As a dedicated researcher to the history of burlesque in Pittsburgh, Steel City Kitty founder Kat de Lac has found some wild stories.
One example: On May 15, 1930, the Pittsburgh Press reported that federal agents raided a floating speakeasy and gambling parlor called the Showboat, stationed on the Allegheny River by Sixth Street, according to the article. "[Four] held in raid on 'Show Boat' by Dry Sleuths," the headline read. "Bottles of Guests and Roulette Seized; Park Promises State Action."
Owner Milton Jaffe was arrested, and though history does not preserve for us the identity of who sprang Milton from the clink, a solid theory is that it was his brother. George Jaffe was not a partner in his brother’s wagering venture and therefore not on Showboat at the time of the raid, but it’s improbable he was beached by seasickness or abstinence.
As George was more inclined to temptation than temperance, a more feasible theory for his absence is that his time was being monopolized by preparations to take over and run what was then known as the Harris Theater. Under George's eventual tenure, it would be rebranded as the Casino Theater, a house of burlesque eventually to boast visits by shimmy queens like Lili St. Cyr, Blaze Starr, and Tempest Storm, as well as box office sellouts in music and comedy. Jaffe's burlesque and boats converged in a family affair, an intersection Pittsburgh would be unlikely to ever see again.
Until now. De Lac is paying homage to the Showboat raid and the Jaffes, and celebrating her burlesque group's ninth anniversary with the Burlesque & Variety Show Gateway Clipper Boat Party on Sat., Nov. 9.
“Keeping that history going, the history of what I do and the people who did it, is an extremely important part of what I do,” says de Lac. “It’s a modern interpretation, but it’s inspired by how it started and what it was then. What happened then made what’s happening now possible.”
“I make a list every year of my goals, what I want to accomplish artistically and professionally,” says de Lac. “Doing a show on the Gateway Clipper has been at the top for a long time. It was a goal of mine since the beginning.”
If there were any pelvic thrusts uncovered in the siege on Jaffe’s pleasure craft, they didn’t make the news. Omitting such a juicy detail seems dubious, so chances are that after spending so much time scrutinizing history, de Lac is now going beyond honoring it and instead making it her own with what can be confidently called the maiden voyage of burlesque on our Three River (to coin a shamefully punning phrase, the birth of buoylesque).
Variations and bad jokes aside (at least until they boost the lineup with a bit of vaudeville) old school burlesque is front and center with headliner Roxi D'Lite. With credits as Miss Exotic World Champion of Exotic Dance, and Reigning Queen of Burlesque at Vegas' Burlesque Hall of Fame, she's an indispensable superstar of the form. While many of her routines are solidly rooted in classic style, she supplants them with acts incorporating comedy, carny style, and hallmarks of fetish, including submission and shibari. Denver performer and producer of QUEERlesque: a Glitter Revue Indy Fire brings extravagant boylesque, while Phara O'Harris brings hip-hop instruction and attitude from Austin, Texas.
Local fans of not only burlesque but traditional theater will be familiar with Schwa de Vivre, recently seen in barebones productions' The Legend of Georgia McBride in a turn nothing short of magnificent. And of course, de Lac herself will appear, along with Steel City Kitty fam Smokin' McQueen supplying hometown boylesque and DJ and electro-pop artist Allinaline.
It's taken de Lac and crew nine years to get to the Clipper, but the journey began on what was once Diamond Street a century ago. As Steel City Kitty joins elements of the past to produce a unique entertainment experience in the present, one can't help imagining that the Jaffes would be proud.