There are moments that burn so brightly in your memory that life lived before and after seems drastically incomparable. For Dorothy Zoellner, that moment exists back in 1964 when a large bonfire, conjured by her zealous mother, consumed every “sinful” artifact that represented her 20-year stint in burlesque theater.
Now, after nearly 40 years and a resurgence of the classic burlesque traditions, 75-year-old Dorothy Zoellner has been coaxed back to the stage to relive those extraordinary times before the fire. Alongside reigning “Miss Exotic World” Dirty Martini, The Venus of Dance rises from the figurative ashes in Shhh …! Burlesque!, a one-night-only event to benefit Salt Lake’s Tooth & Nail Theatre.
Zoellner’s trouble began the moment her repressive parents migrated from Queens, N.Y., to religion-heavy Salt Lake City. By the time she was in her late teens, she had run from her authoritarian home, married and divorced a serviceman and could be found mixing drinks behind a bar in San Francisco. After a short stint in the old-town theaters of New Orleans getting schooled in the complexities of burlesque arts, the barely-of-age knockout adopted her sultry stage personae—Dee Milo, The Venus of Dance—and began a varied career traveling the world entertaining the masses.
“At first, I just traveled back and forth across the country performing mostly in theaters, sometimes doing USO shows for the troops,” says Zoellner. “And it was near the end of the war when I first developed my most famous routine, ‘A Sentimental Journey.’ I would come on stage in a suit. As the music progressed I would strip down to basically a bikini and then start re-dressing into a negligee. So the routine was kind of a reverse of the normal thing; I made a show of getting dressed after getting undressed. At the end of the number, I would drop the last piece of underclothing, which would be the panties. Well, the thing is, the negligee was kind of see-through. The audience really liked that. They always said it was so classy.”
Later, after working south of the border in Mexico for almost six years and before heading over to Japan for a stint, Dee Milo decided to change a few details of the routine—and ran smack into trouble with the law.
“All I changed was that instead of coming out in a suit, I started wearing a bridal gown,” says Zoellner. “And, oh boy, I nearly went to jail for that one. It was seen as sacrilegious. It was the exact same routine as before, but it was the wedding gown that was a big no-no at the time.”
Zoellner escaped incarceration for defiling the virginal whites, but shortly after returning from overseas, her devout mother finally dug in her religious talons. According to her mother, to truly come home, Zoellner had to purge herself of an iniquitous past.
“It was my mother’s idea,” remembers Zoellner. “She thought that the only way to wash away my sins was to burn everything. To her, that included all the press photos and newspaper clippings. It also meant all of my costumes and jewelry. She must have thrown over two dozen beautiful gowns on that raging fire. Everything was lost.”
It was in that life-changing moment, standing in the field behind their Salt Lake City home, that Dee Milo The Venus of Dance went up in flames. But, as Zoellner herself notes, that forced retirement turned out to be more of an extremely long hiatus.
Since its inception in 1999, Tooth & Nail’s artistic co-directors Roger Bennington and Rodney Cuellar have riveted Utah audiences with productions ranging from the existentially gut-wrenching (Crave) to the mystically adventurous (Arabian Nights) to the hilariously chaotic (Santaland Diaries). With Shhh …! Burlesque!, the duo can now mark off the sexually audacious box as well.
“Although it is a benefit for our company,” says Bennington, “the event is also celebrating two extraordinary women. While burlesque is about sexuality, neither of these women represents the kind of sexuality that is presented on TV. Dirty Martini is not an ingénue kind of sexuality; she’s a very full-figured woman and very comfortable in her body. On the other hand you have a woman in her 70s that is daring enough to perform a very sensual act in front of an audience. For me, it’s a very amazing tribute to women in general.”
Perhaps it is that fact alone that makes this particular performance ring pure and true, as opposed to inappropriately scandalous and “sinful.” Shhh…! Burlesque! is an homage to a brilliant moment in America’s past when burlesque theater was about the art of dance, striptease and entertainment. This benefit offers a chance to see that the art form didn’t go up in flames.
SHHH …! BURLESQUE!
Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center
138 W. Broadway
Saturday, March 5 7:30 p.m.