Arts & Culture

New Blaze Starr Exhibit Takes Center Stage in Catonsville

'The Hottest Blaze in Town,' on view at CCBC through June 15, documents the life and legacy of Baltimore’s most famous burlesque star.
Curator Cathy Till with some of her many Blaze Starr photos and artifacts. —Photography by Christopher Myers

Cathy Till takes the lids off a few storage bins stacked in a corner of her cozy Fells Point rowhome. She pulls out an impressive array of Blaze Starr memorabilia: publicity stills, photo albums, reels of film, colorful boas, a wig, autographed high heels, and an ornate gown that was worn by the legendary Baltimore stripper herself. Starr made the thousands of earrings that sit in a jewelry box on the dining room table.

“It’s overwhelming how much is here,” says the 71-year-old Till, who has curated an exhibit of these artifacts—loaned by super-fan David Mueller and Starr’s sister, Gail Fleming Browning—now on display at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) in Catonsville.

Examining Starr’s life in and out of the spotlight, The Hottest Blaze in Town opens on April 22 and runs through June 15, the ninth anniversary of Starr’s death, at the age of 83.

Till holds up one of Starr's gowns. —John Lewis

Ever since childhood, Till has been fascinated by The Block, aka the stretch of East Baltimore Street that has been a hub of adult entertainment for at least the last century. Because her father refused to drive the Beltway—“Why would I want to go around the city?” he reasoned—this central thoroughfare was the local family’s preferred route across town. And riding past the marquees made a lasting impression.

“It was all lit up at night,” recalls Till. “I’d see barkers, dancers, and musicians outside on the street. I knew there was something naughty about it, but I was mesmerized.”

The CCBC exhibit grew out of research for the master’s degree that Till is getting at University of Maryland Baltimore County—yes, at age 71. Till was a student there in 1970 but left school “when life got in the way,” she says, returning in 2017 after learning that senior citizens could attend college tuition-free in Maryland.

She earned a bachelor’s in history. Her master’s includes a concentration in public history. Till initially focused on The Block for her thesis but switched to Starr after learning about the performer’s life as a successful businesswoman and determined survivor. Like many Baltimoreans, Till knew that Starr was a fixture at The Two O’Clock Club and had a scandalous affair with Louisiana Gov. Earl Long in the late 1950s (which inspired Blaze, the 1989 film starring Paul Newman as Long and Lolita Davidovich as Starr). But Till hadn’t known about Starr’s hardscrabble past.

In 1932, she was born Fannie Belle Fleming, daughter of an impoverished coal miner, in rural West Virginia. One of 11 children, she left home as a teenager. After waitressing in a Washington, D.C. doughnut shop, she found work in the world of burlesque striptease and changed her name.

“She vowed to never be hungry again,” says Till. “She pursued her profession—which was considered deviant or degenerate at the time—with glamour and dignity.”

A pair of Starr's heels from Till's collection. —John Lewis

Starr created an act featuring dazzling handmade costumes (she liked to sew between shows) and extraordinary props (at various times, this included a live panther and a flaming couch). She eventually bought The Two O’Clock Club and ran it for decades. She appeared in ads for National Brewing and the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company. The esteemed Diane Arbus photographed her for Esquire.

“For a while, she was the only famous person Baltimore had,” John Waters once told The Sun.

Starr retired from the stage in 1983 and started her own line of jewelry, Blaze Starr’s Show Girl Creations. For years, she sold earrings from a kiosk at the Carrolltown Mall in Eldersburg. A generous selection of that work will be featured in the CCBC show.

A pair of Starr's handmade earrings. —John Lewis

Till doesn’t hesitate when asked what she hopes visitors will take away from the exhibit.

“I want people to see Blaze as a strong and generous woman,” she says. “I want them to see her more completely and understand who she really was.”