In great anticipation of this year’s Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend, its 25th anniversary, JD Oxblood caught up with executive director Dustin Wax. They discuss the museum and its current issues, fundraising, finding the perfect host, sorting through hundreds of applications, new plans for the Weekender, and a whole lot more. —Ed.
JDX: Melody and I just spent about five weeks in New Orleans and we went to the Blue Book several times, and got to meet David Lee Simmons, who is quickly becoming a new friend of the burlesque scene. I just wanted to tell you that we really enjoyed your response to that piece about everything that’s going on at Lucky Pierre’s, because they were certainly off base in their idea of what the historical burlesque is.
Dustin Wax: It’s funny because I didn’t really want to attack them. I just wanted to be like, “here is some information” and be a little positive, but man it started to turn really ugly. People are like calling for—it’s just once it starts to get that mob mentality going, it gets a little scary. I was glad to see that people refused to perform there and I guess Bella stepped down from producing the show there. The last couple of years people have put a lot more attention to that sort of thing and I’m glad to see people really speaking out about it, and maybe some of the other shows that have squeaked by—just with the whispers and rumors—people will start talking about what kind of show they really want to see there.
JDX: It was a tourist show, but what I was excited to see was they were bringing in people who hadn’t seen burlesque before and that’s a great opportunity. So it’s kind of a shame if it ends up ending.
Dustin Wax: Yeah you see it here [in Vegas] all the time because burlesque is big and has lot of brand value at the moment. The hotels on the strip, they keep wanting to bring it in, and then when it’s actually there they go, “Oh my gosh this isn’t what we wanted. Can we just have topless girls with headdresses?” and they kind of start watering it down and making it more what they think is more palatable for those stereotypical tourists from Peoria that couldn’t possibly be affronted with a girl with a few extra pounds on her body or a male performer who’s taking his clothes off or anything like that. I can’t remember who contacted me a few years ago, they wanted to bring a show out here. They were talking to one of the hotels on Fremont Street about bringing a show into the showroom and it fell apart because they didn’t want them to use any kind of “plus-size” performers. They wanted all showgirls, basically. And I get why it happened, you know, it’s the society we live in, but it’s good to see people fighting back and so many people are. And you know, my rule is never read the comments, but if you read the comments on that NOLA.com piece they are pretty—the average view is still, it’s a bunch of dirty strippers, and if they are not supermodel hot that then they shouldn’t be on the stage in the first place.
JDX: It’s sort of ridiculous, and it wasn’t the reaction that we saw from the people that went to the shows at Lucky Pierre’s. If you ask people what they want to see, you get one response, and if you just show them something you get a different response.
Dustin Wax: Absolutely. And we see it in the museum all the time because we’re sort of on the tourist drag now, and people will wander in, and they kind of don’t know what they’re looking at, and then I’ll talk to them or one of the staff will talk to them and they—especially the older ones, they like really dig it. They love that there is all these kind of amateur people putting their own shows on together and creating alternatives to main stream entertainment stuff, and they really dig the wide-ranging body acceptance. Although you know, I mean this is obviously a big debate that’s been going on for a long time. When money enters the picture how much body accepting is in the burlesque world after all.
JDX: I want to talk about the museum and I want to talk about the Weekender. I know you know who we are, Burlesque Beat, we are big fans of Burlesque Hall. We’ve been covering it extensively since 2009, we record and transcribe the Legend Panel every year because we want to provide that historical record to people. But we also offer critique of burlesque shows; we’re press, which means we’re not always popular. So I just want to preface [this interview] by saying that. So first off, this is the 25th anniversary, what can we expect from the Weekender this year?
Dustin Wax: We’re still putting all the pieces together. Also, although I have sort of an ultimate oversight over everything that goes on in the show, I defer a lot to the production team because I’m not a producer, I’m not from the “showbiz” side of it, but I can say we are looking at bringing in some old favorite MCs and some new MCs. It should be exciting. We are really trying to put together as many Miss Exotic Worlds as we can for Sunday’s show. We are also approaching—although I’m not sure how this is going to fit in—approaching some of the other title holders over the years to maybe do some kind of tributes on Legend’s Night or some kind of new performance. We are changing a lot of stuff around out of the showroom. We’re trying to expand the classes and offer some more general material. The Legends line up—you know we don’t even know what Legends will be there until around the beginning of May because their situations are so tenuous in a lot of cases. They don’t know what family obligations they may have. They don’t know what their health situation is going to be.
