The Crown Jewels of Burlesque

dancer with tips in her shoe performs at the grand opening of Sapphire, a men's club in Las Vegas, Friday, Dec. 13, 2002, show girl, stripper
Out in the middle of the barren Mojave Desert blooms an oasis of lovely dancing girls that seems to be a mirage, but in fact it is the Exotic World Museum and Striptease Hall of Fame.

Curator Dixie Evans says the Hall of Fame is filled with historical artifacts from an important part of American history.

"This is a museum dedicated to the art of striptease and burlesque — a lost art and era that is gone," she said. "In every city in America, there were at least two or three burlesque theaters."

As CBS News Sunday Morning's Bill Geist discovered, burlesque's golden age, which featured flirtatious feathered striptease artists, began in the '20s and ended in the '50s. Playboy magazine and the arrival of television brought the curtain down on burlesque. Evans is a part of that fabled history.

"I was the Marilyn Monroe of burlesque," she said. "You couldn't ever really meet or see the real Marilyn, but you could come to the burlesque theater and see me. Oh, I might of showed you more than Marilyn, too."

Stripteasers had to have cheeky names - Blaze Fury, Tabby Cat, Hope Diamond the Gem of Burlesque and Little Bo Peep (who lost her sheep and all her clothing).

And they had to have an act in small productions.

"It wasn't like the pole dancers at the strip joints these days," said Evans. "No, they told a story and had lots of costumes and wardrobes and were very elaborate."

And before the days of television, they were stars.

"I was married to a prizefighter and he used to say, 'Gosh, if these owners only knew that all you wanted was your name on the marquee, they wouldn't have to pay half as much," said Evans. "It's complicated, cause when air conditioning came in, that got top billing."

The Exotic World Burlesque Museum is a repository of rare artifacts, such as jeweled encrusted underwear, appearing both dazzling and terribly uncomfortable.

Artifacts of burlesque's greats are displayed at the museum — from Mae West's cape to Gypsy Rose Lee's trunk. There are displays paying homage to Hall of Fme artists, such as Tempest Storm's G-string and a picture of Lili St. Cyr, one of the most famous exotic dancers in the world, with Eleanor Roosevelt.

The museum is also a shrine. Evans says former burlesque dancer Sheri Champagne came to the museum to help her, but later passed away. Her ashes stayed in the house.

It's not easy for the Exotic World Burlesque Museum to make it as a roadside attraction — 20 miles off the interstate in the middle of the Mojave desert. Even the Roy Rogers museum couldn't hack it, and it had Roy's stuffed horse, Trigger.

So Dixie had to come up with a big idea: the Miss Exotic World Pageant.

She held the pageant and a stripper reunion one weekend, drawing young and old to the museum.

Burlesque is making something of a comeback, with young revivalists staging shows in clubs and theaters across the country. But the new generation of burlesque queens has a lot of tattoos and pierced parts.

"I think people appreciate the tease and sass. It's not so much about hardcore stripping," said Beretta, one of the younger striptease artist. "You don't always know what you're going to get when you come to a show, but you're always going to walk away entertained and surprised."

The young striptease artists idolize legends like Tempest Storm.

"They're so in awe of me. They put me on a pedestal and they just think I'm great," said Tempest Storm. "That's pretty nice … And maybe I taught them some things."

The pageant was a tidal wave of movers and shakers — a blur of fans, veils, hats or anything to limit their exposure to the searing desert sun. It is four hours of non-stop shimmying and tassle-twirling action of every shape and size.

Looking on was the world press and a standing-room-only crowd of kids, dogs and grandmothers. Why not? Women older than they are stripping in the pageant.

Dee Milo is a 72-year-old great-grandmother who strutted down the street. The 75-year-old Tempest Storm accompanied her.

As judges tabulated their scores, the outgoing Miss Exotic World, Kitten De Ville, performed her farewell strip.

And the winner of the Miss Exotic World 2003 was Erotica Bamboo from Japan. And she won without ever answering a question about world peace.

Dixie Evans was thrilled. She's been keeping Exotic World open with her Social Security checks, but hopes now to use pageant proceeds to spruce the place up and perhaps open a home for retired strippers — if they would ever stop taking it off.

This segement originally aired on CBS News Sunday Morning on June 15, 2003.