Coram great-grandma revisits burlesque
At 82, Jean Schur did something most women wouldn't do at any age.
The great-grandmother of five from Coram went onstage before a live audience in Las Vegas last year and stripped.
Her signature fan dance, which she performed at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender event, garnered a loud, lingering standing ovation. Schur -- using her 1950s stage name, Jean Idelle -- bumped and gyrated for 8 minutes in nothing more than sparkly pasties, fringed bloomers, slinky stockings and oversized fans made of white ostrich feathers.
Schur says that despite her 50-year absence from the stage, she felt confident and ran through the two songs -- "Jalousie" and the apropos "All of Me" -- only a few times before the routine. "I was shocked that I had the nerve at my age to not be nervous," says Schur, now 83.
WOMEN OF COLOR IN BURLESQUE
A year after her performance, Schur is being celebrated in a new exhibit at Sin City's Burlesque Hall of Fame. "Not-So-Hidden Histories" (bit.ly/19Zm1kF) -- which highlights performers of color in burlesque in the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
It includes a blue-sequined dress Schur wore when she performed, as well as a photograph of her at the height of her career when she was described as the "Sepia Sally Rand." Schur was so named because she is believed to have been one of the first African-American women to follow in the elegant footsteps of that famous fan dancer.
Schur's role in eroding the racial barrier of that time is fuzzy because, as the show makes clear, there's little recorded history about performers of color in burlesque, says Dustin Wax, Hall of Fame executive director.
"There's so little recorded history about . . . burlesque altogether," says Wax, an anthropologist who attended Hofstra University. "It is, after all, primarily women's history and marginalized women's history, at that. Add in race and you have triply marginalized history."
DANCE IS MORE THAN SKIN DEEP
There's a reason Schur returned to the spotlight after a half-century. Today's neo-
burlesque is more about performance art than striptease. It involves female and male performers, theatricality, story lines, music, humor, elaborate costumes, political satire and, yes, some undress.
Yet, it's today's performers who are trying to preserve the legacy of legends such as Schur.
Experts say there is a resurgence of interest in burlesque. "Every year has seen new schools opened and new festivals pop up," says Wax. "Just in the past few years, there have been new festivals in Kansas City, Minneapolis, Texas, Alabama, Albuquerque and, this year, a new one in Las Vegas." Some young couples now are opting for burlesque-themed weddings, he says.
There's burlesque buzz on Long Island, too. For almost two years, the recently shuttered Huntington Social Club brought some of the country's most popular performers for shows every other Friday night.
Now there's a monthly show at the Bobbicue restaurant in Patchogue; the next is scheduled for Aug. 23. There are occasional pop-up shows, some by a Long Island troupe called the Copa Cabangers, and burlesque classes at the Paper Doll Vintage Boutique in Sayville.
Burlesque was back on Broadway recently with Nathan Lane starring in "The Nance." And the newly published book "Behind the Burly Q: The Story of Burlesque in America" (Skyhorse, $24.95) has sold out almost its entire first printing of 10,000. Author Leslie Zemeckis wrote the book after making a documentary by the same name.
"I think it's great," says Schur of the revival.
Schur was discovered at New York's famed Katherine Dunham School of Dance by a Broadway talent agency. Then 20, she went to work with a choreographer who trained her to become a burlesque fan dancer, though she had never seen a show in that genre.
Like many forms of entertainment then, burlesque played to white audiences. "Even my bosses were afraid that they would not accept a black lady," Schur says. But her hard work paid off, "and when they accepted me and gave me standing ovations, it was unbelievably thrilling."
In the 1950s and early 1960s, she performed as the featured act at Minsky's Rialto Theatre in Chicago and other top clubs in large cities throughout the United States and Canada. She worked from 1950 to 1963, earning about $12,000 a year or more, equivalent to about $104,000 today. What made touring "so wonderful" for her, she says, is marrying the master of ceremonies of her troupe, Bill Holliday, a ventriloquist and trumpeter 17 years her senior who was the only black man in the cast.