JDX: Can you talk about the new ticketing system? Jimmy the Pickpocket from Brown Paper is working with us and we had heard that the ticketing was going to move over.
Dustin Wax: So we were working with GlitterTix last year, which Will Longfellow had basically started as a branch of his company, Inticketing—to directly benefit the Burlesque Hall of Fame. The idea was that they were going to take the profit from anything sold through them and send a portion of that to BHOF. He sold Inticketing but he kept GlitterTix and made a separate deal with Brown Paper Tickets to take that over. Brown Paper Tickets has a much larger reach into the burlesque community. They’re gonna offer an option for burlesque producers to select a portion of their proceeds to go directly to BHOF. I don’t know why, but our shows are apparently very hard to ticket. If you remember going through the Orleans, I mean there were some really high convenience fees—I think their fee was 10 dollars, plus there was some other fee, but basically you are looking at adding 10 or 12 dollars to your ticket and I think we’re at 4 dollars, something like that, with the passes this year, and so we are able to bring the fee down. The goal is to build a longstanding relationship so we can do things like maybe start putting our tickets up earlier or start playing with the ways that tickets are sold and managed so that we can do—you know we’ve been doing class discount or school discounts for the last couple of years and that’s been really difficult, really complicated, so hopefully as we build this relationship we’ll be able to simplify some of those things moving forward.
JDX: I want to talk about basic fundraising a little bit. First of all we really want to commend you, you guys have done such a great job just in the last year in terms of transparency, and Dustin, I understand that you came in and inherited problems when you came in, but we were looking on Guidestar just last year and the 909s I think only went up to 2009, and when I looked this weekend everything is there all the way to 2013 and I think that’s great. As a non-profit you’ve got to have that going on. But it seems like in the last couple of years that the Hall has been asking more from the constituency, for example with the Legends Challenges, trying to get more from your main constituents which seems a little bit problematic considering that most burlesque performers don’t really make a lot of money. So has there been much discussion in terms of trying to bring in deeper pockets like corporate sponsorships or anything like that?
Dustin Wax: Like you said, I inherited an organization that was the way it was, that’s been run by people who weren’t really museum or not-for-profit people, for a really long time, and it’s been a very informal kind of thing. My mandate when I started was we need a strong, solid infrastructure, because there were also a lot of times when that meant we were perilously close to not existing. We need a strong infrastructure, a solid organization that’s going to last for the next generation and beyond. So one of my drives has been to build up our board and to start getting more people involved both in an advisory or volunteer capacity, but also on our board as governance, as people who can really provide some vision for moving forward.
And so a lot of the things that you’ve seen like getting all of our documentation up to date and to start putting it out there, and we’ve been reviewing—I mean we redid our by-laws, we’re doing our strategic plan, business plan, fundraising plan, we are reviewing and expanding every document and every policy that we have, with an aim towards being able to put that up on our website and have that kind of transparency so that people can see how we’re governed, how we operate. We are getting ready to put out figures from last year’s Weekender so that people can see how A, how little money that actually is because I think people think it makes a lot more money that it does, but B, so people see what we do with it and with the goal of then, once we’re finished with our finances this year, starting to put out a report on our financials from 2014 over all, not just the Weekender. We hope to be able to keep that up year to year.
The other mandate that I came into this job with was the museum has to be in a larger facility. We have to be able to put more of our collection on display and offer better programming in the museum itself. I think the Weekender we have nailed down. Barring any sort of disaster, I think we pretty well know how to do that and that shows in the revenues. We sold out last year; we almost sold out the year before. We’ve really solidified how it’s put together. But A, it can’t be our only form of income. And right now it’s about 75, 80 percent because, God, a Hurricane Sandy-like event on Memorial Day weekend would destroy us, we’d be gone, or 9/11-type terrorist attacks, like grounded planes, like anything that affected the ability of people to come and make that a success would be most of our income. And so we had to diversify and there are several ways to do that. I do think that our constituents, the burlesque community, if this is important to them, I think that they owe it to themselves to be a part of it and support us. Whether as financial supporters, volunteers, or just talking up their experiences and spreading the word and paying homage to the history that they’ve inherited. I’ve tried to do that through a membership program that offers a pretty decent set of perks. The biggest of which, and it surprises me that more people don’t take advantage of is that a 40-dollar membership gives you a 15 percent discount on the Weekender pre-sale, which means you get passes before anyone else, and you’ve more than paid for that membership—depending what level you buy—just there. At the higher levels we have free admissions to partner museums.
