Stage mothers didn't get any pushier than Momma Rose. She's the real star of Gypsy, the Tony-winning musical based on the autobiography of burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. Momma Rose's desperate, self-involved showstopper "Everything's Coming Up Roses!" is the ultimate pop-cultural expression of a frustrated parent living through her children. You can watch her belt it out when a touring company performs Gypsy at the Overture Center on Sept. 22 and 23.
But how common were stage parents like Rose in the risqué world of burlesque? And does Gypsy have anything to do with the real revues put on by the Minsky Brothers, striptease's most powerful impresarios?
At 52, Sun Prairie's Jane Briggeman is too young to answer such questions from experience. But as the founder of the Golden Days of Burlesque Historical Society, she's happy to put you in touch with people who can. The society gathers information about striptease performers who practiced prior to 1965, organizing regular reunions. One such performer is 90-year-old Florence Woolston, who began working for the Minskys as a teenager under the stage name "Sandra Ellis" just after Gypsy Rose Lee had decamped for a mainstream career in theater and movies.
According to Ellis, the portrayal of 1930s burlesque in Gypsy is pretty accurate. But the one thing she never encountered were unrelenting stage parents like Momma Rose. "I never saw one, and none of the girls I worked with had one," the effervescent Ellis explains, not sounding a day over 60.
Ellis left burlesque behind when New York closed the Minsky theaters in 1939. But before she did, she met and performed with some of the same entertainers who'd worked the boards with Gypsy Rose Lee as she grew from neophyte stripper to burlesque superstar, including Gypsy's one-time lover, the comedian Rags Ragland. Alan Alda's father, song and dance man Robert Alda, was another one of Ellis' on-stage partners.
In the musical, young Gypsy gets sisterly support from fellow burlesque queens like Electra, who dazzles the paying public with a costume that flashes with strategically wired light bulbs. The idea of friendly, familial strippers may sound a little far fetched, but Ellis insists that there was real camaraderie among the dancers during the art-form's early days.
"The life was very risqué, a little rough and a lot of fun," she says. "Those were different times. People felt for each other and helped each other."
According to Briggeman, however, the real Electra wasn't so supportive. Contrary to the musical, she had little use for Gypsy Rose Lee, with whom she competed for Rags Ragland's attentions.
"Electra hated Gypsy," explains Briggeman, who corresponded with the electrified stripper before she died and now holds a number of her letters in the Burlesque Historical Society's archives. "And I don't think she liked the way she was portrayed in Gypsy. But Gypsy did her a favor because her name will always be remembered."
See www.burlesquehistory.com for more information about the Golden Days of Burlesque Historical Society and Briggeman's growing archive of burlesque paraphernalia.