A quiet October evening on Baltimore’s famous Block (Anthony C. Hayes)
For more than fifty years, The Block – a section of East Baltimore Street in Baltimore’s busy downtown business district – was famous around the world as a mecca for burlesque houses and bawdy humor. But by the late 1970s, the strip had shrunk to about two blocks, and much of the risque entertainment had given way to sleazy sights, drug deals and prostitution. Many of the legends, like Blaze Starr were long gone, while the one hold-out – Lynn Christie – was revered as the last of a dying breed. The last, that is, until the arrival of a troubled teenager named Margo Christie.
Margo Christie embraced the fans and feathered boas of burlesque’s golden past and in so doing, became a link from those glory days to the modern movement called Neo-Burlesque.
Christie returns to Baltimore this weekend for two shows with burlesque sensation, Angie Pontani. And she returns to read from her award-winning novel, These Days – a fictional tale which was drawn from Christie’s own life experiences. Publishers Weekly Independent Review called These Days, “As original as it is addictive…”, while Pontani has exclaimed, “From a dancer’s point of view, her descriptions are so right on!”
We caught up with Margo Christie to talk about her stripper past and her present life as an upstart novelist and a Neo-Burlesue performer.
BP-E ~ How did you begin working as a dancer on The Block?
MC ~ I come from a broken home. When I was 16, I took up with a 26 year-old man whose wife had been a stripper on the Block. Within a few months of moving in with him, I was stripping there, too.
BP-E ~ How long were you there?
MC ~ I danced for four years full-time at The Stage Door on Commerce Street behind the old Gayety Theater. After that, I came and went, dancing part-time for the next 12 years, during which I earned a BA in English from UMBC. I also worked in various so-called “straight” jobs (bartending, waitressing, and secretarial).
B-PE ~ Did you dance in any other clubs?
MC ~ On the Block, there were only two worth talking about, The Stage Door and The Dynasty Show Bar. I also worked part-time at Sherrie’s Show Bar on Pulaski Highway. In the 80s and 90s, Sherrie’s was owned and staffed by old-school Block people. In hindsight I wish I’d gotten serious about a career following graduation, but stripping gets in your blood. I found it hard to answer to the needs of employers after so many years of coming and going as I pleased.
BP-E ~ You had a degree and were making good money as a stripper. What took you to Denver?
MC ~ When I moved in 1999, I was, in part, responding to a need to leave my stripper past behind. Living in Baltimore with my family nearby, I simply did not go around advertising that I was or had been a stripper, even though the Block was always a cool place for me.
BP-E ~ Where does your book come in?
MC ~ In the early 80s, many of the old burlesquers were still around. They were a nostalgic lot and loved to rehash the good old days. It never occurred to me that others would take so rosy a view of such a seedy place until about 2005, when I discovered the revivalist phenomenon of neo-burlesque. Then, my experiences as a stripper in the last days of burlesque suddenly had value. That was when I decided to write a book about them.
BP-E ~ So in a sense your book is a bridge between the past and today’s Neo-Burlesque scene?
MC ~ Yes. Though many performers in the “new” arena have worked in strip clubs, most are too young to have had such a small degree of separation from the old days. I literally got in under the wire. When I returned to the Block in the late 80s, the old-timers I’d known were retired or dead.
BP-E ~ How long did it take you to write These Days?
MC ~ I started writing in 2006 and finished it in 2011. It sat on a hard drive until 2012, when I entered the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and won second prize. I shopped it around with New York literary agents with no success; then sat on it a big longer. In 2013, I stumbled upon an old Baltimore Sun article about a retired Block stripper, written by Rafael Alvarez. I knew that if These Days was going to have an audience anywhere it would be in Baltimore, so I contacted Rafael to see if he was interested in taking a look at it. He was, so I self-published it and began promoting.
BP-E ~ Listening to your life story, I see a lot of parallels between you and the central character Becky, but how much of the book is auto-biographical? Where does the truth end and the fiction begin?
MC ~ Like my protagonist, Becky Shelling, I started stripping on the Block while still underage. We’re both products of broken homes. In These Days, Becky’s dad takes off, leaving her with an abusive step-mom. In my life, it was Mom who took off, leaving me with a binging alcoholic dad. Becky is brought to the Block by a charismatic, married strip joint owner. I was brought there by an equally charismatic divorced older man. We both learned about burlesque through old movies and TV shows. Like Becky, one of my first exposures to old-style burlesque came from vintage publicity photos, particularly the collection at the Midway Bar on Baltimore St. Finally, we’re both star-struck by striptease and view our seedy circumstances through rose-colored glasses.
BP-E ~ You’ve mentioned the “old-timers.” Do any of those people appear in These Days?
MC ~ Many of the people I knew in my early years on the Block inspired characters in These Days. The barmaid Cookie, for one, was inspired by the barmaid at the Stage Door. Many of the old-timers’ stories became tales told to Becky by characters like Cookie Sweet. Places played a role, too. The Mustang Inn, where I spent a short stint bartending, served as the inspiration for the fictional Half-Mile Bar.
Let me add, however that, though inspired by my life, These Days is essentially fiction. The plot twists; the details of Becky’s life and the events that further her growth, are products of my imagination. These Days is about nostalgia; the romanticizing of the past.
BP-E ~ Speaking of nostalgia, you were back in Baltimore last October. Can you describe your feelings about coming home and seeing The Block as it is today?
