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Posts tagged as “Leslie Zemeckis”

Leslie Zemeckis Continues Filling In History with Feuding Fan Dancers

Special To Topanga Journal

Viewing the “fan dance” in the year 2018 is a quaint, cutesy activity on par with listening to an old radio play or riding a horse.

From the comfort of your own home, in front of the glow of your laptop computer, you can search for the dance online and get its general gist. The dance will involve a lady, maybe nude, maybe merely scantily clad, and she’ll be holding two large ostrich feathers in her hands. She’ll use the dual objects to cover herself, and now and then—purposefully or otherwise—she’ll allow a brief glimpse of skin to the audience’s prying eyes. That’s what the crowd—men, mostly—has been waiting for, and they’ll hoot and holler their approval at the sight. 

Rick Paulas

By Rick Paulas

It’s fun, in an outdated, mostly innocent, sort of way. It’s a hobby for the privileged or curious, largely unnecessary for the general public to know or understand, certainly with no role in pushing the world’s culture forward. It’s time has come and went, sort of like that old form of the English language with its awkward misspellings and phrasings. Interesting to see, but in an era when you can see literally anything from one’s smartphone, we’re well past the allure that the fan dance originally created. For better or worse, we’ve moved onto more outrageous forms of self-expression.

“When it was first introduced, the fan dance was notorious and titillating. It was the inevitable next iteration of the showgirl spectacle, and like any innovation, that meant there was a large profit in it. This meant, like every other invention throughout history’s long game of leapfrog, there was a fight over who started it, and therefore, who owned the right to perform it.” Rick Paulas

But of course, this wasn’t always the case. When it was first introduced, the fan dance was notorious and titillating. It was the inevitable next iteration of the showgirl spectacle, and like any innovation, that meant there was a large profit in it. This meant, like every other invention throughout history’s long game of leapfrog, there was a fight over who started it, and therefore, who owned the right to perform it. 

For the fan dance, this culminated in a battle between Faith Bacon, “the world’s most beautiful woman,” and Sally Rand, one of the world’s most famous showgirls of all time.

This fight is the driving force throughout Feuding Fan Dancers, Leslie Zemeckis’ fascinating and page-turning dive into the lives of Bacon and Rand. But the book isn’t so much a stodgy legal thriller satisfied with merely picking the nits of creative ownership, but rather widens its scope to become a meticulous, behind-the-scenes analysis into the intersection of show-business and femininity in post-Depression America. 

I won’t spoil the ending, or announce who prevails, other than to say, it doesn’t really matter all that much. What matters is that here, finally, is the story of these two largely forgotten women. Part of that is because of the lack of media affordances that didn’t yet allow the ease of recording, but largely it’s been due to publishing gateways frankly not really caring all that much about the stories of women. The book’s ultimate goal—and increasingly the goal of Zemeckis’ work—is correcting those wrongs by filling in history’s blanks.

Leslie Zemeckis has been on a hell of a roll. Her 2015 book, Goddess of Love Incarnate, told the story of Lili St. Cyr, the so-called “highest paid stripteaser in America,” while her recent documentary Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer highlighted Mabel Stark, the world’s first female tiger trainer. With Feuding Fan Dancers, it’s become even more clear how Zemeckis sees her role in the cultural discourse.

History, it is said, is the story of the winners, but really, it’s the story of those who storytellers consider powerful. Historical analysis has long been dominated with the stories of men, for the obvious reason men have largely held positions of what’s been considered power. But contrary to the inherent narrow framework of storytelling, power is not a top-down hierarchy. Kings get dethroned, managers retire or are ostracized, congressional officials retire or get impeached. Actual, real power comes from those changing society at its base. And one arena for that shift—the one that Zemeckis has chosen to focus on—is the world of popular entertainment. When it’s at its most potent, that is the true nexus of democracy and organizing, of creating and spreading propaganda strong enough to change the world.

