Press Centre

Perspectives

Paul O'Grady
  • Episode: 

    5 of 7

  • Title: 

    Perspectives: Paul O’Grady: Gypsy Rose Lee - the Queen of Burlesque
  • Transmission: 

    Sun 14 Apr 2013
  • Time: 

    10.00pm - 11.00pm
  • Week: 

    Week 16 2013 : Sat 13 Apr - Fri 19 Apr
  • Channel: 

    ITV

Pictured above: Paul O'Grady with Britain' most famous Burlesque dancer IMMODESTY BLAIZE at the Cafe De Paris London

The information contained herein is embargoed from press use, commercial and non-commercial reproduction and sharing - in the public domain - until Tuesday 9 April at 12.01am.
 
Paul O’Grady: Gypsy Rose Lee - the Queen of Burlesque
 
Paul O’Grady reveals how a legendary striptease artist changed his life as he explores the life of the queen of American burlesque, Gypsy Rose Lee, in this fifth programme in the Perspectives arts strand for ITV.
 
Watching the 1962 film Gypsy, starring Natalie Wood, ignited Paul’s passion for the glamorous entertainer who had taken Broadway by storm with her tease and tassels. Over the years he has collected memorabilia connected with the legendary artist, and recently performed a homage to Gypsy Rose Lee at the Royal Variety Show.
 
He travels to Broadway to discover more about the real woman behind the legend from the people who knew her best: her son, Erik Preminger, and the world famous composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics for Gypsy.
 
Paul learns how to twirl tassels from the headmistress of striptease, Jo “Boobs” Weldon, at The Slipper Room - one of modern New York’s best-known burlesque clubs and home to the School of Burlesque – where wannabe strippers are being taught about bumps, grinds and shimmies.
 
Press Pack notes:
 
Paul O’Grady reveals how a legendary striptease artist changed his life as he explores the life of the queen of American burlesque, Gypsy Rose Lee, in this fifth programme in the Perspectives arts strand for ITV.
 
Watching the 1962 film Gypsy, starring Natalie Wood, ignited Paul’s passion for the glamorous entertainer who had taken Broadway by storm with her tease and tassels. Over the years he has collected memorabilia connected with the legendary artist, and recently performed a homage to Gypsy Rose Lee at the Royal Variety Show.
 
He travels to Broadway to discover more about the real woman behind the legend from the people who knew her best: her son, Erik Preminger, and the world famous composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics for Gypsy.
 
Paul learns how to twirl tassels from the headmistress of striptease, Jo “Boobs” Weldon, at The Slipper Room - one of modern New York’s best-known burlesque clubs and home to the School of Burlesque – where wannabe strippers are being taught about bumps, grinds and shimmies.
 
Paul and Jo get together to pay homage to Gypsy with a special performance. While Paul narrates from the wings, Jo strips, in the style Gypsy made so famous.
 
Paul says: “I love strippers. I always have. Not the ‘show what they’ve got for a pound in a pint glass’ strippers. I’m talking about fabulous exponents of tease and tassels – glamorous craftswomen whose every move is carefully choreographed for maximum thrilling impact. 
 
“I know a lot of the burlesque strippers and they are all incredible ladies; they are all well rounded, articulate, smart intelligent women. 
 
“It’s a real skill what they do; the way every move is choreographed.  You are watching a woman taking clothes off, but there is nothing obscene, you couldn’t take offence. It’s done with such charm and finesse, tongue in cheek, and a wink.
 
“I can still vividly recall the moment that ignited that passion for the art of tease. I was twelve years old. Sitting on my sofa next to mother’s false teeth. The TV was on. I was captivated. I’d stumbled across the musical, Gypsy, the true story of a young girl’s transition from child star to queen of American burlesque. A musical with a message that really struck a chord.
In the words of a famous song from the musical : “You gotta get a gimmick if you want to get ahead.”
 
“It’s as true today as it was back then. It’s no coincidence that when I was searching for my gimmick, stripping played a central role. I suppose I did get a gimmick with Lily.
 
