From Burlesque Dancers To Tiger Trainers: Leslie Zemeckis Brings Women’s Untold Stories To Life

From Burlesque Dancers To Tiger Trainers:

Leslie Zemeckis Brings Women’s Untold Stories To Life

Even though she grew up in sunny Southern California, Leslie Zemeckis has always been an inside kid. “Still am,” she says. That means books and movies have been lifelong friends. “I’ve always been a voracious, well-read, different genre kid. To me, there is nothing better than a good story. I love movies. I love getting lost in stories and characters. To me, there is nothing more powerful than art – and especially movies and books.”

Zemeckis is one of those people who became exactly who she dreamed of being when she was a kid. She is now the writer and actor she longed to be because, she says, “It interests me. Who knows where the passion comes from. I’m just lucky and driven enough to make my passion into reality.”

Writing and documentaries were Zemeckis’ first loves to be sure. At one point early on in her career, she was doing a one-woman cabaret, burlesque-type show and quickly realized she didn’t truly know what burlesque was.

After researching it, she was disappointed at how underrated it struck her as being. “No one had done anything about the women strippers in burlesque. I wondered where did they come from; what did their family think, what did they do after burlesque died. We’re talking Golden Age of burlesque 20s-50s. There is a huge resurgence today all over the world.”

She immediately felt compelled to tell the story of burlesque in the words of the performers themselves. She called a friend who had a camera and said, “’Let’s go make a film.’ And we spent the next couple of years traveling around the country interviewing and filming these elderly performers. So many have since died. I had so many stories I decided to write a book. And now I’m on my third documentary and third book. I found a niche. My work highlights and focuses on women, in pop culture who in their day were very influential, but have largely been forgotten today. All were mainly marginalized and stigmatized. I like to shine a light on just what they achieved and how they did it.”

Zemeckis is one of those people who became exactly who she dreamed of being when she was a kid.

Zemeckis says seeing her work out in the world for the first time and watching and hearing people respond to it is nothing short of thrilling. “Even though I’ve won a lot of awards, and been on some best-seller lists, what remains the most important thing for me is to have eyes on my work.”

“These women I showcase were extraordinary and I want to share them with as many people as possible. It’s never about me,” she said.

Writing and film are a vital part of Zemeckis’ existence. She has to write, she says, to express herself. “People need to read more, learn things. Think deeper.”

The greatest challenge she’s faced in her career won’t surprise most. She got told no – a lot. How does she handle it?  “I don’t hear it. Just makes me reach further. No one was interested in financing my film. But I went ahead and shot it and Showtime picked it up and ran it for years.” Zemeckis says that just having this career is truly of the happiest surprise of her career. “The best thing is creating your own work, your own path and not waiting for the opportunity so when it does come from an outside source. I was just cast in a couple of films as an actress. It’s a surprise.” Opportunity and fairness are the biggest challenges that Zemeckis says she has faced in the industry. But, she adds, her life is better than she ever imagined.

Her latest project is the film “Mabel, Mabel, Tiger Trainer,” which was just released April 10, 2018 domestically on DVD and streaming platforms (Amazon and Vimeo). The feature-length documentary tells the tale of Mabel Stark, “an outcast who was rejected by her family, escaped poverty and abuse in rural Kentucky, and ultimately found her true passion in the eyes of a tiger. Circumventing the chauvinism of her time, Stark clawed her way up the circus hierarchy.”

"The feature-length documentary tells the tale of Mabel Stark, “an outcast who was rejected by her family, escaped poverty and abuse in rural Kentucky, and ultimately found her true passion in the eyes of a tiger."

With my many years researching burlesque, Zemeckis came across the name Mabel Stark. Before Stark became a tiger trainer she danced in the “cooch” show. It made Zemeckis wonder –  what does it take to train tigers? She became obsessed by the rumors of Mabel’s story. There was a lot of mystery surrounding her life and work, and so Zemeckis began researching. “I’ve become a master researcher. I found a relative of hers, her last protégé, footage that hadn’t been seen in decades.”

Mabel Stark and Mae West. "She doubled for everyone in the movies during her 30s and 40s, including Mae West who was a big fan of hers."

The basics of Stark’s story are this, Zemekis explains. Stark was born in Tennessee to poor tobacco farmers; grew up with a great deal of adversity; escaped, and stumbled on a circus winter quarters in California where she absolutely fell in love with tigers and wanted to work with them. She was told that she couldn’t – for no reason other than that she was a woman.

“Well, she didn’t listen to ‘no’ – I liked her already – and worked up an act eventually working with twenty-one tigers in the ring. She was mauled many times by her cats, but she never blamed them.”

“She worked with what is called the ‘kindness method.’ Gently, patiently, and with kindness. Her cats were everything to her, and she dedicated her life to them. She doubled for everyone in the movies during her 30s and 40s, including Mae West who was a big fan of hers. Mabel’s career, though tragic and inspiring, was over fifty years long. She is a major icon of the circus.”

“She worked with what is called the ‘kindness method.’ Gently, patiently, and with kindness. Her cats were everything to her, and she dedicated her life to them."

Zemeckis calls film the perfect medium to capture people for a couple hours and entertain them. Makes sense since she is so drawn to really moving subjects and powerful projects, which somehow she just seems to find as she moves through life. “I can’t tell you what moves me. But after I obsess over something long enough I know I have to make a film about it.” Ken Burns is a major inspiration for Zemekis when it comes to film, specifically because of his talent for telling a story cleanly and thoroughly.

As for whether she is already brewing on her next project, Zemeckis says, “Of course. I’ve been obsessing over it for a couple years now. I’ve already shot a sizzle reel, and after Mabel is out in the world I will turn my attention to it. More on what it is later. I also have a book coming out in October, about a couple showgirls from the 1930s. I’m super excited about it. I’ve been working on it for years.”

Zemeckis hopes to continue to work, bringing interesting stories to film, TV, and books, and she has a vital piece of advice for women when it comes to pursuing their dreams. “Don’t wait. Do what you can to create now, on whatever level it is. Don’t believe no. Don’t have excuses. Just do. And ‘do’ happily with passion and interest and kindness and be ethical in your work.”

You can find Zemeckis at @lesliezemeckis on Instagram, as well as on Facebook, and on her website www.lesliezemeckis.com.

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Jenny Block

JENNY BLOCK is a frequent contributor to a number of publications from Huffington Post to Playboy, and is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Solo Sex, and O Wow: Discovering Your Ultimate Orgasm.

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