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October 22, 2014

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Burlesque’ is not burlesque, and it ain’t Tempest Storm, either

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The Liberace Foundation

Tempest Storm with Harvey Robbins.

Tempest Storm doesn’t go to the movies. When asked how many times she has been to a movie since moving to Las Vegas in 2005, she thinks for a moment and says, “One.”

What movie was that?

“Hah!” she says. “I can’t remember it.”

No, Tempest Storm is not a film buff or regular theater-goer. No doubt, she had never been to a midnight screening of a film, ever, until this week.

But this movie, she wanted to see. She had to see it, and at midnight, because that’s when a film that might well have been based on her life was to premiere for Las Vegas audiences.

Burlesque trailer

Tempest Storm

Tempest Storm, Dixie Evans, Mayor Oscar Goodman, Holly Madison and reigning Miss Exotic World and Las Vegas resident Kalani Kokonuts during the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Burlesque Hall of Fame Museum Grand Opening at Emergency Arts on East Fremont Street on June 4, 2010. Launch slideshow »

The film’s title is “Burlesque.” That risque term also is the title of Storm’s life story. This new movie brims with stars at such a level that James Brolin is reduced to a meager two-line utterance, or three if you count, “Eh? Wha?”

The glistening superstar charged with carrying this splashy piece of cinematography is Christina Aguilera, who plays Ali Rose. Miss Rose is a plucky young gal from Iowa -- all of Iowa, it seems, as the movie never specifies any native township. A hardened, cynical but eventually star-struck (if not moon-struck) Cher portrays her mentor, an L.A. burlesque club owner named Tess. Tess has that hard shell, but gosh if she doesn’t love the girls who dance burlesque.

At age 82, with a career that dates to the early 1950s, Storm is the reigning queen of that art form. If not for a frightening onstage tumble at the Plaza while performing in the Burlesque Hall of Fame reunion show back in June, during which she toppled from her heels while backpedaling to the song “My Wife the Dancer,” Storm would still be dancing today. The fall left her with a fractured left hip, a mild concussion and major reservations about donning the boa and sequined G-string for a return to the stage.

“I don’t know if I can ever do it again,” Storm says during a drive to the movie at the Palms’ Brenden Theaters. “I’m not cleared to walk in heels yet. But I am kind of afraid, to be honest, of dancing again. It was a very scary thing. It’s not like just jumping back on the horse.”

Storm still moves gingerly but gracefully across the casino floor and up the theater stairs. We settle into our seats in the theater, which is maybe a third full, and she plunges her hand into a tub of unbuttered popcorn.

“I don’t know what to expect,” she says of the movie about to unspool. “Christina Aguilera has said that this was the life story of me. I’d like to see how much of that is accurate, definitely.” Through Las Vegas attorney Marc Risman and her friend and manager Harvey Robbins, Storm has investigated possible legal action against the film for unauthorized use of intellectual property, but first she must actually see if the film strays into that territory.

Most of those in the movie house are in their 20s, it seems, and fans of Aguilera. Over the 2-plus hours, nobody recognizes the redhead, who is wearing an all-black outfit (black slacks, sweater, jacket) except crimson cowboy boots, as an adult-entertainment legend.

Before the film rolls, Storm talks of her days in Vegas. She first performed in the city in 1951, in its entertainment infancy, at a club called the Embassy in North Las Vegas. Then she moved to the Dunes in 1957, and, finally, the Hacienda in 1987. That was her last performance in the city until she appeared at the Burlesque Hall of Fame show.

Click to enlarge photo

Tempest Storm.

Click to enlarge photo

Tempest Storm.

She knew Frank Sinatra, back in her performing days. “He was awful to chorus girls but always very respectful of me. He introduced me from the audience once, when he was at Caesars, and said, ‘She taught me how to dress,’ and the crowd applauded. Then he said, ‘You thought I would say she taught me how to undress!’ And everybody laughed.”