“After seeing the film I went down to the library and asked the librarian for ‘anything on burlesque‘. She pointed me in the direction of Greek tragedy! I tried to explain to her that it was about ladies taking their clothes off. I don’t know what she thought of me. But she did find me a copy if Gypsy Rose Lee’s autobiography.  It was a really great read. 
 
“Gypsy Rose Lee had a fascinating life and what I discovered on my travels is that the truth about her is far more interesting than fiction. 
 
Paul discovered that he also had a lot in common with his heroine of stage and screen.
 
“What was odd was when I met her son Erik he said: ‘There are lots of comparisons between you and my mother’. I spent the day with Erik, and he said ‘look at it this way, you move to the country at the same time as she did, you have the same love of animals that she had, you’ve always got an animal with you, you did a chat show at the same time as my mother, you’ve started from very humble beginnings, and you went to the London Palladium the same as my mother. She became Gypsy Rose Lee and you became Lily Savage’. I never thought of it like that.
 
“I discovered she was the most private public person. She loved her own company, and I am the same. I’m happy on my own at home in Kent. 
 
“Also we’ve both got loads of hobbies. I have always got something on the go. I can’t sit still and she couldn’t either apparently. I can’t sit and watch television. I can sit and mend something, or feed a lamb, but I couldn’t sit there doing nothing. It is strange and I’d never thought about it. There was this heroine of mine for many years and we’re on the same track.”
 
At the height of her stardom Gypsy Rose Lee was a superstar of striptease. One of the most recognisable faces in America, commanding a salary of $900 a week – around £24,000 today. When she published her memoirs in 1956, they were an instant bestseller.
 
Gypsy the musical opened at New York’s Broadway Theatre in May 1959 to rave reviews – marking the pinnacle of Gypsy Rose Lee’s career. A career that had begun 30 years earlier when 19 year old Louise Hovick took her first tentative steps onto the stages of burlesque. 
 
But Gypsy’s story, the woman and the movie, begins in the world of Vaudeville – where a host of weird and wonderful acts shared the stage.  
 
Gypsy was born in 1911, and named Louise. She had a sister Ellen June.  Their mother, Rose Hovick, dreamt of stardom and introduced her daughters to the stage at a very early age, with Ellen June cast very firmly in the starring role.
 
The movie, Gypsy, revolves around Rose’s hunger for success, and her relationship with her daughters as she strives for ever greater heights. But the story takes place at a vital moment in the history of Vaudeville.  
 
The Wall Street Crash on October 29th 1929 made Vaudeville’s light-hearted approach to entertainment seem desperately irrelevant. 
 
The collapse of the American stock market drove half of all banks out of business and average family incomes crashed by 40%. For anyone looking for entertainment the key requirement was now escapism, on a budget. For the 13 million people that suddenly found themselves out of work, burlesque was the perfect tonic. A line up of comedians and strippers for just 15 cents a ticket.
 
That show-stopping scene in the musical Gypsy: “You Gotta Get a Gimmick” is set at this crucial point in the history of Vaudeville, and depicts a real moment in Louise’s life where she first encountered the world of burlesque and wondered if it might be for her.
 
Paul says: “It’s an incredible moment in the history of musical theatre. And I’m very honoured that the man responsible for the lyrics of that fabulous number agreed to talk to me about its origins - Stephen Sondheim.”
 
Stephen had just done the lyrics for West Side Story, which had been a huge success. He reveals how a performer called Faith Dane blew them away with her audition.
They immediately knew that they had to have her in the show, and what she performed for them inspired the thinking behind “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”. 
 
“Stephen told me that Faith came in for the audition for strippers. She had been doing an act around the clubs. She got her bugle out and was bumping and grinding and blowing the bugle. They wrote the number Gotta Get A Gimmick around Faith. Gypsy Rose Lee laughed so hard when she saw her performance that her false lashes fell off.”
 
In the musical, the emergence of Gypsy Rose Lee is presented as a fabulous montage of sparkles and glamour. But almost nothing is actually known about that embryonic period of Gypsy’s career – a period that she herself brushes over in her memoirs.
 
Paul goes to Gypsy’s favourite restaurant, Sardi’s to meet Karen Abbott, her biographer to find out more about this enigmatic woman.
 