But if people can’t afford to make that kind of commitment, we’re certainly not holding that against them. I do think it’s a pretty typical thing for a museum to have a membership program and to give people the opportunity to support them through that. One of the new board members we just added recently is a fund-raiser, and one of the things that we have talked about is expanding into corporate sponsorships and searching out the deep pocket donors. As you mentioned, I mean it’s kind of hard because they’re not necessarily in the burlesque community, and so we need to really be able to reach out to other kinds of communities—movie buffs and theatre buffs—you know, the people that might not understand how burlesque is important as a part of the history that they want to support.
JDX: True. And this may be a very New York perspective, but for instance the museums in New York all throw giant galas where they bring in all this money and they get the deep pocket donors with a big event with entertainment and a big ticket price. And those are people who might not necessarily ever set foot into The Met at any other time of the year, but they go because it’s a social event, and they give their money, and they get the tax write-off, and at something like that you’d only have burlesque people there as performers, probably.
Dustin Wax: I have to say if I were coming into this cold without a history, something like an event like the Weekender, which is our gala is like the—from a strictly theoretical fundraising position, doing an event is the last thing you want to do, because the hours that we put into it—I mean there are easily 10,000 works hours in the Weekender of which we pull about 105,000 dollars, I think was last year’s return, so about 10 dollars an hour. We get a bunch of people who work at Starbucks for more than 10 dollars an hour. It’s not a very good return. If we had 10 people working phones and just cold calling people we could probably make 10 dollars an hour.
That said, obviously A, the Weekender exists and it’s important, and B, I view it as our most important programming, more than our most important fundraising effort. This is certainly important for much bigger reasons than the fact that it provides funding to us, but we do need funding. Like I said, we’re kind of developing a business plan, a strategic plan that hopefully branches out to A, earned income like better merchandise sales, stuff like that and B, trying to find, like you said, the bigger deep pocket donors. But unfortunately, fundraising hasn’t been something that I’m able to commit the time to that it really needs, so I have done what I could with the time that I have and now that we have someone that’s going to be able to be a fundraising leader for us, hopefully we’ll be able to expand what we do. Because they’ll be able to sort of oversee a lot more people working on it. And we have some other ideas and we were talking about recruiting the community a little bit, into helping us find sponsors that might be appropriate for us. Because we do the have the Weekender, we do have like 1500 to 2000 people that are a really specific market. Who are the sponsors out there that really want to reach those people?
Because the bottom-line is, nobody gives you money for nothing, right? They want to have something and they either want to support you because they believe in your mission and because they really support that mission, they want to see it succeed or they support you because you have reach to an audience that they want to reach, that they want to talk to.
JDX: So do you think about the display of the work as it stands and what your goals are to move on? I’m thinking about that twitter conversation that we got into with you last year about the photo of Monkey in the museum that wasn’t identified—where it was taken or who took the photograph—and it was a fairly new photograph. This wasn’t something from the 50s. So we wonder about stuff like that—if providing as much information as possible is a stated goal of the museum as well.
Dustin Wax: So what I’m trying to do—so first of all there is stuff that’s in our collection, and there is stuff like the photograph that you’re talking about—that’s just a print on foam-core that I’m pretty sure is Don Spiro—that I kind of inherited when I was still a volunteer there and was putting together this exhibition, we had some stuff that had been up in the previous exhibition that I thought told that story well. We are trying to catalogue and identify everything and unfortunately the big body of knowledge of what our collection was, the catalogue of our collection was in Dixie’s head.
Now, like you said, that picture was more recent, that had been put up by Laurenn McCubbin before me. I just used what I had at hand. I had an intern this last semester who helped catalogue about 400 pieces, and we’ve been getting volunteers all over the country to help us turn that into a form that I can import into our database, and in the long term we will have our collection catalogued, photographed and available online so that people can at least look at a selection of our catalogue and see what’s in there, but it’s incredibly painstakingly slow work.
