"That's it boys. You're not getting' any more from me."

Busty, highly painted blonde Lili St. Cyr was a notorious striptease artist of the 1940s and 1950s who replaced Gypsy Rose Lee and Ann Corio on the burlesque queen pedestal. Lili actually took the stripper out of burlesque and put her squarely on the Las Vegas stage. She was also noted for her pin-up photography, especially for photos taken by Bernard of Hollywood. She was married and divorced six times, including small-time actors Paul Valentine and Ted Jordan and well-known restaurateur Armando Orsini.

She was born as Willis Marie Van Schaack in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1918. She had a sister, Rosemary Van Schaack Minsky. Her grandparents, the Klarquists, reared her and her two show business sisters, Dardy Orlando and Barbara Moffett.

Having taken ballet lessons throughout her youth, she began to dance professionally as a chorus line girl in Hollywood. Unlike other women who have stroke-of-luck stories about being plucked from the chorus line and selected for a feature role, St. Cyr had to beg her manager at the club to let her do a solo act. From her self-choreographed act she eventually landed a bit part at a club called the Music Box in San Francisco, with an act called the Duncan Sisters. It was here that she found a dancer's salary was only a small fraction of what the featured star's salary was. The difference was that the featured star was nude.

From the 1940s and most of the 1950s, St. Cyr with Gypsy Rose Lee and Ann Corio were the most recognized acts in striptease. St. Cyr's stage name is a patronymic of the French aristocracy, which she first used when booked as a nude performer in Las Vegas. Although more obscure toward the end of her life, her name popped-up regularly in 1950s tabloids: stories of her many husbands, brawls over her, and her attempted suicides. St. Cyr was married six times.

Her best-known husbands were the motorcycle speedway rider Cordy Milne, musical-comedy actor and former ballet dancer Paul Valentine, restaurateur Armando Orsini, and actor Ted Jordan.

Trained in ballet, Lili started out as a chorine at such notable places as the Florentine Gardens. She went on to develop and choreograph her own solo act while featuring herself in the nude. Lili's bare-all debut, at the Music Box, proved disastrous, so she put together a new act. She first became famous performing at the Gaiety Theater in Montreal in 1944. Her club acts quickly became the talk of the town as she would be seen taking a bath on stage or doing the reverse strip. One famous gimmick involved having her G-string, which was attached to a fishing rod, fly off into the balcony as the lights dimmed. This gimmick was known as the "Flying G," and other such novelty bits of business became trademarks as well.

She eventually conquered Las Vegas, and it was there that she created her "bubble bath" bit on stage while being dressed by a maid for the crowd. Her notoriety eventually extended outside the U.S.; she was especially well received in Montreal. While Lili was featured in a couple of mainstream acting roles in movies, including The Miami Story (1954) and The Naked and the Dead (1958), she usually played a stripper or appeared as herself.

Some short soft-core films which featured her dancing are more interesting today, such as the Irving Klaw film Varietease (1954). Lili's private life was a feast for the tabloids: six marriages, highly publicized brawls, and attempted suicides. She eventually tired of it all and retreated, starting up a Frederick's of Hollywood-like lingerie business. Her last decades were spent in virtual seclusion until her death on January 29, 1999.

Performances

Video

Varietease is a 1954 American burlesque documentary film and the first such directed by Irving Klaw. Lili St. Cyr does four separate sequences, wherein she dresses and undresses to her undewear. The film ends with a pastie-covered reveal of Lili St. Cyr's chest.

Video

While St. Cyr starred in several movies, an acting career never really materialized. In 1955, with the help of Howard Hughes, St. Cyr landed her first acting job in a major motion picture in the Son of Sinbad. The film, described by one critic as "a voyeur's delight", has St. Cyr as a principal member of a Baghdad harem populated with dozens of nubile starlets. The film was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency.

