Entertainment

Gypsy Rose Lee's Wichita debut: Just a tease?

Wichita's colorful claims to fame include being the hometown of scandalous silent screen vamp Louise Brooks and Oscar-winning actress Hattie McDaniel, not to mention the place where temperance battle-ax Carry A. Nation and striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee first did their things.

Well, that last one may not quite be true, says Lee's son, Erik Lee Preminger, who will bring his multimedia memories of his famous mother to Wichita on Saturday in conjunction with Music Theatre of Wichita's opening show, "Gypsy."

Performers from the musical, which opens June 9, will supplement his appearance with highlights from the show. The evening benefits Music Theatre and the restoration of the Orpheum.

Preminger describes "My G-String Mother" as an evening of anecdotes and favorite family stories illustrated with vintage film, TV clips and home movies, followed by a Q&A session. It will take place at the Orpheum, whose staff likes to think that the 1922 vaudeville palace was the location of that first strip.

The claim arises from hints in Lee's 1957 memoir, "Gypsy," but was enshrined as fact in the 1959 musical of the same name. And it was cemented into the public consciousness by the 1962 movie starring Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood. The musical specifically identifies the "Wichita Opera House" as the burlesque joint where Gypsy, then a vaudeville hopeful known as Louise, and her sister, Baby June, were booked to provide a facade of legitimacy. For a few extra bucks, Louise supposedly got the chance to step into the spotlight after the star stripper was a no-show.

But Preminger has some doubt about that story.

"I'm afraid that from all the articles I've seen, it seems that the first strip was in Kansas City," says Preminger, whose father was the legendary Otto Preminger, director of such groundbreaking films as "Anatomy of a Murder," "Exodus" and "Advise and Consent."

"But those are the written records. It could very well have happened first in Wichita and your newspapers just didn't think it was important — or proper — to report," he said during a phone interview from his home in northern California. "Certainly, it was Kansas. When I asked my mother, she said it was like the story of how she got her stage name. She's told the story so many different ways that even she had forgotten which one was true."

"And if Wichita likes the idea of my mother being part of their history, I'm very pleased."

Gypsy Rose Lee married three times but raised her only son as a single mom.

"From the age of 6 months, I was on the road with her, growing up in theater dressing rooms all around the country," says Preminger, now 65. "At first, she had a maid who dressed her and watched me while she was on stage. But by the time I was 7 or 8, I became her sort of junior stage manager and dresser.

"It was just the two of us. We were very close because she had terrible luck with men. She said she had a baby because she wanted someone to love who would not leave her."

In those days, Gypsy Rose Lee performed an act with two star spots. The first was her trademark striptease, which was more tease than strip because her "gimmick" was to keep things ladylike, Preminger says. The second was a reverse strip where Gypsy brought out a line of beautiful chorus girls and then put clothes back on them provocatively.

"She was risque. She used double entendres. But she was a very conservative person," Preminger says. "There was never any real nudity. There was nothing lewd. She wanted her act to be sexy but fun. There were as many women in the audience as men."

Preminger, who grew up as Erik Kirkland, named after one of his mother's former husbands, didn't find out who his real father was until he was 17.

"We had a deal that she would tell me only if I promised not to contact him until he asked to see me. He, of course, knew about me from the time I was a baby. ... Then when I was 22, he wrote her a letter and we finally met."

With a new last name, Preminger says he formed a good working relationship with his father, helping produce some of his movies. He considered performing but decided he preferred working behind the scenes. He turned to writing and in 1984 penned a book about his famous mother: "Gypsy & Me: At Home and On the Road With Gypsy Rose Lee," which has been reissued as "My G-String Mother," the basis for his multimedia memoir.

Gypsy Rose Lee died in 1970 at age 59. Her sister, who would become famous as the movie star June Havoc, died just two months ago at 97.

Preminger acknowledges that the star of the musical "Gypsy" is his grandmother, the ultimate stage mother Mama Rose, rather than his mother, the reluctant performer Louise.

"But I think of it as the story of the daughter as created by her mother. My mother always said she would never have been Gypsy Rose Lee without her mother pushing and shaping her. She would not have become the woman she did without coping and adapting and learning from that force behind her."

If you go

'my g-String mother'

What: Stories, songs and rare film clips of Gypsy Rose Lee presented by her son, Erik Lee Preminger, plus performance highlights from upcoming Music Theatre of Wichita production of "Gypsy"

Where: Orpheum Theatre, First and Broadway

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

How much: Tickets $20 general admission; $75 meet-and-greet with Preminger and cast of "Gypsy" afterward at 20th Century Club. Call Music Theatre box office at 316-265-3107. Tickets are not available through the Orpheum.

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