I was at a museum conference in Salt Lake City a couple of years ago, it was the American Association for State and Local Historians, and one of the events everyone went around and introduced themselves, talked about their museum a little bit, and one woman stood up and she said, “I’m the director of such and such a museum and I’m really proud that we have just finished cataloguing our collection,” and the room, like everyone was just shocked, nobody had ever heard of such a thing before. Because small museums and most history museums, something like 85 percent of history museums have under 250,000 dollar a year budget. Most small museums, cataloguing is such slow painstakingly work that it’s just a day-to-day task that you don’t think of as having an end. So we are working on getting stuff catalogued, taking note of what kind of conditions things are in because they have a pretty rough history, and building the collection as well to save time with an aim of having a pretty reasonable catalogue available to people. To be able to use this stuff for its intended purpose, which is to support research and expansion of knowledge of burlesque. I’m hoping as we expand and as we get our you know A, get into a bigger space and B, get into a bigger budget that we can afford to assign someone full- or part-time to that job.
Like I said, I had an intern last semester over the course of I think 12 weeks, we were able to do 300 pieces, 340 I think, so that’s slow! But that’s actually pretty fast, because we are doing what I call quick inventory. We’re doing for a lot of pieces we’re just listing, assigning them a number, listing what they are and listing any major notes or damage or any really obvious things. I want to get that catalogue that inventory finished so that we can actually start working with stuff more easily, and then in the long run we’re probably going to have someone who is more of a conservationist go through stuff and add more information about each object.
Dustin Wax: You know, I’m listening to myself talk, and its like—all of this is the boring stuff of running a museum. People say, “Oh you work at the Burlesque Hall of Fame, that must be fun!“ and yeah it is, but it’s that 5 percent that makes us different from every other museum that’s fun, that’s glitter and glamour and exciting. The other 95 percent is really boring stuff. Its stuff I like doing, but it’s cataloguing and fundraising and writing policies and human resource compliance and the non-profit compliance and the sales tax compliance and like all that stuff is—it’s the same stuff The Met has to do—its 95 percent of what the Met does, too, but they have a whole division of people that’s just doing bookkeeping, that’s just maintaining their fundraising database. So there is a lot of that boring stuff and unfortunately I know and my board knows and our advisory council know that over the last three and a half years we’ve really transformed the operation of this museum and we’re in a position where I don’t think we’ll ever have to go to our public and say, “We’re not going to be here.” But most of that stuff is invisible and most of that stuff is not sexy or exciting at all. It’s the sort of satisfaction of knowing that you have a good acquisitions policy in place that nobody ever wants to ever hear about or read about. Its not ever gonna be read again but its there.
JDX: I’ve been going since 2009, and I talk to everybody, and people love the Burlesque Hall of Fame, but people everywhere love to complain. I personally don’t think—that an organization putting on a fundraiser like this—I personally don’t think that you have an obligation to 100 percent transparency, but I also sometimes think that part of what makes people complain is not understanding how things work, and drawing assumptions. So I just want to ask, if you’re willing to share, could you describe what the process is for deciding what performers get to perform on the non-competition nights like the Sunday evening show, or how hosts are chosen, or how you decide who the judges will be for the competition.
Dustin Wax: Yeah, some of that I can. The first rule is who will do it. So it’s always an issue of just who is out there who is available and can do it and can take the time to do it. So that’s just in general a big defining thing. So the Thursday night selection, they go through the same process as the competition people, so they apply through the same format. Some of them only select to apply for performance. And some of them apply for either/or. So when we get them back from our selection committee, we review—a select member of the production team has already watched everything and started building an idea of what Thursday might look like. I think we’ve been pretty clear about the selection process before, but I guess the upshot is there’s no one single definition of what is the best thing. So we look at those scores and we try to make sure that we have a fairly diverse show from the top of the heap. And some of those people that have acts that are particularly innovative, particularly interesting, or the people themselves are particularly interesting people—get put into a pile for Thursday, and that pile goes to the producer for Thursday who then works with the executive producer and the production team to put a show together.
JDX: I’m asking more about the things that aren’t a part of the competition, like the Sunday night performers, the hosts for the entire weekend, the judges.
Dustin Wax: We have a list of everyone who’s eligible for Sunday—it’s a pretty limited number, and the producer for Sunday goes through that list and picks out their top choices and some extras and contacts them and sees who’s available. I mean, with Miss Exotic World it’s always an issue because a lot of them have paying gigs or tours—like last year Dirty Martini was out of the country. But I think it’s like 52 people total who are eligible for that show, so that’s not a huge complicated process. And then if there is someone like, you know, I’m just putting this out there, if Dita Von Teese said she wanted to perform, that’s somewhere where we would have to consider putting her as well. There have been people like Jo Weldon, you know now she’s a Sassy Lassy award winner, but historically she is just so highly associated with BHOF that she is an icon in her own right despite not having been a Miss Exotic World.