Video

"Bedroom Fantasy" is a 1953 color short featuring one of burlesque stripper Lili St. Cyr's famous acts. St. Cyr dances about, gets comfy in her silk sheets and takes a call from an admirer. With appearances from The Folliettes and The DuPonts.

The History of American Burlesque

American burlesque shows were originally an offshoot of Victorian burlesque. The English genre had been successfully staged in New York from the 1840s, and it was popularised by a visiting British burlesque troupe, Lydia Thompson and the "British Blondes", beginning in 1868. New York burlesque shows soon incorporated elements and the structure of the popular minstrel shows. They consisted of three parts: first, songs and ribald comic sketches by low comedians; second, assorted olios and male acts, such as acrobats, magicians and solo singers; and third, chorus numbers and sometimes a burlesque in the English style on politics or a current play. The entertainment was usually concluded by an exotic dancer or a wrestling or boxing match.

While burlesque went out of fashion in England towards the end of the 19th century, to be replaced by Edwardian musical comedy, the American style of burlesque flourished, but with increasing focus on female nudity. Exotic "cooch" dances were brought in, ostensibly Syrian in origin. The entertainments were given in clubs and cabarets, as well as music halls and theatres. By the early 20th century, there were two national circuits of burlesque shows competing with the vaudeville circuit, as well as resident companies in New York, such as Minsky's at the Winter Garden.

The transition from burlesque on the old lines to striptease was gradual. At first soubrettes showed off their figures while singing and dancing; some were less active but compensated by appearing in elaborate stage costumes. The strippers gradually supplanted the singing and dancing soubrettes; by 1932 there were at least 150 strip principals in the US. Star strippers included Sally Rand, Gypsy Rose Lee, Tempest Storm, Lili St. Cyr, Blaze Starr, Ann Corio and Margie Hart, who was celebrated enough to be mentioned in song lyrics by Lorenz Hart and Cole Porter.

By the late 1930s, burlesque shows would have up to six strippers supported by one or two comics and a master of ceremonies. Comics who appeared in burlesque early in their careers included Fanny Brice, Mae West, Eddie Cantor, Abbott and Costello, W. C. Fields, Jackie Gleason, Danny Thomas, Al Jolson, Bert Lahr, Phil Silvers, Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye, Red Skelton and Sophie Tucker. The uninhibited atmosphere of burlesque establishments owed much to the free flow of alcoholic liquor, and the enforcement of Prohibition was a serious blow. In New York, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia clamped down on burlesque, effectively putting it out of business by the early 1940s. It lingered on elsewhere in the U.S., increasingly neglected, and by the 1970s, with nudity commonplace in theatres, reached "its final shabby demise." Both during its declining years and afterwards there have been films that sought to capture American burlesque, including Lady of Burlesque (1943), Striporama (1953), and The Night They Raided Minsky's (1968).

In recent decades, there has been a revival of burlesque, sometimes called Neo-burlesque, on both sides of the Atlantic. A new generation, nostalgic for the spectacle and perceived glamour of the classic American burlesque, developed a cult following for the art in the early 1990s at Billie Madley's "Cinema" and later at the "Dutch Weismann's Follies" revues in New York City, "The Velvet Hammer" troupe in Los Angeles and The Shim-Shamettes in New Orleans. Ivan Kane's Royal Jelly Burlesque Nightclub at Revel Atlantic City opened in 2012. Notable Neo-burlesque performers include Dita Von Teese, and Julie Atlas Muz and Agitprop groups like Cabaret Red Light incorporated political satire and performance art into their burlesque shows. Annual conventions such as the Vancouver International Burlesque Festival and the Miss Exotic World Pageant are held.

Lili St. Cyr Fan Club

Sign up for the Lili St. Cyr Fan Club! Receive our monthly newsletter and join a community of Burlesque lovers to share memorabilia of all things Lili.

Lili St. Cyr Fan Club
44 Burlesque Way
Minneapolis, MN 55418
Phone: (111) 456-7890