MC ~ Two words: So sad! The Block in its heyday was 3 – 4 blocks long. Even in my day, it was still nearly two blocks long and included more than twenty strip joints plus a handful of food places, including the famous Pollock Johnny’s. There was a Golden Gloves boxing gym above the Troc Pleasure Palace and a Gypsy fortune-teller located mid-Block near the Midway. It was its own little self-sustaining circus world! Nowadays there are 4 or 5 clubs amid gutted, vacant buildings. Not all cities had an adult-entertainment strip; a precious few had one as large and well-known as Baltimore’s Block. It could’ve become an entertainment destination on a par with New Orleans’ Bourbon Street. It’s a shame the powers-that-be didn’t see it that way.
BP-E ~ You currently have a 9-5 job which is unrelated to your desire to write and perform. Do you have any plans to pursue those passions full-time and if so, would you stay in Denver or perhaps move elsewhere?
MC ~ My fiancé and I have a home in Tampa and plan to relocate there next year. My long term plan is to devote less time to burlesque and more time to writing. At 52, I have a limited shelf life as a burlesque performer. I may move to Baltimore on a temporary basis; a year or so while working on my next novel – a tangled tale of family secrets centered on a 40’s era big band singer who disappears in the 1950s. It takes place partly in Baltimore and partly in New York, where I lived for some time in the 90s.
BP-E ~ A second book sounds great, but you said you had a tough time when you pitched These Days in New York. Please talk a bit about the challenges and the rewards of being a novelist.
MC ~ The biggest challenge in today’s book market is getting your work into the hands of readers. Like I said, I had no luck pitching These Days to literary agents, even after it finished second in a major writing contest. Publishers simply are not willing to take risks on unknown authors, especially those without a platform.
Conversely, the reward for me has come in the form of acceptance in one of the greatest literary communities in the world: Baltimore. I’m still in the red on These Days, but I’m meeting great people and having a lot of fun promoting the book. Burlesque performance has become my platform, and I’m having a lot of fun with that, too. Fans of old-style burlesque say they love to watch me perform. At 52, I’ve still got it!
BP-E ~ Given the rigors of writing and book promotion, it’s fascinating to hear that you’re doing burlesque. How long have you been at it and could you say a few words about the difference between being a stripper and a burlesque performer?
MC ~ I actually got involved in neo-burlesque a year ago as a way of promoting my book. In neo-burlesque, I stick to the classic bump-and-grind style that I’d learned from Lynn Christie. Stocking-peel, my trademark back then, is still my forte. The difference for me is not one of performance but of audience and venue. I should add that as a stripper, my acts were generally improvisational. As a burlesquer, they are fine-tuned and well-rehearsed.
BP-E ~ Do you have any favorite old school performers?
MC ~ Lynn Christie, who I just mentioned, was especially influential for me. She had all the accoutrements of burlesque stardom – gowns and matching boas, custom-made by costumers who made their living dressing up the Block. And she had only to walk across the stage to get the guys mesmerized – she had such style!
As a Baltimorean, I also have to say Blaze Starr. My style is bump-and-grind and she was the bump-and-grind queen. She kept burlesque alive on the Block well into the 1970s.
BP-E ~ What do you think of the new crop of performers?.
MC ~ There is a ton of talent and daring out there. Boundaries are being pushed, and this is always good for any art. Unfortunately, it sometimes seems a connection to the roots is getting lost in the translation, especially with performers who are too young to have even a nostalgic interest in the glamour days.
BP-E ~ When you talk about new performers who harken back to the glamour days, the first name which comes to mind is Angie Pontani. Along with your readings here in Baltimore, you’re doing two shows this weekend with Angie. Could you say a few words about her as a performer and tell us how this gig came to be?
MC ~ Angie is a highly-regarded national star and a true professional. She’s warm and inclusive, and her style is classic, like mine. I attended one of her shows in Denver last November, where she did a Blaze Starr “Jungle Drum” tribute that Miss Spontaneous Combustion herself approved. Based on my experience working with people who knew Blaze Starr, I’d say Angie really hits her mark with that act. After the show, we talked about my book and performing together in Baltimore. I’m truly grateful for the opportunity and honored by her belief in me. As a classic Block bump-and-grinder, I intend to do Angie proud!
Margo Christie will be in Baltimore for two readings from her book, These Days and for two performances in the Valentine’s Day edition of Burlesque-A-Pades. The readings will take place first on Saturday February 15 at 4 p.m. at Litmore in Mt. Washington; the second will be held on Sunday February 16 at Minas Gallery in Hampden. The Burlesque-A-Pades shows happen Friday February 14 at 7 p.m. at the State Theatre in Falls Church, Virginia and Sunday February 16 at 8 p.m. at Metro Gallery in Station North. Tickets and other information for these appearances may be found by clicking the links provided for each date and venue or by visiting Margo Christie online. These Days may be purchased in Baltimore at the Ivy Bookshop, at Amazon or by contacting Margo Christie.
Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A one-time newsboy for the Evening Sun and professional presence at the Washington Herald, Tony’s poetry, photography, humor, and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore!, Destination Maryland, Magic Octopus Magazine, Los Angeles Post-Examiner, Voice of Baltimore, SmartCEO, Alvarez Fiction, and Tales of Blood and Roses. If you notice that his work has been purloined, please let him know. As the Good Book says, “Thou shalt not steal.”