So there I sat in the friendly confines of Club Fais Do Do — the Los Angeles venue where regular burlesque shows, courtesy of the Peepshow Menagerie production company, invariably draw full houses, regardless of the rather sketchy neighborhood location. I was about to enjoy a series of vignettes done by accomplished dancers with whimsical names (Pickles Kintaro, Odessa Lil, Marla Spankx, Sophie Maltease, etc.). But this wasn’t a Menagerie event updating the sassy, bawdy comic tradition of classic vaudeville with modern themed shows taking off on sci-fi, video gaming, superheroes, cartoon characters, and so on. Instead, it was a special presentation by a group of performers billed as Tight and Nerdy: The First and Only All Weird Al-Inspired Burlesque Troupe.
These droll and lovely ladies were bringing the uproarious “Al-Stravaganza! A Burlesque Tribute to Weird Al!” to the Southland as part of a mini-tour that included stops in the Pacific Northwest, the Midwest, and the project’s Bay Area spawning ground. The show, spotlighting sexy and appropriately wacky interpretations of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s musical parodies, was the brainchild of the ultra-charming Ms. Kintaro — a former San Franciscan now living in Minnesota. She produced the Fais Do Do show along with Peepshow Menagerie’s Chris Beyond and dancer/de facto stage manager Miss Angie Cakes. In fact, the S.F. spirit is strong within the Tight and Nerdy ranks as a few of the gals — including Lil, Marla, and Pearl E. Gates — live in the Bay Area and participate in other extravaganzas put on by local troupes such as the Hubba Hubba Revue, Little Minsky’s, and Red Hots Burlesque.
All of the aforementioned folks are purveyors of burlesque, as in strip-tease acts that amuse and titillate but never end in complete nudity — spelled by the occasional aerialist and comic emcee. And they have legions of devoted, delighted fans, enough to keep an ensemble like the Hubba Hubba Revue busting their sequins with constant bookings. Sharing a witty sensibility with Peepshow Menagerie, the Hubba Hubba Revue, managed and emceed by the redoubtable showman known as Kingfish, is a frequent attraction at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco with shows set for every Monday night in November. A specially themed Hubba Hubba production is held at the club one Friday a month, with “Wild Kingdom!” (“Stalwart explorers, sexy beasts, and the wildest wildlife in burlesque!” says the promo) set for November 10 with a roster of local acts to be joined by dancers from Los Angeles, Portland, Cleveland, and even as far away as Rome, Italy.
Hubba Hubba also provides a mini-set of performances one Saturday a month at Bootie — the DNA’s weekly mash-up party — and does a monthly show in Oakland, usually at the Uptown. On Saturday, November 25, it’s Uptown Cabaret with Dr. Abacus, the latter being a live band that will accompany the dancers — female and male. (Yes, there are a number of limber guys who take it off as representatives of the “boylesque” contingent.) That’s a pretty extensive schedule, suggesting increased popularity and an audience that goes beyond the “dirty old man in a sleazy dive” clichés.
A HISTORY OF TEASE
Exotic dancing has been around since way before that biblical hottie Salome did her classic “seven veils” routine in return for the head of John the Baptist. And the art of the strip-tease, as it developed in burlesque shows over the past century-plus, has come back in fine form thanks to the post-punk neo-burlesque movement that got rolling in the 1990s and truly took wing with the glamorous routines created and enacted by stars such as Dita Von Tease, Catherine D’Lish, and Dirty Martini. Prior to this revival, there was a long period when burlesque and the so-called girlie shows were considered seedy underground entertainment in a time of puritanical repression.
Now, it’s back in cabarets and clubs with a healthy scene having developed since the ’90s. It has become so vibrant and valued in the performing arts that there are conventions devoted to burlesque, as well as annual celebrations of the form — most significantly, Tease-O-Rama, a multi-night gathering of the cream of today’s dancers and sometimes a legend or two from decades back, showcased in live performance. Tease-O-Rama also features workshops where dancers can impart techniques and tips to their colleagues or to fledgling performers.
It’s nice to see burlesque getting a little respect, and this current wave of torch-bearers is doing its part to defy long-ingrained and unrealistic standards of beauty. There’s a good reason that the talented and delightful burlesque performer, instructor, and producer Bombshell Betty has dubbed a series of well-received shows at the Elbo Room “All Kinds of Sexy.” Body type, ethnicity, and age do not define a great burlesque dancer. Skill, passion, grace, and wit are the point. Betty also owns and operates Bombshell Betty’s Burlesque School & Seminars in the Bay Area, with new classes starting up in January, and a subsequent show featuring her graduates at the Elbo Room. She also plans to expand her courses to the Los Angeles market. You can find more information on Betty’s classes and events at burlesqueseduction.com.
WEIRD AND WONDERFUL
Meanwhile, back at the Fais Do Do, the Al-Stravaganza was in full swing with Marla Spankx serving up “Eat It,” lampooning Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”; Mona Montague donning a full elfin Jedi costume for “Yoda,” based on the Kinks’ “Lola”; Angie Cakes’ show-stopping medical scene “Like a Surgeon,” cutting up Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”; Pickles’s quack-up “I Want a New Duck,” derived from Huey Lewis’ “I Want a New Drug”; Odessa Lil’s climactic performance as an ice-cream-eating Joan Jett for the “I Love Rock and Roll” parody, “I Love Rocky Road”; and so much more. Elaborate or goofy garb was shed all the way down to pasties and a G-string. It was hot as it was hilarious.
After the show, I spoke with Audra Wolfmann, who created the character of Odessa Lil. She’s been in the scene for more than a decade and is more likely to be mistress of ceremonies on stage than do one of her comedic strip-teases, but she deeply embraces the theatricality and creativity of it all. In fact, she and a couple of like-minded comrades do a regular online talk show called Speakeasily, dedicated to (pardon the expression) exposing the stars and starlets of burlesque, allowing them to let their hair (or their wigs) down and bare their souls rather than their bodies. You can find it at speakeasily.tv and on YouTube.
“Comedy has always been my thing,” Audra said. “As a kid, I fed myself a steady diet of Mad magazine, Saturday Night Live, and Mel Brooks movies. Maybe it’s no surprise that the first record I ever owned was Weird Al’s single ‘Eat It.’
“As you might expect, my interest in burlesque has always been about its comedic side. Odessa Lil was a way to deal with both my frustrated ambition to do stand-up comedy and my uneasy relationship with being an assertive woman. Somehow it works.”
Although Lil seldom wants for a forum, she may have found the perfect one when Pickles approached her six years ago about doing the Al-Stravaganza. “To me, it was like she had invented penicillin,” Audra recalled. “I was like…, Of course! Genius! So now I get to meld my love of Al’s songs with my very adult life of burlesque.”
Earlier in the evening I had spoken with Pickles, who explained how much she appreciates the camaraderie of her fellow dancers, and the empowerment and freedom that she feels doing burlesque. “It’s so gratifying to see audiences be entertained by what we do. Plus, I love to make people laugh,” she added. And there’s nothing weird about that.