Gypsy Rose Lee.

There was a time, long before almost every movie had nudity in it and before porn was available on home computers and mobile phones, that burlesque was thriving as an entertainment form. It was an erotic art form that put the emphasis on the second syllable of striptease.

Gypsy Rose Lee got her start on the burlesque stage and moved on to become a mainstream star and television personality, back in the days when censors would not allow TV programs to show married couples sharing the same bed. Her life story even became the beloved classic musical Gypsy.

But classic burlesque was not just about striptease. It encompassed variety acts, especially comedians. Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Red Buttons, Milton Berle and Phil Silvers are among the comedians who got their start in burlesque.

And everyone on stage had clothes on, even if the wardrobe was somewhat minimalist, according to the online exhibition, “Loose Women in Tights,” on the website of Ohio State University Libraries. Many factors may have contributed to the decline of burlesque: the rise of other forms of entertainment, including movies, radio and television, and the increasing bawdiness and nudity that burlesque embraced. One of the turning points was the raid of the Minsky theater in New York in April 1925, which was later the subject of the 1960 novel and 1968 film The Night They Raided Minsky’s. 

Today burlesque is seeing a resurgence that appreciates it as an art form and allows some people to explore it as a form of personal erotic expression. A number of schools, from New York to Seattle, offer classes in what the New York School of Burlesque calls the art of striptease “for fun, exercise, or training to perform.” And the 2010 movie “Burlesque,” starring Cher and Christina Aguilera, focuses on the neo-burlesque movement.

Luma Rouge, "The Champagne Cocktail."

Now the Museum of Sex is celebrating burlesque in an exhibition that opened in March. The museum, at 233 Fifth Ave. in New York, opened in 2002 with a mission of preserving and presenting “the history, evolution and cultural significance of human sexuality.”

The Los Angeles Times described it as “a real museum–not some XXX gimmicky place–with exhibits that you could, if you were inclined, take grandma to see.”

“The Nudie Artist: Burlesque Revived” features artifacts from the 1880s to the 1950s, modern works of art from burlesque photographer Leland Bobbé and artist Luma Rouge and footage from “Behind the Burly Q,” a film by Leslie Zemeckis.

The museum says the exhibition “allows visitors to peek inside the world of burlesque and see the performance art from a personal angle.”

Bobbé’s photographs “exhibit an honest grittiness, capturing a diverse array of body types portraying confidence and comfort in one’s own skin rather than an airbrushed representation of fantasy,” the museum says.

Blaze Starr, 1957.

Luma Rouge, who has a background in dance and fashion, focuses on dancers and their movement in her sketches. says that at first glance, Luma Rouge “seems to be a flamoyant court sketch artist who was bored after work one evening, chance on a burlesque show and let loose with her pencils.”

When Behind the Burly Q was released last year, The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., called it “enjoyable — brassy and loud and thoroughly unapologetic. A lot like its subjects, who managed to get through life with nothing more than a gimmick, a G-string and a smile.”

The Nudie Artist: Burlesque Revived” is on exhibit at the Museum of Sex, 233 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016, (212) 689-6337.  

Tickets are $16.75 plus tax for adults over 18 years old; $15.25 for students and seniors. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

No one under age 18 is admitted.

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