|For several years, filmmaker Rick Delaup has been documenting the New Orleans burlesque scene of the late 1940s through the 1960s. "Evangeline the Oyster Girl & Other Tales of Burlesque," will be a television documentary and book about Bourbon Street burlesque dancers. During that time there were few economic opportunities for women, but for some the shady side of the street beckoned with money, glamour, and fame. The project is partially funded by the Louisiana Division of the Arts, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. Eccentric New Orleans presents profiles of several women that appear in the documentary.
TAJMAH was an exotic dancer on Bourbon Street in the 1950s and '60s. She started her career in a small, no-frills nightclub at the mere age of thirteen! With no prior dance training, Tajmah perfected the art of the exotic dance to become a star attraction at Ciro's and then the famed 500 Club on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. It was regarded as the home of the top burlesque performers of the day, the home of Lilly Christine the Cat Girl, Carrie Finnell, Kalantan, Alouette Leblanc, and
Originally from Connecticut, Tajmah (her stage name), her mother, and younger brother came to New Orleans via Florida. Her mother was a cocktail waitress, who found work at a small nightclub on Bourbon Street called the Torch Club. Not wanting to stay home alone at night, Tajmah, only 13 years old, accompanied her mother to work, and hung out in the dressing rooms backstage. She would often sneak a peek at the stage show, and was mesmerized by the beautiful showgirls. She surprised her mother one night by jumping on stage and performing her own impromptu exotic dance. The year was 1956.
Tajmah picked up dance moves from watching movies, and studying other performers. "I used to go around to all the different shows on Bourbon Street at that time in my life. 'Cause I felt I could learn from this person, from that person, from another person." Tajmah's main style of dance was "interpretive oriental." She found it important to tell a story within her act, a staple of a headline act.
She finished high school through a home study course. At the age of 16, Tajmah got a driver's license stating she was 18 years old. By now, she was a seasoned performer. She was performing in other clubs up and down Bourbon Street, and took it quite seriously. "My mind was not on boys. My mind, at that period of my life, was on my dancing, my show. My show was everything to me, okay? The work that I put into my routine, or changing my routine when I had to change it."
Besides her Jewel of the Orient number, Tajmah did an act called, "The Spider and the Virgin" at Ciro's. The newspaper ads called it the "most unusual stage production ever seen." The Ciro's ad described the act thus: "monstrous spider casts a hypnotic spell over a bayou beauty." With a large 3-D spider in a giant web behind her, Tajmah danced until entranced, and was grabbed by the spider in the web. "That was a good act," she says. "The Virgin and the Spider was a ritual type of act… the maiden was sacrificed to the spider." It was her mother, Tina Marie, who often had her arms in the spider legs operating them from behind the prop. "Mom would every once in awhile pinch me."
Tina Marie decided to follow in her daughter's footsteps and put a stage act of her own together. She performed as a comedienne, and did a novelty comedic strip act. Tina Marie gained notoriety of her own, and never wanted Tajmah to work without her. "If they wanted to get me as a performer, they had to take her too or they didn't get either one of us, okay? And they knew this." Tina Marie was very protective of her daughter, and handled all of their affairs. "Mom says, 'you worry about your dancing. I'll worry about the financial end.' There wasn't anything I wanted I didn't get. Mom spoiled me rotten. Bless her heart." Tajmah has access to a car, was given jewelry and fur coats by her mother. Her goal to perform in the top club on Bourbon Street was fulfilled. She headlined the 500 Club, which had featured performers such as Blaze Starr and Lili St. Cyr. "If you got to work in the 500 Club, you were a good entertainer."
"When I did the Virgin and the Spider, I really was a virgin at that time. Remember, none of them knew my real age, either." Tajmah attended church regularly at St. Louis Cathedral. She often wondered if working in a Bourbon Street nightclub conflicted with the Catholic Church's beliefs. Tajmah considered her exotic dance as an art, and tastefully done, regardless of what may be in the minds of men in the audience. To solve the dilemma, Tajmah invited her priest to view her performance at the 500 Club. "The priest came to see the act in the show. And he came with a couple other priests with him for the sole purpose to approve it or not approve it. Okay? And I know it sounds strange, but they did approve it, because my thoughts on it. They said, 'as long as you're thinking like you're thinking, then you're not committing a sin. If I would have been thinking on any other kind of direction, then they would never approved it."
Tajmah does not like to be referred to as a stripper. She prefers the term "exotic dancer," and explained it this way. "You could put on a good show wearing an abbreviated wardrobe, and not take off anything. Lilly Christine was a good example of that. Lilly Christine never stripped, never." A fan of the Cat Girl, Tajmah admits to copying a few of Miss Christine's moves, and adds, "I wasn't allowed on the same show with her because I had blonde hair, and she had blonde hair. She wouldn't take no competition anyway. And I don't blame her. She was right. If you can demand that, then you should." Some of the poses in Tajmah's publicity photos resembled Lilly Christine's. And, while performing at the Old French Opera House, Tajmah was curiously billed as "The Platinum Cat."
When asked who her friends were, Tajmah replied, "I couldn't tell you I really had any. You didn't get close to nobody. In the first place, you never knew how long you were going to be working in a club." Then added, "You don't interfere in someone else's business. That's one of the codes you work by. You don't get pushy. You don't interfere. You don't dig into their back history. 'Cause a lot of them don't want you to know their back history. In that respect, you're kinda low-key."
Working night after night at the club, Tajmah became enamored of Louis Dillon, the drummer in the house band. She was 24 years old, and he was 41. Knowing her mother might not approve, she and the drummer would take their breaks at the same time and sneak out during intermission to meet at the coffee shop. She eventually married the drummer and had two children. She quit dancing. Tajmah and Louis remained together until he passed away in 1994.
Today, Tajmah works part-time for a restaurant chain. Outside of that, she makes personal appearances signing autographs and speaking to groups about her days as a burlesque star on Bourbon Street.
-- Rick Delaup 2003