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Panties Inferno: An Interview with Peter Larkin

January 15, 2015 | by

Making a pop-up book about burlesque.

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Peter Larkin

My mother Racelle, a painter, met the production designer Peter Larkin in the midsixties when she went to work for him as a scenic artist. After my parents divorced, Peter and Racelle became an item, eventually marrying. Peter had a long, Tony Award–winning Broadway career and then moved into film, designing pictures like Tootsie and Get Shorty. He’s a brilliant illustrator, as well—Ralph Allen, who’d conceived the musical Sugar Babies, collaborated with Peter on his book The Best Burlesque.

Burlesque, it turns out, is one of Peter’s great obsessions. Over the past twenty years, he’s created a mass of drawings, mock-ups, and maquettes for Panties Inferno, a pop-up book on the subject. Now eighty-eight, he continues to refine the work, though publishers have told him the book is too expensive to manufacture and publish—something about the glue points. But his pop-ups and drawings are wonderful, a testament to his comprehensive knowledge of the old burlesque scene. I called him to talk about his process and the basis of his fascination with burlesque as well as its history, which he feels has been mischaracterized since burlesque began to die out in the late fifties and early sixties.

Where does burlesque begin, for you?

The word burla is some kind of antique Italian. It means “joke,” and the first burlesque was imitations of what went on uptown. It was a family affair. People brought their lunches and stuff. Florenz Ziegfeld had The Ziegfeld Follies, which probably cost a lot of money—that show had nude ladies in tableaux, but they were forbidden to move. The curtain opened on Aladdin’s cave, say, or an artist’s studio, and all the ladies were still.

But in the early twentieth century, forward-thinking people like the Minsky brothers, of Minsky’s Burlesque, made it so that for a lot less money you could go and see the women moving. It changed tremendously through the years. These acts started out with a preponderance of acts and comics and maybe one or two strippers, and as it went on, more and more time was given over to strippers. The comics were furious. They started to use bluer material, to get even. Read More »

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Notes From a Renaissance Faire

September 8, 2010 | by

At Ren Faire, all women are wenches. But the constant sexual innuendo is tiresome.

I remember a woman with a pear nestled between her breasts. That’s what most traumatized my pubescent self the last time I went to a Renaissance Faire, somewhere in Marin County circa 1989.

I’m here to report that nothing has changed two decades later at the New York Renaissance Faire: all women are wenches. T-shirts that read “Boss Wench” and “Wench Magnet” greet you as you enter the Tudor-style gates.

This is the kind of place where it’s always acceptable to just throw on a corset. “People should just admit they want to come just to wear a corset,” says Emily, one of the friends I dragged along with me, as she eats a turkey leg. In fact, the line between fetishwear and Ren Faire costumes is alarmingly thin; the chain mail shop sells armor fit for battle, but it seemed to be doing a much more brisk business in belly chains.

What I was even more confused by were the horns, raccoon tails, and fairy wings on sale, as if Renaissance England was some sort of catch-all fantasy world where Magick Reigns. Weren’t there a lot of nuns per capita in the renaissance? I didn’t see a single nun, nor one Queen Elizabeth, though I did spot several pirates (it was Pirate’s Weekend at the Faire), a sole leper, many gypsies, and a few teen boys in black robes that inspired me to write “heavy goth element” in my notes.

Ren Faire is supposed to be lusty and ribald, but the constant and unsubtle sexual innuendo is tiresome. “No one eats sausage like Austrian women,” says one of the seventy-five actors, this one dressed as a drunk Austrian noblewoman. Her maid, who is flirting with a group of men in Ed Hardy t-shirts drinking mead, says, “I always swallow, never spit.” The sleaziness never really lets up. “I see you like my balls,” one vendor at a glassblowing booth called out to me. I don’t think that was very period appropriate.

Personally, I was much more excited at the prospect of being a maiden for the day. There was hair braiding from a shop called Rapunzel’s, which mildly piqued my interest, but what I was really after were the floral garlands. I spent at least ten minutes trying on a variety of them—fake yellow flowers, fake blue flowers, feathered—as a moon-faced teenage girl helping me told me very solemnly, “I’m here for thee.” I went with a leaf-wheat-baby’s breath combo, hoping I resemble a Botticelli even though I’m wearing cut-off denim shorts.

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