It’s this lens that makes Zemeckis’ work important and vital, particularly in today’s post-Trump era, when the world’s most powerful positions are held by overtly feckless buffoons. The emperor has no clothes, but never really did, and there was never really a true emperor at all, just someone who happened to be sitting in a big chair. Now, like always, true power resides in the largely nameless figures who push the cultural football further down the field. They don’t campaign to get elected, or own billion-dollar businesses, or live in castles. They take what once was, and make it what it will be. Quite often, contrary to high school history classes, these figures are female. And now and then, they may even wear nothing but enormous ostrich feathers.


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Mabel Stark’s Intimate Big Cat Relationships In Mabel Mabel Tiger Trainer By Leslie Zemeckis

Special To Topanga Journal

“Will you please not give the end of the story away?” director Leslie Zemeckis asks at the end of our phone call. It’s an important request. While enough is known about Mable Stark’s life to fill a modest Wikipedia page, Zemeckis’ film Mabel, Mabel Tiger Trainer fills in gaps that have long existed.

Rick Paulas

By Rick Paulas

Born in 1889, Stark was an orphan by 17, and began traveling with the circus. She began as a “cooch dancer” before working her way into tiger training, and by 1916, she was the show’s featured act. A local Thousand Oaks woman that during her 57-year-run as a tiger trainer, she’d survive multiple maulings and marriages, handle up to 22 tigers at once by forming intimate relationships instead of using a whip, and even worked as an acting double for a film starring Mae West. But it was her unique female presence in a male-dominated industry that struck Zemeckis.

“Everyone knew who she was,” Zemeckis says. “She was huge, did all the movies, doubled for everybody. But what really is her story?”

It’s her third documentary to focus on female performers from a bygone era, initially with 2010’s Behind the Burly Q, which focused on the origins of burlesque in America, and then 2012’s Bound by Flesh, about Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who worked in circus “freak shows.” While delving through material for those documentaries, she kept on coming across Stark’s name, and decided to pull on that thread for a bit, not knowing what she’d find.

“I don’t go in with a preconceived notion of the story,” said Zemeckis. “I really want to discover that. And I really try to get the facts from her point-of-view, in words she actually said and wrote.”

The end result was a film that didn’t quite always fulfill the expectations Zemeckis had.

“I thought it was going to be a story of courage, but it was really a story about love,” said Zemeckis. “How much she loved those tigers really was a surprise to me.”

This pure love that trainers feel for their tigers is one of the main themes of the film, highlighting this bond not only in a number of past interviews that Stark gave to reporters throughout her life, but through new interviews with current animal trainers. This connection was one that Zemeckis had always heard about, but it wasn’t one she understood until she stepped in the ring herself.

“I don’t go in with a preconceived notion of the story,” said Zemeckis.

“I didn’t get it, like, what’s the difference between tiger, lion, blah blah blah?”, said Zemeckis. “But the tiger is mesmerizing. They are just gorgeous creatures. Being inches from them, you understand why the women and men who fall in love with them do so.”


The ferocity of the animals is also ever-present when you’re that close, and it’s the presence of this danger that so many audience members fall in love with, too. “[Audiences] don’t want to see [violence], but the idea that it actually could happen…” she trails off. “That’s one of the things we don’t really have anymore anyway.”


Watching the film, it’s hard not to get a sense that it’s not only telling the story of Stark, but of a culture that is ending as well. In May of 2017, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus finally came to an end after a 147-year run, only a year after they ceased performances with elephants. While animal rights-focused progressives may cheer on this end, and for many, many, many good reasons, it doesn’t mean that their erasure doesn’t also mark the end of something special.


“We will see the end of animals in the circus, said Zemeckis. “And the people I’ve followed for this film, they really treat these animals with love. They devote their lives to these animals. I think we’re going to lose the understanding that these trainers have with their animals.”


Stark’s voice is narrated from her memoir Hold That Tiger by Oscar winner Melissa Leo.


Leslie Zemeckis will be in Beverly Hills on International Women’s Day, Thursday March 8, 2018, for a special screening of MABEL, MABEL, TIGER TRAINER moderated by Deadline’s Pete Hammond.


Our readers can RSVP for the film screening here:

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Originally Published February 17, 2018 in Malibu Arts Journal magazine. © 2018 Malibu Arts Journal.

© 2018 Topanga Journal.

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