But by and large it’s a pretty limited list. And for Friday of course there’s the Legends team. Again, we have a list of about 110 legends that we are in touch with. The legends team reaches out to every one of them to see who is interested in performing, who is interested in coming, and they put together a sort of rough guideline—we don’t want people three years in a row, so if they’ve done the last three years we ask them to give that space for someone else. But by and large that show I think pretty much puts itself together as well. You know, of that 110 people there is probably only, I don’t know, 25 or 30 who could perform in any case, and then you narrow it down to people who can’t be here for whatever reason or just aren’t interested in performing, whatever. I think that pretty much takes care of itself.
MCs, we try to, as a general rule, carry forward some and keep one or two spots for someone new. Friday is already—I mean as long she says yes, World Famous *BOB* is Friday’s MC, so we don’t ever worry about that. I mean I guess we would if she said “no” one year! I don’t know what we would do, because I don’t think anyone has the passion and inspiration that she has for that show. But the other nights—we reach out to a few people who are in our circle, people who have emceed before or who have expressed interest. We did put out an open call a couple of years ago and built up a database of a few people from that who we’ve been in touch with. And our producers certainly have the option to go with that. You know, it’s kind of a loosey goosey process because there is a small number of people out there who are just known for being great MCs, and then there are a lot of people out there who maybe we have never even heard of or have never been in touch with us or are good performers who are known to us, but they also are MCs. So that’s never been a super-formalized process. We have a kind of pool of people and the producers sit down and they try to figure out who they want and what their vision for their show is. Last year for instance, El Vez was available, we knew that we wanted El Vez on Sunday because he has a long history with exotic world and BHOF and has his own iconic stature, and that just made sense. Other than that, I mean there are a few guidelines. We try to have a male and a female MC on each night, so we can pull it off. Obviously we look for people who have a ton of experience in the scene and hopefully people who have some experience with BHOF, some history of caring about the things that we care about, because it’s not just standing up there and telling a few jokes in between acts. Like I said, if you looked at World Famous *BOB* she has a passion for the Legends, she has a passion for what they stand for and what they bring to the stage and that’s something we want every single MC to have, is really a passion for the history and a passion for the organization they are supporting. Of course we need that as well because this is a voluntary role, just like everyone else on stage and, for that matter, the other 120 people who are involved in pulling off the show.
JDX: Anything you’d like to add?
Dustin Wax: I have a good enough team at this point. We’re now on my third Weekender. Even though I was the director in 2012—I mean the irony is when I started, when I took the job I said, “I’m a museum professional and I’m an academic and I care very deeply about those aspects, but I have nothing to offer at all about the Weekender.” I don’t know production, I don’t have any relevant skills, and so the condition was that I should not have to be involved with the Weekender, and the first year I tried that out and it was not good for the organization and it wasn’t good for me and it wasn’t good for the Weekender. And even “not being involved” was like a 40 hour a week job. I’m actually a lot more available for other things [now] which is good. I try to be pretty available for press just because I think it’s important. I think our big push in the next year or so is really to be more—I hate the term “transparent” because honestly nobody wants us to be transparent. Nobody wants to take a look at our books and try to figure out what—you know I don’t even want to do it. Try to figure like, oh, how much was spent on pencils in 2013, nobody cares about that. What I understand is that people want to know like what you just asked me, like how are the big decisions made. And more to the point, how can they be involved. That’s what I really want, is to give people more of a chance to be involved, more of a chance for feedback to us. And it’s hard when it’s—I don’t want to martyr myself, but—it’s me. I mean, I have a couple of staff people now and that’s helpful, but it’s me answering every email, and as I’m able to build out a support network who can take more responsibly for specific aspects of what we do, its less and less me, and that’s where we are starting to be at right now. So I really do want us to be able to talk not just to the press, but to have people know that they can get involved and be part of that decision-making process, maybe not formally, but they can at least be part of what we do and have some input, some responsiveness to their ideas.
Interview has been edited and condensed. All photos ©Melody Mudd for Burlesque Beat. Please do not use photos without obtaining explicit permission.