Thinking back to the first show she organized, Lola van Ella pictures speakeasy, 1920s vibes; baggy-pants comedy; performing with the Alley Cat Revue burlesque troupe; and her first fan dance. The event, An Evening at the Ticklish Whisker, took place in 2007 in the Tin Ceiling Theater, which has since become STL Stylehouse.
“This is some bare bones stuff,” she says, with a little laugh and some nostalgia for her former self. “If you could do side by side what I was doing then compared to now — thank God, it’s night and day.”
That first show cannonballed Van Ella into a 16-year career producing burlesque and Vaudeville-style shows first in the St. Louis area and then beyond. One of her trademark events is the Show Me Burlesque Festival, which Van Ella launched in 2010. The festival returns for its 11th iteration next week.
The three-day affair (Thursday, May 19 through Sunday, May 21) is dedicated to “glitz, glam, breathtaking talent, spectacular productions, and fabulous burlesque, vaudeville, circus, and variety entertainment” from across genders and geographies. Attendees can expect shows ranging from cabaret to striptease to vaudeville to a vintage variety show. All events will take place at either the Golden Record (2720 Cherokee Street) or the Casa Loma Ballroom (3354 Iowa Avenue).
“It's going to be such a reunion; it's going to be a really special weekend,” Van Ella says, noting that there will be around 70 performances. “It’s just going to be such a wonderful variety, everything, and the whole spectrum of burlesque and gender expression and all kinds of styles and comedy.”
The festival returns in person after a two-year hiatus. Van Ella, who relocated to New Orleans four years ago, felt confident she’d be able to bring the event back as the city began to fill up with tourists during Mardi Gras and cases stayed low.
That’s a relief for Van Ella, who says she’s “basically” from St. Louis and has been a performer since birth. After doing musical theater for a while, she found her performance home in burlesque.
“I quickly realized it was sort of my calling, creating these fantastical, spectacle-driven performances,” she says. “I was like, ‘I want to do bigger and better things.’ I wanted to try to grow it.”
Burlesque, Van Ella says, has been escapist entertainment for audiences since World War II. But she thinks the appeal goes far beyond that. It’s something to laugh about, celebrate, participate in and see yourself reflected in.
“People are looking for something that is beautiful,” she says. “I think burlesque shows are a beautiful way to connect with other people. It is a display of just all the facets of humanity in a really glittery rhinestone package.”
Email the author at [email protected]