. And I felt because of the age… the oldest person I was talking to was 97. I really didn’t want to stop until I got everybody that I could. Once I met these people – men and women – they said “Hey I know somebody else you can talk to. They’re in Tennessee.” Or “you need to go to Florida and talk to this person.” And everybody was really open. So it just, really snowballed into quite a few interviews.
ERIC COHEN: What is your definition of Burlesque or what was “Burlesque?”
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: Burlesque was – somebody in my film said it great – a variety show with a little bit of spice. So it was a big, gaudy theatrical show that did have strippers. Which started out mildly from what you saw (in the film) but then as time progressed other forms of entertainment came on and even with the bikini coming into existence in 1946, it got a little more risqué. But it was a variety show. There were singers, there were dancers, there were chorus girls, there were big theatrical numbers, there were novelty acts, the acrobats, the boxers… so it was really much more than we think – a lot of people think it was just strippers which I kind of thought it was (with some comedians thrown in) but really at the height of burlesque the comedians were the thing.
ERIC COHEN: You almost, already answered my next question but what preconceptions did you have going into this? And were they subverted in anyway?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: I had no idea of the scope and the size of the shows. I really thought it was strippers. I did think it would be mild, especially in those days. And comedians. But in the beginning there would be – within maybe an hour or hour and a half show – maybe just three strippers on. Where you have the chorus girls come out and do a big number and a singer and an emcee and involve these other acts. I had no idea. If we didn’t have burlesque we wouldn’t have the comedy we have today. We wouldn’t have a Carol Burnett show or Saturday Night Live. That came from that. Johnny Carson used to go to burlesque shows and would take these acts that had been handed down from generations and do them on the Tonight Show.
ERIC COHEN: Did you decide ahead of time what personalities you wanted to feature? Or was it just something like you said before that sort of “steam rolled?” One person would suggest you contact another, etcetera?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: I said this was going to be the definitive documentary on burlesque so I wanted to get everybody. It didn’t matter how small a part they played in it. Some people were only in it for maybe a year. Other people were in it for thirty years. And I just didn’t want star names everyone knew about. I wondered what it was like for the chorus girl who was never famous but worked it her entire life.
ERIC COHEN: Where there personalities you wanted to have in your documentary that, for whatever reason, couldn’t be involved?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: No, I got everybody I wanted.
ERIC COHEN: You got everyone you wanted?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: There were people who passed away so I wished I had started ten years earlier but that was just not possible.
ERIC COHEN: There was something you touched lightly upon in the documentary, and received more elaboration in the time line feature in the DVD release, but what was the difference between “Wheel Shows” and “Stock Shows?”
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: The “Wheel Show…” what it was… (it involved) theaters around the country, mostly on the east coast. And you would take a show, the entire cast, and they would perform in a theater for a week. Then the entire show would move to the next theater in another city. And when that started to die out what would happen then a theater would just start doing “Stock.” And it would be just those people. That’s where they would perform. It would stop being travelling.
ERIC COHEN: An interesting part of the documentary discusses the Fiorello La Guardia era in New York City. Which to me is somewhat reminiscent of the Giuliani era in New York City. Which sort of had a similar effect?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: You know what happened also… because its really kind of complicated… because burlesque was so popular and especially during the depression a lot of Broadway shows died. They couldn’t afford the casts. But Burlesque really thrived and also the shows were really cheap so anybody could go to it. The “legitimate” theaters really had it out to close the burlesque theaters also for that reason. It was taking people away from them. So it wasn’t just a matter of “oh, they were being closed because they were so risqué.” They used that and they would get religious groups and political groups who, like today, want to run on some platform. They would use that. But a lot of it did come from legitimate theaters. They wanted those burlesque houses closed because they were taking their business.
ERIC COHEN: And they still seemed to thrive somewhat regardless.
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: Oh yeah, absolutely.
ERIC COHEN: Because Fiorello was in the ‘30s? Am I mistaken?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: He closed them I believe in ’37 but that was just in New York. So it went to New Jersey. And it thrived there. It wasn’t difficult for people to get to the theaters there.
ERIC COHEN: Something that was lightly touched upon and I found to be really intriguing was the burlesque union started by Gypsy Rose Lee. Did you get any indication if this improved the quality of life for these performers?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: I don’t believe so. Not that I know of. Did anybody ever say it really did any thing? I think maybe for a while it regulated a little bit of what the chorus girls got because they were always making the least amount. But I don’t believe it really did very much for them.
