Monday, May 23, 2011

Birmingham’s Burlesque

By Harry Gilbert

Birmingham has, if anything, a somewhat confusing history at times, from our southern hospitality to our brutal crackdown on civil rights protesters. Right in the Heart of Dixie, we have been, at times, both the center of rigid adherence to tradition and at the forefront of change. This conflict still goes on today. It’s reflected in our government, our media, our culture.

One interesting example is the Lyric Theatre. Built in 1914, it was designed specifically to accommodate vaudeville shows. Blacks and Whites could watch the same shows, (as long as they sat in the “correct” section). Performers such as the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Sophie Tucker, Will Rogers, and Milton Berle all played the Lyric. Birmingham has also produced many talented performers of her own, containing a rich and vibrant collection of local venues and committed patrons. One could imagine Birmingham’s own Magick City Sirens, a local burlesque troop, on stage at the Lyric for a raucous, summer evening show. Couldn’t you just? Or could you?

Apparently, some people are confused about what the Magick City Sirens actually do. As avid lovers of all types of live entertainment, we at the BFP sat down to shed a little light on the Magick City Sirens in order to help people have a better understanding of exactly what they do.

Imagine for a moment: A group of beautiful and talented women wronged, railroaded - left in the lurch by, what we’ll call, a short-sighted and ill-informed venue which never took the time to understand the nature of Burlesque. Who’re they gonna call? The BFP Action News-team, of course. When innocents suffer, the BFP springs to their defense like an enraged news-panther, fangs dripping with justice.

After Jezabelle Von Jane, founder and head-honchess of the Magick City Sirens, found out that her beloved Burlesque/Vaudeville troupe had been preemptively canceled from a local venue for a custom-crafted show that had been booked 2 months in advance, you might think that she would have been puzzled, that she would wonder, “Why?” She didn’t have to wonder, because the reason was clearly stated - “Vulgarity,” with a capital “Vulga.” Below you will find our interview with Jezabelle in its entirety.

