Sunday, September 18, 2005
A big convention is coming to town, and attendees are packing up their finest fringe shimmy hip belts, tassel pasties and opera-length gloves to make the trip.
Burlesque performers from around the world will show off their swell setups, flash their gadgets and vamp audiences with snake-type trailers for the fourth annual Tease-O-Rama Sept. 30 through Oct. 2 at Bimbo's 365 Club and other San Francisco venues. Translated for lay people: Tease-O-Rama will host more than 200 dancers, comics and DJs for two nighttime showcases, an evening with living legends and movie screenings, as well as daytime classes, shopping excursions and other events.
"People love burlesque today because it incorporates all the old-school glamour, satire and highlights the female form -- it's something that many women can actually see themselves doing," says the event's 36-year-old co-founder, Baby Doe, who like most performers goes by her stage name. Baby Doe, front woman for San Francisco's go-go troupe the Devil-Ettes, and Alison Fensterstock, a recent Hurricane Katrina evacuee, held the first Tease-O-Rama convention in New Orleans in 2001. Tease-O-Rama then traveled to San Francisco in 2002, Los Angeles in 2003 and is now returning to San Francisco after a year's hiatus.
Now, keep your dollar bills in your purses and pockets, ladies and gentlemen. Baby Doe says Tease-O-Rama isn't that kind of show. While many of the new burlesque dancers may reveal more skin then your grandmother's bump and grind, the heart of the performance is still not about what is shown, but what isn't.
"Stripping is about a financial transaction between a stripper and client," says 26-year-old Australian dancer Lola the Vamp, who is taking a break from writing her doctoral thesis on the vintage art form to perform at the convention. "Burlesque is more a theatrical show that takes the icon of the stripper and makes her a goddess."
Mainstream audiences may be more familiar with the Hollywood-style burlesque in movies like "Moulin Rouge" and MTV videos of the Pussycat Dolls, but a renaissance of burlesque has been dancing on stages across the country.
From revues like Lucha Va Voom in Los Angeles to the Va Va Voom Room in New York, some performers pay homage to vintage acts while others twist the medium with punk-edged rebellion. Tease-O-Rama headliner Catherine D'lish of Los Angeles bathes in a larger-than-life champagne glass, while San Francisco's neo-burlesque newbie Ms. Eva von Slut, the "Tattooed Mae West of Burlesque," has performed covered in blood. Gorilla X comes onstage in a rockabilly costume over a gorilla suit and proceeds to strip down to the fur ... of the suit. Chicago's Michelle L'Amour won this year's Miss Exotic World by doing a Snow White routine. Annie Sprinkle and Thelma Houston learned how to twirl their tassels from Miss Indigo Blue's Academy of Burlesque in Seattle.
Many performers credit Dixie Evans -- "the Marilyn Monroe of burlesque," who began doing burlesque at Oakland's El Rey Theater in 1952 -- and her Miss Exotic World pageant with burlesque's revival. Evans moved to an old Mojave Desert goat farm and former home of "bazoom girl" Jennie Lee after Lee died of breast cancer in 1990. Evans carried out Lee's dream of opening the Exotic World Burlesque Museum and Striptease Hall of Fame in Helendale (San Bernardino County). Every June for 15 years, audiences brave the desert heat to see vintage and new performers sweat it out for the title of Miss Exotic World. Newcomers like Diamondback Annie can visit the museum to learn about vintage queens Lili St. Cyr and Betty Page and see living legends like Tempest Storm strut their stuff onstage.
Not all burlesque is created equal. There are a fair amount of new performers on the Bay Area scene who seem to focus more on the strip than the tease. And with few established venues, dancers often perform as opening acts at music shows or special bills at larger clubs. But there are a few regular revues like Madame Maraschino's House of Burlesque at Bender's Bar on South Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco and Little Minsky's at Club Deluxe in the Haight that have a strong showing of talent -- and packed houses. Good costuming, sensuous music and performance skills are all keys to an engaging show, but it's the extra something that a performer brings to the tease that really draws in the crowds.
"I'm an advocate for taking the audience on a bump-and-grindy night of erotic fun that isn't too lurid," says this year's Tease-O-Rama mistress of ceremonies, Kitten on the Keys, 42. "The audience should be having fun and hootin' and hollerin' at the gals!"
