Local performer Ruby Rockafella pays tribute to Blaze Starr, the Godmother of Baltimore Burlesque, with photos by Steve Parke, formerly Prince’s art director.
Blaze Starr said she had an affair with John F. Kennedy. “Yes, I had an affair, with President Kennedy. He was great,” she told an interviewer. “Fast and great.” It all went down while she was dating Louisiana Governor Earl K. Long, who once, inconveniently, caught her going at it with JFK in a walk-in closet. Caught in a pinch, Blaze began to cry.
“I can act a little bit, too.”
She told the Governor her mink coat was missing. Soon enough, he got everyone rummaging around for the coat.
“I didn’t wear a mink coat that night,” Blaze deadpanned.
Blaze Starr was no ordinary stripper. She was an entertainer, and a businesswoman. Though she grew up washing laundry for pennies in West Virginia, she began stripping as a teenager, and then real money started rolling in. In Baltimore, she made her debut at the 2 O’Clock Club on The Block, the city’s notorious red-light district. She later bought the club. She became famous. “For a while, she was the only famous person Baltimore had,” director John Waters told The Sun. There was even a Hollywood movie about her.
A lot has changed since those days. In March of last year, police raided four different strip clubs for gang activity. And the doors on Blaze Starr’s famous 2 O’Clock club are locked shut, though the sign still remains.
“I think it was when clubs started showing full nudity,” that things started to change in the burlesque scene, says Ruby Rockafella, a local burlesque performer. Whereas in the 1950s, stripping was once the art of the tease – tantalizing audiences without showing the naked form – at some point it became less about teasing and more about showing. “[Modern] burlesque is hearkening time back to a time when there wasn’t full nudity.”
Rockafella – not her real name – is part of a growing burlesque revival in Baltimore, happening not in the strip clubs of The Block but mostly in performing art spaces around the city. She recently impersonated Blaze Starr for a photoshoot by Baltimore’s own Steve Parke, who most recently made headlines for his portraits of Prince. Parke approached her about the shoot after catching one of her shows, and Rockafella came up with the theme.
“I had been reading a book about Blaze Starr and I thought, ‘Why don’t I do a tribute to Baltimore’s most famous burlesque performers?'” she said. “She’s a pioneer in what we think of as classic burlesque, and the fact that she’s from Baltimore makes it all the more exciting for those of us who live in Baltimore.
For today’s modern burlesquers, Blaze Starr is something of an icon. “She was kind of a badass feminist,” Rockafella says. “She owned property, she ran a business.” And she broke taboos on women’s sexuality – speaking openly about her affairs and her love of men. “She was definitely a scandalous woman. I mean she was a stripper, I say that with love.”
Starr died in 2015, but she had some mixed feelings about her followers in the burlesque revival. “She was very opinionated about the new burlesque,” says Angie Pontani, a well-known burlesque performer based in New York. “She didn’t really care for the tattoos.”
In 2006, Pontani wanted to perform a Blaze Starr tribute show in Las Vegas, reenacting her famous “flaming couch” skit, where she was relaxing on a couch that burst into flames. Pontani wrote to Blaze Starr, who was by then living out her retirement in West Virginia, to request permission. “She was like, ‘You have to send pictures.’ I sent pictures,” Pontani said. “I felt like I was on the most intense audition of my life.”
Blaze eventually gave her approval, which was an honor for Pontani. “In the new burlesque resurgence the legends are just idolized.” As for the couch, it had been in storage for decades and “was definitely not as fabulous as it was when Blaze started using it,” Pontani says. “There were vents in it with a fan underneath it. It was supposed to blow fabric flames. None of that worked.” They did the best they could.
What makes Blaze Starr so great is her carnality, Pontani says. “She’s so ferocious,” performing as though she’s “chomping on a T-bone.” And it’s a tactic Pontani’s adopted for her own. “I just try to literally eat the stage like it’s a big steak.”