ERIC COHEN: Was this intended for just the striptease artists or anyone who performed on a burlesque stage?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: I think it was for all of them but I’m not 100 percent positive. Maybe just for the dancers.
ERIC COHEN: And you mentioned the reunion in Vegas. How you arranged to organize that—
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: Yes.
ERIC COHEN: And how was that?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: (Laughs) It was fun! Uh, you know, it was great because they brought their families. And a lot of people, they were headliners back when they worked. They would know of each other but they never worked together. They were really in just one headliner show. So, it was fun for them to meet somebody they always heard of but never met before. And their families got to come. And you could really see it was a very tight knit, very close community of people. And they really respected each other. They looked out for each other. They really had warm feelings for each other all these years later.
ERIC COHEN: I’m tipping my hand when I say this but I’m a filmmaker as well. I’m in the process of producing/co-directing a documentary on the new burlesque scene. And I was present at the Burlesque Hall of Fame last year and was able to meet some of these personalities (in your documentary). Like, I met Joan Arline who’s… (laughs) She is very interesting. But I wasn’t sure if what you showed us was part of what I guess they used to call Miss Exotic World at one time (they have now taken on the name Burlesque Hall of Fame) or if it was something that you organized yourself?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: It was and what’s so funny and without going into a big long thing, there’s a couple of these different groups and they have nothing to do so much with the performers, I mean the performers they just want to be in connection. But a lot of times the people running these groups hate the other person running the other group.
ERIC COHEN: Oh really?!? (Laughs)
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: So I would talk to one and they were like “You can’t talk to the other!“ It was hilarious, this has nothing to do with the actual performers themselves, they had no idea but they would say “But oh we are not supposed to talk to you if you talk to them.”
ERIC COHEN: Did that pose as challenge when it came to completing your documentary? Trying to connect with these different groups?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: No because once I connected with them they wanted to talk! They didn’t care about anything. They wanted to tell their stories. It’s not like our group against this group.
ERIC COHEN: That’s interesting.
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: And I believe the Burlesque Hall of Fame has since split into a couple groups.
ERIC COHEN: Are you still in touch with some of these performers to this day?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: Most of them. (Laughs) Email, phone calls, letters, non-stop. They have really become my friends. Really neat people.
ERIC COHEN: How many hours did you shoot, again?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: Over one hundred.
ERIC COHEN: Wow, so did you originally have this mapped out as to what the through line of the documentary would be or did you “just shoot.”
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: Not at all, not at all, I was just going to gather the information and as we were shooting and because you know I was doing the research and I was doing the interviewing I could keep it in my head and so I would be talking to somebody and go “oh this I have to use.” And it just started weaving it together before we got to the editing stages. Then I saw it as a book and by chapters, and so that’s how we edited it.
ERIC COHEN: Was there anything you had to cut out that you regretted leaving out?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: Not regretted, but I got it back in the extras on the DVD.
ERIC COHEN: The burlesque name… there are some very interesting names out there and in some of the extras you touch upon the origin of some of these names. Did you yourself have a favorite origin story?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: No, not really, I mean they were just randomly something like April March that somebody thought that it would be more clever that March April.
ERIC COHEN: The Blaze Star interviews: were those conducted by you or were they recordings that you managed to …
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: No, everything was by me.
ERIC COHEN: Was she unreachable and you just had to do the whole thing by phone?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: Yes, sort of, that and I’m not sure how much she wanted to be on camera. A couple of them didn’t want to be on camera but they talked to me.
ERIC COHEN: What is your take on how or when burlesque officially ended? I hear people say early 60’s, some people say late Sixties early Seventies.
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: I would really say burlesque, closer to the golden age of the Thirties would have been the Fifties. It was still going on in the 50’s and still going on in the 60’s. Lili St. Cyr, I think her last performance was 70’s. But it was very much different. So I would really say the 50’s.
ERIC COHEN: You don’t mention things like the Ziegfeld Follies or something that would be going on at the Crazy Horse Saloon. Those wouldn’t fall into the definition of burlesque as you present it in your documentary?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: No, no. uh –uh.