She dated Elvis Presley for a time and recalls Presley's longtime friend Sonny West once telling her that if she had stayed with him, she might have led his life down a healthier path. “I’ve never smoked, drank or taken drugs,” she says. “That’s why I have lasted in this business so long.”

She shares more. She remembers packing venues that seated thousands while touring with the James Gang in 1973. “Carnegie Hall was one of them,” she says. “That was the greatest. What a thrill.”

Storm left home at age 14. Though she was never swayed by drugs or alcohol, she does admit to a gambling habit that played out 30 years ago in Lake Tahoe.

“I liked the slots,” she says. “I lost $30,000 in 1980. Then I stopped. I haven’t played since.”

Storm has seen “Peepshow” in Las Vegas, but no other burlesque-styled or adult shows in town. “'Peepshow' was great, just great,” she says. Storm saw the original version of the show at Planet Hollywood, starring Mel B and Kelly Monaco, and was impressed by the quality of the production. She laughs as she remembers some of the shows she has performed over the years, joining comics like Billy “Cheese and Crackers” Hagan, and once performing a sketch as a blind woman.

“I was good, too,” Storm remembers. “I had a pair of sunglasses, a cane. I really got into it.”

The hip injury and subsequent rehabilitation process did not prevent Storm from making public appearances, even across the country.

On Nov. 6, she made her first public appearance since her fall at the Plaza when she hosted “Tempest Storm’s Las Vegas Burlesque Revue” at Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine. On Nov. 14, she took the show to the North Shore Music Theater in Beverly, Mass., marking her first appearances in the Boston area in 50 years.

"The crowds went crazy for us, and for burlesque," says Storm, who has also signed with Bruce Merrin's Celebrity Speakers and Entertainment company, which books celebs for personal appearances. "It was like the first time I'd ever been onstage."

After a series of trailers for movies Storm will not see, the featured film starts. It is evident very quickly that Aguilera is not playing Storm. Aguilera is a blonde, for starters, and Storm is famously red-headed. She is singing, too -- Storm has always been strictly a dancer. There’s this Iowa upbringing for Ali; Storm is from Eastman, Ga. (which also produced the first Stuckey’s gas station and convenience store). There is a “Georgia” in the film, though, played by Las Vegas Academy graduate Julianne Hough. But she’s no Storm, either.

There are fleeting moments where the dialogue sparks memories. She laughs when Tess says to the cast, “When you fall, remember to keep your legs out and your boots up!” When Tess snaps at Ali, “You need to prove to me that you belong on that stage!” Storm turns and whispers, “Lillian Hunt (Storm’s mentor from the Follies Burlesque house in Hollywood) told me, ‘You just don’t have what it takes.’ I was 22 at the time. I was going to make her eat those words.”

At one of Aguilera’s costumes, a short-cut, all-pearl number, Storm says, ‘I had one of those, but it was longer. It was a lot like that.’ ”

But she winces at the dance sequences, and there seem dozens of variations of what are essentially Aguilera music videos that seem more akin to numbers performed by the Solid Gold Dancers than anything Storm has brought to the stage.

These are athletic, physical, hard-stomping scenes that dazzle visually but convey not a morsel of warmth.

After the film’s conclusion, which happens just at the moment you think, “How long is this film?’ Storm sits silently for several moments, shaking her head.

“Was what we saw burlesque?” I ask. “It didn’t seem like true burlesque to me.”

“No! No!” she says, raising her voice for the first time all night. “Burlesque is sensuous moves, expression, showing your personality with your eyes and your smile. There was no connection with the audience whatsoever in this movie.”

Storm seems so soft, even delicate, compared to those who just romped across the stage.

“Some have told me that when they’ve watched me on the stage, I change,” she says. “They used a term, radiance, for it.”

Storm walks out of the casino certain this film has little to do with her life or legacy.

“What just I saw,” she says, “was not me.”

And if you’re Tempest Storm, that is not a bad thing. Not tonight, or any night.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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