She traveled with a security guard and chauffeur while working in whites-only theaters. "I was black and they were afraid someone was going to kill me," she says. Asked whether she was mistreated because of her color, she recalls one incident -- a man stood up in the middle of her act and was taken away by bodyguards before he could say anything that might start a rumpus.
However, for Toni Elling, 85, another African-American woman who performed in burlesque who befriended Schur last year, it was "extremely difficult" integrating clubs when she worked on stage, from 1960 to 1974. The Detroit resident says she never understood why Schur's career went so smoothly. "She worked in places I wasn't even allowed to think about working in," says Elling. She recalls auditioning at one Las Vegas club, only to be called "the N-word" and sent away. "It was pretty bad," she says.
Schur says she "absolutely loved every minute" of her career, including the perks that came with being a headliner -- makeup artists, stylists, hairdressers, the best hotels and meals, handlers to escort her. The expectations were high.
"I better be perfecto," she says. "No drinking, no smoking, no late nights, no absences, no sickness . . . I had to be on time -- no excuses."
After leaving the business "famously at the top," Schur says she and Holliday, her second husband, moved to Brooklyn to raise sons, Lamont, now 55, a manager at Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn, and Keith, 48, a registered nurse and lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. (She also has a daughter from her first marriage, Valerie Edwards, 63, a city worker from Brooklyn. Schur and Valerie's father, John White, divorced early on, her family says.) Bill Holliday died in 1970.
Schur eventually was certified as a nursing assistant, working at Stony Brook University Hospital from 1980 to 1997. Her third husband, the late Richard Schur, worked as a food service manager at the university.
'TITANS OF TEASE'
The occasion that brought Schur back to the stage after her long absence was the 2012
"Titans of Tease Reunion Showcase." She was reintroduced to burlesque fans by World Famous *BOB*, 41, a New York performer who says the octogenarian closed the show at about midnight -- after waiting six hours backstage. (Although World Famous *BOB* is her legal name, other performers who were interviewed for this story requested using only their stage names to protect their more mainstream careers.)
It was Schur's granddaughter, Kayla Holliday, 17, who was ultimately responsible for the booking. She says she always heard glamorous stories about what "GiGi" once did for a living.
Two years ago, Holliday says she decided to search the Web for information and came across not only photos and articles, but questions about what happened to the pretty, petite performer.
"That's when it really struck me," says Holliday, who lives in North Carolina and wants to be a pediatrician. "This is not just family history; this is African-American history. She made her mark on the burlesque world by being one of the first African-American women to perform for white audiences."
Holliday's father, Keith, connected with Chicava HoneyChild, the creative producer of Brown Girls Burlesque, which was formed in 2007 in response to a lack of representation of women of color in the New York City burlesque scene. She joined with another black performer, Essence Revealed, to assist Schur with her dress and makeup before her performance.
"As I watched her find footing onstage for the first time in over 50 years, I could feel the flood of memories come back to her and her body," says Chicava.
It was, most likely, Schur's last performance. About a month later, she fainted in her kitchen after coming home from Waldbaum's in East Setauket, where she worked part time. A stroke has made the right side of her body "as weak as water," says Schur, who now uses a wheelchair.
Throughout her rehabilitation, she planned to return to Vegas in June this year and join other retired burlesque dancers to perform again at the Hall of Fame's invitation. But it became clear she could not, and Schur says she didn't feel up to attending.
World Famous *BOB* says Schur's fans were disappointed. While video of her 2012 performance is on YouTube, she says it doesn't do "emotional justice" to Schur's comeback last year. "Jean Idelle walks out onstage," she recalls, "and she's this beautiful example of . . . there are things you just never forget."
*BOB* says Schur and others who worked the burlesque circuit decades ago are "redefining what aging looks like for women, what it feels like, what it can be."