A Medicine Show Revival: The New Orleans Inaugural Snakeoil Festival
June 19, 20 & 21, 2015
The Howlin’ Wolf – New Orleans, LA
I’ve always been fascinated by circuses and medicine shows of the 19th and early 20th century. As family-friendly, Cirque De Soleil-style shows rapidly replace the traveling circus of old, it’s crucial that we acknowledge and memorialize its past.
As burlesque fans, we are celebrating a tradition that began in dark, humid tents pitched in fields outside small Southern towns, either as part of a carnival midway or in a travelling medicine show. The “medicine shows” often centered around snakeoil peddlers who pushed products containing dubious ingredients but were guaranteed to “cure what ails you.” We know it’s hard to push a product without a little bit of spin, therefore the shows often featured burlesque, sidshow arts, comedy, music and revival-style prostelytizing. These were the late-night infomercials of their time, albeit with a generous helping of sleazy panache.
New Orleans producers Ben Wisdom, Little Luna and Ginger Licious revive this world at the Howlin’ Wolf on June 19, 20 and 21 for the inaugural Snake Oil Festival. The festival will feature three days of shows, parties and workshops. They will have over 60 artists performing including Bella Blue, Armitage Shanks, Madame Onca, Charlotte Treuse and Maria Bella.
I caught up with producers Ben and Little Luna and asked them a few questions about the show.
Hey Ben and Luna, thanks for taking the time to chat. I know you’re both busy folks. So, let’s kick things off by telling the readers a little about the Snake Oil Festival.
Ben Wisdom: The Snake Oil Festival is a festival celebrating the arts of burlesque, sideshow, music, and all types of variety. We will feature interesting artists from across America, and we’re all getting wild in the city that care forgot.
Ha! Thats sounds about right. What was your inspiration for founding the festival?
Ben Wisdom: The Festival was founded by Little Luna, Ginger Licious, and myself after we all took a trip to the Americana Burlesque and Sideshow Festival in Asheville, NC. We were all very inspired by the talent and variety on display as well as with the overwhelming feeling of camaraderie fostered by ABS Fest producer, Madame Onca. We started thinking that a similar festival might go over really well in New Orleans.
We were also inspired by watching the evolution of the burlesque scene in New Orleans and how that evolution often seemed to coincide with the growth of the sideshow and variety scenes. Burlesque has been a big draw for a while now. However, it seemed that a lot of the variety/sideshows weren’t as well attended. At some point burlesque, drag, sideshow and variety all started colliding in a big way. We began performing in each other’s shows and getting audience crossover. Now, it feels like many of the non-burlesque-heavy shows are drawing great crowds. We started researching and found that there really weren’t a lot of burlesque festivals that showcased variety artists augmenting burlesque.
Little Luna: I was already working on a project with Ben called Snake Oil Presents: The Unholy Roller Revival, a burlesque tent revival inspired by traveling pentecostal revivals and his character, the Reverend Pastor Father Brother Ben Wisdom. Our idea was to build off of this 19th/early 20th century idea of the traveling circus and include the elements of a market place: sideshow, carnival, burlesque and mystical experience that you might find in the deep woods bayou. Additionally, we thought it would be a good way to organize a community event that was dedicated to bringing performers and audiences together to learn more about these American entertainment traditions.
You’ve put together a pretty impressive lineup of performers for the festival. Was there a particular style that you were looking for in your burlesque performers? I ask that because I know Charlotte Treuse has a very specific style and has stated that she’s influenced by the circus and sideshow. Is that a requirement or were you trying to keep the styles varied?
Ben Wisdom: These performers are top shelf and varied indeed. Variety is in our logo and we wanted all kinds of styles. The most important factor for us was talent and originality. We truly wanted the best of the best. It didn’t matter to us if you were a classic, circus, neo, burlesquer, or what. We just wanted the best. And, I feel like we got em. Of course extra points were given for mind-blowing and weird.
Little Luna: When we were looking at burlesque, the qualities that stuck out for us were innovation, originality, skill, humor, presence satirical/comedic elements and creative costuming. However, we all decided early on that we weren’t bound by any certain style or genre. We love all types of burlesque,the crazier, weirder, more glamorous, the better. We were lucky because we had so many amazing performers apply, it made it really hard to choose.
Sunday’s Unholy Roller Revival has a great lineup of burlesque as well. Were the dancers required to perform a religious-themed routine for this show?
Little Luna: The acts in this show are required to have a spiritual, mythological, or social tone and be able to be set to live music which includes a band and choir. It sounds heavy but in this show we are worshipping at the altar of rock n roll and glittery nude variety entertainment. Our goal is to make people realize that the right amount of music, laughter and stripping can be transcendent. If the act fits the feel of the show then we include it. Its a good platform if you have an act with something to say. As with most things in religion its up for interpretation.
Of course, New Orleans and the south are well represented. What do you love about southern burlesque? Is there a certain vibe or style you notice running through southern burlesque performance?
Ben Wisdom: I think that in the South and especially in New Orleans there is a collision of culture, people, food and music from all over the world that form a magic that mixes here in a way that it only does in a few other areas on the planet. That magic has created some of the best music in the world, the best food in the world and I believe some of the best burlesque.
Little Luna: Personally, what I love about southern burlesque, is that it runs the gamut from prim, elegant and glamorous to the most outrageous thing you’ve ever seen in your life. The artistry and dedication to learning and preserving these skills is inspiring as well.
Do you feel the audiences are rowdier down south?
Ben Wisdom: In New Orleans there are few restrictions on alcohol so if you do a late show, the audience is well lubed. Hell, some of the hosts are too. So, they like to cat call and hoot and holler. The audiences are also very respectful though, despite the rowdiness.
Little Luna: I don’t know, I’ve seen some pretty rowdy shows when I lived in Baltimore. But generally, things can get much more wild down here. I think, at least in New Orleans, the audiences are very discerning about their entertainment because fantastic entertainment is everywhere here.
True that! I also see you got a great lineup of live music. Will we see some dancers performing with the bands?
Ben Wisdom: Our Unholy Roller Revival on Sunday of the fest will have a live band and choir. The band is burlesque/cabaret rocker Dr. Sick and This Stunted Sextette. The choir is Saint Cecilia’s Asylum Chorus. All of the burlesque numbers will be performed to live music.
Little Luna: We’ll also have Mayhaley’s Grave and metal band Endall on Friday and our Saturday after-party will feature local belly dancer Kerry Lynne and others dancing before and during with local favorites, Debauche.
Finally, is this something you hope to make an annual event? Can burlesque performers think about applying for a slot in next year’s festival? If so, what are you looking for in a Snake Oil dancer?
Little Luna: Absolutely! We are already talking about ways we can make it better next year. In applicants, we look most of all for creativity, artistic enthusiasm, skill set and stage presence. If you have an act that you love doing that’s weird or wild that would fit our aesthetic, we definitely wanna see it.
Thanks you guys!
I want to give a big shout out to Ben Wisdom and Little Luna for taking the time to talk to me. Sounds like it’s going to be one hell of a festival.
If you’re in the New Orleans area on June 19, 20 or 21st, be sure to head down to the Howlin’ Wolf and check out the show. Tickets for all shows and workshops are available here.
All photos by permission of the Snakeoil Festival. Please do not use photos without acquiring permission.