Bob Perkoski has always been fascinated with the art of burlesque performance. “From the first shot I was hooked,” says the FreshWater managing photographer. “The energy of the crowd and the diversity, body positivity, and creativity of the performers made it such a wonderful experience.”
In recent years, Perkoski became so immersed in Cleveland’s burlesque scene that he, along with former FreshWater editor Erin O’Brien just published a book, “Rust Belt Burlesque: The Softer Side of a Heavy Metal Town,” that hits the shelves this week.
Bob Perkoski & Erin O'BrienPerkoski and O’Brien recall the path that took them deep into documenting the colorful history of Cleveland’s burlesque scene, from the 1800s to modern day. In 2013, Perkoski met Bella Sin, founder of Cleveland Burlesque (formerly La Femme Mystique Burlesque), when he shot a photo essay of Roxy Remembered—a fundraiser Bella Sin had organized at the Beachland Ballroom to place a plaque at the former Roxy Theater site, a nationally-known burlesque house on the Short Vincent off of E. 9th Street.
With that, a relationship began. “Bella and the girls loved the photos I took, and I began to just show up, assignment or not, to shoot the shows,” he recalls. “I eventually became their official photographer. I got to learn more about Bella and her story. I admired her hard work and how she always looked out for and supported people of color, the LGBTQ community, and any person or group being discriminated against in any way.”
By 2016, Rick Huard with Ohio University Press had taken notice of Perkoski’s work and asked if he’d be interested in publishing a book. Perkoski jumped at the chance and brought in former FreshWater managing editor Erin O’Brien to research and write the copy that complements Perkoski’s photos.
“I admired the way she could pull a great story out of someone or some topic and always treated her subjects with the respect they deserved,” Perkoski writes of O’Brien in the book’s introduction.
The 195-page book is packed with Perkoski’s provocative color photos—just some of the thousands he has shot over 65 shows, with about 12 to 20 performers in each show.
“I had started to collect so many photos of [Cleveland Burlesque’s] shows,” he says. “It was always in the back of my mind to do a book, and here it was dropped in my lap when Ohio University Press came to me two years ago.”
Adds O'Brien, “To my knowledge, there is no [other] book about the Cleveland burlesque scene and how it is today. It’s a celebration. It’s fun. I love telling the story because it’s about all of us. It’s a Cleveland story.”
Many may think of burlesque as a sleazy sex show, but as O’Brien writes in “Rust Belt Burlesque,” it is far from a sordid affair: “In Cleveland, it’s feminist, punk, gender inclusive, and nonbinary. It’s queer and trans and classic. It’s voluptuous and political and bawdy. Most notably, it is always entertaining as hell. It’s about the performers; it’s about the audience, which is every bit as diverse as the cast. But despite the near nudity and racy suggestions in the acts, nothing about these shows feels the least bit seedy.”
Doll Bambino at the Roxy Remembered show in 2013O’Brien tells the history of Cleveland Burlesque from the mid-1800s to the current scene. She also writes about Bella Sin’s efforts to revive the art, the international award-winning Ohio Burlesque Festival (which will hold its ninth three-day event in August), and burlesque’s now-thriving popularity.
“As each act takes the stage, representing a raucous kaleidoscope of humanity, the collective fans’ reaction maintains that single note: One unwavering blast of appreciation that continues until all the evening gloves are peeled and every bustier is busted,” writes O’Brien of the audience scene at the Beachland when a Cleveland Burlesque show begins.
The book opens with the story of Bella Sin and her discovery of burlesque as a teenager in Denver after immigrating to the United States from Juarez, Mexico with her mother at age 14. She went on to perform her first burlesque act in Denver at 18. Through a long journey, she eventually became “Cleveland’s Queen of Burlesque” and now performs regularly at the Beachland.
Rust Belt Burlesque concludes with profiles of some of Cleveland Burlesque’s regular performers—including Cece Noir, Veranda L’Ni, and Dottie Comma—and their lives offstage.
“When the stage makeup comes off and the rhinestone-studded costumes get stowed away for the next time, most burlesque performers return to lives that look much like those lived by the people in the audience,” writes O’Brien. “They are moms and employees; citizens and spouses.”
The art form has come a long way from the early days when burlesque shows were, among other things, extremely racist. They evolved into more vaudeville type shows in the early 1900s, those featuring striptease performances in the 1930s, and shows that paid union scale wages to performers by the 1960s.
These days, the Cleveland Burlesque troupe welcomes everybody. “It doesn’t matter what your gender is, it doesn’t matter what your race is—it’s a celebration of humanity,” says O’Brien. “It’s this organic art form in which everyone participates.”
“Rust Belt Burlesque” is due to hit the shelves this week. Locally, it’s available at places like Loganberry Books, Mac’s Backs, and the Beachland, as well as at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Walmart. In the meantime, O’Brien and Perkoski will be stopping at local bookshops, libraries, radio stations, and of course, the Ohio Burlesque Festival in the upcoming months. Click here for a full schedule.