ERIC COHEN: Do you have any thoughts on the new burlesque movement?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: Yes, I do. One they have been extremely supportive. They are really the ones that I think have kept any interest in this subject alive before anybody cared. They really honor these women and a lot of them try and recreate and then expand upon some of the acts that were really beautiful and very much art and I think they have really kept it alive and kind of kept these women motivated. There are some comedic acts I’ve seen in the neo-burlesque but mostly like really honoring these women. I think it also, not by any of their fault, tend to perpetuate a little bit that a burlesque show was just a strip show. But you can’t recreate today another era.
ERIC COHEN: It also seems to change depending upon state or country. For example I know that there is a difference between lets say the West Coast burlesque scene and the east coast burlesque scene. Where one may be more performance art oriented than the other. I also noticed that you interviewed “Straight Men” (performers hired to play straight man to a comedian) and you interviewed other variety performers. But what about the emcees?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: One of the reasons, and I hate to admit it, but it’s actually the truth, they really died out long ago. They just were not to be found. Alan Alda’s Father was an emcee so he’s the only one I kind of got that way. Comedians were gone, long gone.
ERIC COHEN: What was the most unusual act you came across in doing your research? Whether you could get the person on camera or not?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: Well if I didn’t get them on camera I have their voice so it’s not like I didn’t get the interview. I don’t know just kind of randomly weird things that you would think “that was an act?” There is one woman in my film called Bingo, she would bend over backwards and drink a glass of water and you would think “that’s an act?” You know so it was that kind of thing, I mean Blaze working with her animals I would loved to have seen. They just, you know how it’s funny how they just a lot of them really tried to get a little something different so they could stick out.
ERIC COHEN: Take us, briefly, through the whole process from development to production to distribution. You mentioned how you were inspired to do this film…
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: Well I was so inspired I didn’t go get financing. And I really was worried about the age of these people, that I just said I’m gonna’ finance it and I’ll worry about the rest later because I really, really believed in it. I just thought, “I will get a distributer, nobody has done this, it will be seen.” And you just really have to have a vision and I envisioned it being on Showtime. I was, like, this would be perfect for them! Not that I catered or cut or did anything to work towards that. I just knew that this was so special and it had to be done. And I wasn’t going to wait for financing. I’ve got a documentary, I’m developing one that I’m going to shoot in the fall and you can wait until the cows come home. So if you believe in it you’ve just got to find a way. I mean it’s very different and when I also first started I cut together a twenty-minute teaser. I edited together the film and went to distributers and they were all interested and they all said come back when you’ve got the whole movie cut. By the time I went back with it all cut, half of them were out of business. The documentary world had really changed from when people were throwing huge money at documentaries and they’re not anymore. Not at all.
ERIC COHEN: You mentioned that you thought it would be perfect for Showtime, but it did get a theatrical release. Was that your intention? Or was this just sort of a “dart board” process: whoever will be willing to distribute my movie we’ll go with that and if it’s a theatrical release even better?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: No I wanted a theatrical release definitely, and we went to First Run who had, you know they release a lot of documentaries. I wanted that and I wanted it on Showtime and I wanted the DVD release.
ERIC COHEN: And did you have a large crew working with you or was it just you and a camera person?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: (Laughs) Oh I wish I had a crew! I cannot wait for the day I have… just a PA would be nice! So… just me and my producer/camera person. But, you know, it also made it a lot easier because we could pick up and say “we have to go tomorrow.” There was no organizing of anything, then we were gone. And also I noticed we did a couple of interviews where the person brought some of their family or whoever, because these were elderly people, into the room. The interviews are, I can tell, very much different than the interviews where it’s just me and the camera person.
ERIC COHEN: And your husband (filmmaker Robert Zemeckis) is the producer on this.
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: Executive Producer.
ERIC COHEN: How involved was he, actually? Or did he pretty much say “I’ll Executive Produce this but it’s all yours?”
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: Where he really became involved, I would obviously ask him questions — “how should I do this and dadadadada?” — was after we did a rough edit and he came in, and he’s very good at story obviously, so he would say things like, “you know this doesn’t connect with this?” Because now I know so much about burlesque, I would maybe leave out something that somebody who didn’t know anything about burlesque would need to know. So he was very good at that.
ERIC COHEN: And you said you’re working on another project right now?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: Yes
ERIC COHEN: Could you give us a little preview of what that would be?
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: It’s circus vaudeville related, and I’ve been obsessed by it for a couple of years and I’m going to start filming hopefully in September. I’m going to do pre-production and research this summer.
Behind The Burly Q had a limited, theatrical release in April of 2010. Distributed by First Run Pictures, it is now available on DVD.