Karen tells Paul that Rose wouldn’t let her daughters grow up. The sisters were sick of being presented as young children. Rose pushed and pushed to the point that June had her first nervous breakdown at the age of 12. Rose told her to just get on with it. 
 
Eventually, in 1928, June ran away at the age of 16. She eloped with one of the boys from the act. Rose tried to shoot June’s husband. 
 
Rose tried to continue the act with Louise at the front but Louise didn’t have what it takes. She couldn’t sing well, she couldn’t dance well. But when she encountered the strip scene she sensed that this was something she could do. 
 
She describes in her memoirs stepping on stage for the first time and loving the limelight, loving the applause. It was all for her and she lapped it up.
 
But what sort of world was she moving in? The reality may not have been all sequins and glamour as the musical presents. This was a period in which clubs often had mob involvement. Prostitution was not uncommon at the stage doors. 
 
Louise Hovick became a ghost-like memory. Gypsy emerged self-assured, sexy, and slim. In just fourteen months Gypsy rose from naive novice to show-stopping headliner. A meteroric rise made all the more remarkable because Gypsy was headlining one of New York’s most celebrated burlesque venues, Minsky’s Republic. Paul visits Minsky’s to soak up to atmosphere.
 
Paul says: “The act that first opened America’s eyes to the controversial joys of Burlesque actually started life at the Theatre Royal in my home town of Birkenhead. Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes arrived in New York in 1868 with the outrageous gimmick of showcasing women... in shorts.
 
“Gypsy’s act was completely revolutionary. She was the first stripper ever to talk to an audience. And she did it with such intelligence and genuine humour. By revealing not only her body but also her personality, she had created the ultimate gimmick. A gimmick with the potential to make her a superstar.
 
“Gypsy definitely inspired my career as an entertainer. Subconsciously it did because I had no intentions of going on the stage. I didn’t think I could do anything on the stage, same as her again. So I have followed in her footsteps, and I used to be able to twirl tassels. I can’t now. But I can blow a bugle.”
 
For more than two decades, Gypsy Rose Lee was the undisputed Queen of Burlesque - performing to sell-out crowds until she hung up her silk gloves at the age of 42.
Following Gypsy’s death from lung cancer in April 1970, many of her personal effects were donated to the New York public library, including 17 scrapbooks full of articles which she painstakingly collected during her early years in Vaudeville right up to 1959 – the year the musical opened.
 
“Gypsy’s greatest gimmick was that she knew how to make people want her – on stage and off. And it was this that made her rise from the pack, that ensured when she wrote her memoirs that they flew off the shelves. That made it inevitable that Hollywood would come knocking – and create the film that secured her legend.”
 
For Paul the highlight of his pilgrimage was to meet Faith Dane who made the show-stopping performance of bugle-blowing Miss Mazeppa in the 1959 Broadway production of Gypsy and repeated her role in the 1962 film. Now 89, Faith invites Paul to her home in Washington to discuss the legend of stage and screen.
 
“To meet the character from the movie I watched as a 12 year old was the highlight of my travels. I got to play the bugle for her and she said ‘when I die you take the mantle of Mazeppa’. She was a joy to be with and I speak to her regularly now. If I don’t ring her she is onto me, my new best friend: an 89 year old bugle playing stripper!
 
“Faith Dane was wonderful. The pair of us were bumping and grinding and blowing the bugle. It was just great fun. She was a close friend of Marlon Brando’s, a really interesting woman. She’s a real one off, a real character. 
 
“She sat there coming out with all sorts, she was wonderful. I’ve just received a letter from her enclosing a painting she’d done. She’s a sweetheart. She said to me as I left her house ‘you must phone me as soon as you get home’. So when I got home I phoned her and I was on the phone to her for an hour.” 
 
Paul concludes: “It’s been such a privilege to have this opportunity to delve deeper into the world of one of my great heroines, and indulge a personal passion that dates back over forty years.
 
“Without Gypsy Rose Lee, that moment of movie magic that made such an impression on twelve year old me could obviously never have existed.”
 
The Producer/Director is Nic Guttridge
The Executive Producers are Matt Bennett and Paul O’Grady
.