LYNN RUTH MILLER started doing burlesque on stage when she was 73 years old. She was born in Toledo, Ohio, moved to the San Francisco Bay Area when she was 48 and now lives in London. She won the best newcomer and most original performance at the Texas International Burlesque Festival in 2012, headlined at the Bristol Burlesque Festival in 2015 and has been ripping her clothes off at every opportunity ever since. Now 83, she insists she can still shake, rattle and roll with the best of them.
I understand that performing is something you started to do later in your life, can you tell the readers what you did for work and pastimes before making this bold leap?
I am a writer. I was first published when I was 10 years old and I have been writing essays features, novels, stories, jokes and parodies ever since. I am also a teacher. I have advanced degrees in both education and journalism and made my living teaching at the primary and university level first and then as a free lance writer after I was 30 years old.
How was Lynn Ruth Miller ‘Born’? Professionally speaking…
I stumbled online on The San Francisco Comedy College and decided to take the course and write a story about it. I discovered a latent talent I did not know I possessed: I could make people laugh. After a year of verbal standup, a friend asked me why I didn’t add music to my act. I had always sung Johnny Mercer’s The Strip Polka at parties and amusements since I was very small (it is a very old song) and so I answered him, ”Well I have this song….” And that is how it all began. I sung that song at The Edinburgh Festival in 2005 as the finale to my compilation comedy show WEAPONS OF LAUGH DESTRUCTION and removed layers of clothes as I sang. It was a runaway hit. And thus I was inaugurated into the beautiful world of burlesque.
Did you ever expect that you would be able to have the experiences you have professionally?
Never. I expected to marry a nice Jewish boy, have two children, live in the suburbs, clean house on Monday, Tuesday do laundry, Wednesday play canasta with the girls, Thursday have my hair and nails done, Friday have the family over for dinner, Saturday go out on the town with my darling and Sunday complain. I understand this routine is still popular in places like Golder’s Green.
You are a comedian working in Burlesque. Tell us about the community you’ve fallen into, the Burlesque scene seems to be your ‘home’.
I LOVE the Burlesque community on both sides of the ocean. Everyone in it is generous, kind and caring and they all treat me like the princess I never was. No one ever tries to undercut someone else or upstage them. We are all out to make every show we do as wonderful and exciting as we can together. Furthermore, in both the San Francisco and the UK Burlesque communities, everyone is accepted for what they are. I never feel that there is much of a glass ceiling. What we do and what we are is what makes us an important part of the scene. The people I have met doing Burlesque are among the finest I have ever known.
What was the best/worst thing that has happened on stage to you while performing?
The worst thing was when I was in the middle of a routine for Des O’Conner and totally forgot the words to a song I have been singing since 2006. I was convinced Alzheimer’s had crept into my brain. The best thing was that because I am so old, everyone though it was part of the act. I have to say that another huge highlight was starring in the Bristol Burlesque Festival in 2015. That was a huge honour and one I will never forget.
What are some of your biggest career achievements so far?
The biggest achievement was winning both nights of the Texas International Burlesque Festival in 2013. It was a complete surprise. On Friday night, I was in the “Old Standards” show and the winner of that show went on to be part of the “Professionals” on Saturday night. I had planned to do the Friday and then do stand up on Saturday and to my amazement I won Friday night without taking off very many clothes at all. I did the same act on Saturday night and won “Most Original”. The way the Bristol Burlesque scene and Tuesday Laveau and Discharge have taken me into their hearts is another plus. Being accepted into the London Burlesque Festival is amazing to me. I am from the old school where burlesque was supposed to be enticing and sexy and I have to say there is nothing enticing or sexy left in me but still I was accepted. The most important thing was I had THE most marvelous time performing there.
In the past 15 years or more through the resurgence of the art form, there’s been a need for the older generation to still be seen, acknowledged and perform. How does that make you feel?
I cannot even begin to tell you how marvelous I think that renewed interest in older performers is. I find we are more accepted in the UK than in America. America still values superficial beauty and youth above talent. That is another reason why I so love performing here. All too often women (I think more than men?) think that once their bodies are not centerfold material they have no currency in society and certainly none in the performing world. That is so not true. The years have given depth to our performance and to our understanding of what really matters in life. I find, in burlesque, the most exciting opportunity to show everyone watching and everyone performing that if you love what you are doing, that love and that enthusiasm is infectious. I believe that everyone should be proud of who he is and what he has become at every age. Burlesque has given me, and many others, the opportunity to make that evident.
Any advice you can give the older generation still trying to pursue their performing dreams, women and men approaching their ‘Golden Years’ who haven’t made it yet?
This is the fallacy. Wherever you are in life, you have “made it.” Everything you do builds you into the person you are becoming. I say if you have a passion, go after it. Do not let concerns about what anyone thinks detract you and I always use this quote to reminds us all that the only obligation any of us have in life is to be the most we can be:
Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best. ~ Henry Van Dyke
Any advice you can give the younger generation now, those who want to make performing a career?
Do not ever be afraid to try. There is no such thing as failure…only experience. Do not do anything for money or fame. It is a waste of energy. Do what you love because YOU love it and all will follow
How do you see the comedy industry changing now, with your insight and knowledge can you predict anything specific for the years to come?
I see too many people turning to comedy because they think it is an easy way to earn a living. All comedy, and my burlesque is definitely comedy, is an art that takes years to develop. The good thing about a career in comedy, at least for me, is that the learning and developing process is wonderful and well worth those agonizing times when five minutes seems life five years and the audience is fast asleep,
I would like to see more emphasis on professionalism and more effort made toward developing real jokes. Too many comedians either ride on their laurels (ie: have one routine that works and never change it) or worse just rant without actually saying anything of value. Comedy of all kinds is the one opportunity the individual has of commenting on the wrongs and the ills in society without being arrested. It is not meant to be politically correct. It is meant to not only make people laugh but to make them think. It is a gorgeous art form and should be respected in that light.
Any closing statements you would like to share?
When I was 9 years old I used to perform song and dance for our neighbours with my sister and we would always sing my favourite song The Strip Polka as the grande finale. I never really understood the song but I loved its jazzy beat, I learned all the words and for some reason its stayed with me throughout the years.
I saw my first burlesque show in 1949 in a grubby theatre in Toledo when I boyfriend took me along to try to encourage me to give him what he wasn’t getting and to say it was an unpleasant experience is an understatement. It smelt like a combination of sweat, popcorn, semen and cockroach droppings. The woman that appeared on that filthy stage framed in a tattered red velvet curtain was not the glamorous gloriously built vision I had expected. She looked like the before in a weight watcher’s ad or the center fold of a Health Magazine entitled THIS COULD HAPPEN TO YOU. That experience cemented my vision of what Burlesque actually was and it did not tempt me in the least.
Fastforward 50 years and my life has taken an incredible turn. I never imagined I would find a hidden talent for stand up comedy so late on in life, much less become and a headlining burlesque artist still singing the Strip Polka as part of my act so many years after singing it for all the kids in the neighbourhood. You never know what direction life will take you in so grab every opportunity and never say never for the best is yet to come.
For more on Lynn Ruth Miller see HERE