BFP: “So, what exactly happened that caused your troupe to have their performance cancelled?”
Jezabelle: “About two months ago…one of our newest girls…said ‘Hey, the owner [of the unnamed venue] would like to talk to you, he’s interested in booking us at the club. So, I went down, talked to him, spent the whole night there - brought down a couple friends to the venue, a great venue, and we agreed to perform there. They asked to send over the contract, so we sent it over, and for a bit of background, we don’t replicate shows, so we create a new show for every venue.”
“Then, today, two weeks from the date, he sent me an e-mail that said, ‘We were not aware of the risqué material that a burlesque troupe has and we can‘t have you in this venue.’ He said that they don‘t have nudity in their venue, so we sent him a message back that said that we were sorry that he thought we had nudity, because we actually don’t have any, whatsoever.”
BFP: “So what bits do you show, in your shows?”
Jezabelle: “Well, we have a lot of cleavage. We do wear pasties, and we bear down in some shows to the bikini bottoms, but we don’t show full bottoms, we don’t show full breasts. A lot of our girls wear a (full body stocking), and believe it or not, burlesque girls have on more clothes than almost any other (similar) performer I know of, with the corsets that we wear, we’re mostly bound up. So, for them to break contract two weeks ahead of time, saying that they couldn‘t have nudity in their bar…it was ill informed…I’ve been doing this for twelve years, and I’ve never had this happen, ever.”
BFP: “So what happened, what was the follow up?”
Jezabelle: “So, we signed the contract, and instead of him emailing it to me, he said, ‘come down here.’ I needed an itemized list of what they had, in house, for sound equipment, because all of our girls sing. We do, also, perform to recorded music, but our troupe sings the majority of our music, which is why we’re called the Magick City Sirens. So, we were gonna go check for vocal and PA equipment, and grab a couple of drinks. (This venue)…they serve absinthe, which is very tantalizing to my ladies, they enjoy the absinthe, of course I’m a nursing mother, so I can’t drink, but it was a trip to go down there. So, the night we were scheduled to go down, I get his e-mail. Most of the performers here…they never get contracts, we started getting contracts about two years ago, that’s just the way it works…and in Birmingham especially, they want to give you the contract ‘the day of.’
“So this was nothing out of the ordinary for us. And, it was such a shock that it happened, (he) is a wonderful guy, I have nothing bad to say about him or his venue, other than the shock - I‘d just never seen anything like this before.”
BFP: “The problem seemed to be a misunderstanding as to what a burlesque+vaudeville troupe does, verses what a stripper does. Do you want to explain the differences?”
Jezabelle: “The biggest difference is the money…we don’t strip for money. When we ‘peel,’ it’s in the course of telling a story, to give a provocative edge to what would otherwise be a theatre act. We enjoy our bodies. I enjoy the fact that my girls are all different sizes. My smallest girl wears a size twelve, in little girls’-that‘s Ruby Lou, and our largest girl is in a size 22, she is also our manager and housemother - that’s Tatiana. You won’t find that at (a strip-club). You also won’t find girls who can act, who can juggle, who can spit fire, can tell a story, can make you laugh. They don’t tell you a story in the manner that we do. You can‘t put a girl onstage at (a strip-club), and not take her clothes off, but you also couldn‘t put one of my sirens onstage at (a strip-club), have her singing and dancing and putting on a show, because that‘s not what that audience came for. There‘s also a lot of ‘skin shows’ featured on Broadway right now…and they are nothing like a burlesque troupe and nothing like a stripper.”
BFP: “So, can you tell me more about what a burlesque troupe does?”
Jezabelle: “We do pay homage to the 1940’s way, I do have a few numbers where my girls, especially my new girls, do come in and do a peel, but the peel is the essence of showing a little bit of skin, to give a little more to the audience, as opposed to giving it all, for the bucks. But saying that, I have a lot of respect for any woman who can get onstage and shake her groove thing and though the two are very different, I have respect for both of them…I was a stripper for a long time, and I know the difference between taking your clothes off, and performing.”
BFP: “Is there anything else that you want to tell us about, that we haven’t covered so far?”
Jezabelle: “I‘ve seen women who have been cosmetically fixed to be absolutely gorgeous and not have a shred of talent, and I‘ve seen women whose bodies I‘m not attracted to that have blown me away, by their presence onstage. But, I‘m not one of those people who would say that all women are beautiful, because some of them, outright aren‘t. It has nothing to do with their body types, it has to do with who they are, and what they‘re capable of, it‘s about women of all shapes and sizes, and about men of all shapes and sizes. I‘m not a feminist in any way, and I‘d like to say that it made that woman who did the thesis on us from the University of Southern Alabama very unhappy. It‘s not about women’s rights, and getting up onstage, because I put men up there too - I‘m ready to put you all up there. It‘s about this type of entertainment. This type of entertainment allows for talent, and talent comes in all shapes and sizes.”
BFP: “How did the Magick City Sirens get started, what are the origins?”
Jezabelle: “Well, burlesque started a lot longer ago, than it was given credit for…the dance halls in England, the Moulin Rouge, and of course the Bettie Page era, but burlesque as a form of dancing to entertain with the body, it’s been around forever - you can talk about belly dancing or about the gypsy girls who danced at weddings to entertain single men. I’ve been doing this twelve years, I’ve danced all over the country…and burlesque is the newest underground platform that I’ve seen for women, and men, who enjoy themselves like they did back then.
“And so I moved down here from Boston, about six years ago now, and I said, ‘you know what Birmingham needs, a burlesque troupe. I was in a couple of troupes up there, I performed on my own as a feature entertainer, and so when I got down here, the scene was so black that I decided - we’re gonna spice this up. I started with a group of eight, girls have come, and they’ve gone just like any other theater troupe, and these girls that I have this year are probably my strongest troupe that I’ve ever had.”
BFP: “After having this venue cancel on you so close to the date, what do you do now?”
Jezabelle: “We used to perform with a venue here exclusively, and then I decided that I wanted to travel out with the troupe. We go to Mobile, Selma, Huntsville, New Orleans, South Carolina…we’ve performed in Boston, I’ve performed in Pittsburg, so…it’s so hard to get gigs here, for a burlesque troupe. My husband is the lead singer for Selling Mary, and they have no problem getting gigs, everybody loves the live music, but in order for us to do what we do because of the cost that goes into these shows,
(it’s very hard to find a venue that will cover the cost). Unless I go back to the same venues, it‘s easier for me to perform out of town, than it is to perform in Birmingham.”
BFP: “Since you missed this performance, what is your next scheduled show in Birmingham?”
Jezabelle: “We have September 10 at the Barking Kudu, Beers, Bullies, and Bands, and that’s being thrown by one of the pitbull rescue groups here.


  1. These ladies are phenomenally talented. You really need to check out a show - better yet, BOOK THEM and see what magic they can create for your event/venue!

  2. Each show the Magick City Sirens produce is unique - unique in appearance, talent, choreography, and set design - most are custom built for the venue or event where they perform. Many times, that's 5-8 new numbers every 35 days! Imagine the time and dedication that takes. Now, there are some old favorites and classics that are thrown in the mix but I guarantee you see a different show each time you see the Sirens. Each Siren places her passion and energy into a performance unlike anything else in the Birmingham scene....and we want to be on stage for you again, soon, in our own Magic City!

  3. As a Siren, I have grown to know and live burlesque...yes live...I am a very critical person and for me to accept and embrace burlesque for what it is means it has to be something pretty epic. People tend to be so close minded about things they've never experienced. I have seen burlesque touch every genre out there...whether you like sexy, funny, dark, or just plain crazy burlesque has it! I hope this article and this interview helps to open people's eyes about one of the best underrated forms of entertainment in the nebula!

  4. It is far too easy for a venue to cancel a show for any reason leaving the artist out in the cold. However if an artist cancels the venue black balls that artist and it is hard for the artist to overcome that. The sad truth is that the bar and venue owners all over this state, talk to each other, they know each other, they are a "union" so to speak. The performers of Alabama, all are forced to stand one on one with this. As a musician I have seen this way too many times, contract or not, the venues hold the power. We need to develop a union of sorts for the bands to stick together and regain some of the power of these situation. That is what we simply have to do is leverage enough of the performers together that when a venue does something like this there are consequences they must face.

  5. Really bummed about this whole thing!! Seemed like such a great place for us too!!

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