Lola the Vamp agrees that a good audience can make the show.
"A good audience is one that is screaming for you to take off your glove before you have even begun to tease and win them over," she says.
Satan's Angel, "the devil's own mistress," who was known for twirling five tassels simultaneously during her act in the 1960s and '70s, says the burlesque revival is about returning to a time when there "was humor, sensuality and fun on the stage." Dancers in her day used to have booking agents and got the star treatment at established clubs and revues. But once topless dancing and full nudity became the norm, she says, burlesque's popularity died out.
"Burlesque dancing is about the tease, and gentlemen's clubs are about getting naked," says the 61-year-old San Francisco native who once danced on the stages of the Mission District's Victoria Theatre and now lives in Apache Junction, Ariz. "I feel the audience was intrigued by our beauty, not whether our ta-tas were real."
She says the current revival of the vintage art form has her pulling her tassels out of retirement. A play about her life, featuring Isis Starr and Lolita Haze, will be staged at 2 p.m. Oct. 1 at Cafe Du Nord, one of the daytime Tease-O-Rama venues.
"I think it's the spirit of the art form that's relevant today," says Satan's Angel. "The ability to go out and enjoy a show where you can see beautiful women tease and tantalize your senses, not bombard them."
Her audiences may have been mostly men, but today's burlesque draws women and men alike.
"Burlesque shows are great for couples wanting a fun, naughty night out on the town," says Kitten on the Keys. "I get so many women coming up to me after shows saying how inspired they are by the shows we put on."
And in San Francisco, lesbian troupes like the Diamond Daggers perform at SoMa's Cherry Bar, which also hosts Miss Kitty's Scratching Post, an exotic club for lesbian and transgender audiences.
"Queer audiences are great because they just throw out more love to you onstage," says Alotta Boutté, 26, of Oakland's Harlem Shake, an all-black burlesque troupe that features mostly lesbian performers. "And I think, at least in San Francisco, they like more diversity on their stage. They love seeing different body types and ethnicities and shades and styles. I think they are down with trying a wider variety of artistic people. They seem more open and loving, and it feels great."
Harlem Shake's founder Simone de la Getto says she started the troupe after seeing how few women of color were on the circuit.
"I just wanted to dance with black girls onstage," she says. "A large percentage of our dancers have been queer, but that isn't as important as it is that we are an all-black troupe."
Simone says that she worked for years as a stripper at clubs like the Lusty Lady, but she switched to burlesque in 2001 after dancing with another Bay Area troupe, the Cantankerous Lollies.
"Back in the day the girls who danced around had to be onstage for so long, they took a whole song to take a glove off," says Simone, 34. "In stripping, you take it all off in 30 seconds and then prance around naked for the other 2 1/2 minutes. There's no fun in that. I hardly made any money being a stripper, and I don't make any money doing burlesque, but I have a lot more fun. My costume is lot more fabulous, and I get to be a lot more cheesy."
Some solo performers work the more ribald nature of the vintage burlesque scene, a few even adding an X Games edge. "Often I will go off the stage or get really close to the edge of it," says San Francisco's 35-year-old Roky Roulette, one of the few male burlesque performers. "It's like NASCAR -- people don't go to see the cars go around; they go to see the cars wreck."
Performing on small stages with minimal head room, Roky bounces his way out of his clothes in midair while taking his pogo-stick where no man, or woman for that matter, has gone before. Roky will be premiering his latest act, "Asstronaut Roulette," at Tease-O-Rama, which he says will take audiences to the moon.
"It doesn't matter what size or shape you are. Burlesque is about feeling positive about who you are, about knowing how to shake what you have and being proud of it," says Baby Doe, who adds that anyone can sign up for weekend day classes at Cafe Du Nord and the Swedish American Hall to learn how to twirl their own tassels or put together their own costume.
"I think that burlesque is fun and glamorous and can be taken in with your friends and a bunch of people along for a randy ride," says Kitten on the Keys. "There are no quarter booths. ... Take it home and dream about what's beyond those sparkly pasties and G-strings."
TEASE-O-RAMA takes place at 8 p.m. Sept. 30-Oct. 2 at Bimbo's 365 Club, 1025 Columbus Ave., San Francisco. $35. (415) 474-0365, www.bimbos365club.com.