Friday, June 5, 2015
Orleans Casino, Las Vegas
by Kathryn McLaughlin
I turned up to the second annual Burlesque Hall of Fame ‘Let’s Have A Kiki’ with quite the bastard behind the eyes, a ‘wearing sunglasses indoors’ kind of hangover. There is a reason that I habitually fail to make the majority of the daytime BHoF events and that reason is 4 parts tequila and one part rum…. But hangover or not, I pledge on my bible (the Agent Provocateur catalogue) never to miss a Kiki again. In essence, we’re all invited to Tigger!’s Vegas living room for donuts, a delightful chat with old and new friends, AND a thorough demonstration of how to properly fuck a curtain by the legend that is Marinka. I imagine that Tigger!’s actual living room also features badly behaved puppets, burlesque Kings and Queens and the bell of inappropriateness, much like his Vegas one did. And I felt immediately at home.
I arrived early to grab a seat and saw a who’s who of burlesque milling around the hall. Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz, Mr Gorgeous and Midnight Martini were conferring over a laptop, Michelle L’Amour was looking impossibly glamorous for so early in the day, David Bishop arrived toting miniatures of booze and Blanche DeBris sat just far away enough that I couldn’t repeatedly whisper ‘I love you’ at her like some weird super fan. Suddenly a plethora of ladies clad in black and purple sequins danced in from all directions to the Scissor Sisters’ “Let’s Have A Kiki.” The ladies departed, and we heard a drumroll and a Bazuka Joe puppet appeared from behind a small red velvet curtain to Perry Como’s version of “Temptation.” The puppet deftly stripped his tie, danced a tango with a rose in his mouth, and removed the rest of his clothes. He reached down south and the curtain started to move… vigourously. The act climaxed, oh so literally, with a silly string explosive ejaculation out over the audience who screamed with laughter as the puppet slowly and deliberately licked his fingers.
The curtain was whipped away to reveal a sleeping Tigger! in a chair, who pulled off his sleep mask to reveal some completely fabulous sunglasses and declared, “I just had the strangest sex dream featuring River City Review and a wanking puppet.” Always the gracious host, Tigger! welcomed us all and thanked us all for coming.
A Legendary Photographer
And then it was time for the first guest, the legendary photographer, Sassy Lassy recipient, and motherfucking true gentleman, Don Spiro. Don told us that he got into photographing burlesque principally because he is a bit of a perv and he enjoys taking pictures of his friends getting naked. Don modestly believes that he rose to prominence within the burlesque community because he was in the “right place at the right time.” He started out before the advent of the internet (cue some wide eyes from the younger performers around the room), and he thought that it was important that somebody documented what was going on. In high school he dated Penny Star, Jr, whose grandma was a burlesque dancer. He later got involved in the industry, but between jobs he discovered The Velvet Hammer, at which point Tigger! loudly interjected “If you don’t know, SORRY BITCHES, you missed it.” Don attended the 2001 Teaseorama and was hanging out with everybody in New York and Chicago, generally immersing himself in the glitter and guts of it all. For years there weren’t many people taking pictures of what was going on. It was expensive to do back then because people shot on film.
Don told us that one of the main reasons that he believes burlesque is alive today is documentation. Watching what went before and learning from it is essential. He got to ask the legends what they did and how they did it, but there are fewer ladies alive today from the glory days. Don said, “When you guys are all legends, that’s what the new generation will be watching.”
Don was and is so obviously passionate about documenting and preserving the past. Friday night, he expounded, is “living history.” It’s the museum come to life and he’s “All about the museum.” When pressed by Tigger! to reveal to us the thing that he contributed to BHoF that he thinks is most important, Don ventures the photo core: Capturing the magic so that it can be seen by a wider audience and also preserved.
Don tells us that he’s now retired from the photo core, at which Tigger! guffawed “You’re kind of fucking busy for someone who retired.” Don told us that he didn’t want the responsibility but he still wants the badge, which I totally understood! (This year they were awesome lapel medals with the fabulous art work on them. I’d been eyeing up Peekaboo Pointe’s all weekend). But despite the talk of retirement, Don is obviously no slouch. He is on the advisory committee that makes BHoF happen, and the Monday after BHoF, when we’re all still shaking the glitter out of places that it shouldn’t be, the committee are sitting down to talk about next year’s weekender. And Don is clearly always in work mode because Tigger! put his feet up on the table, Don immediately whipped out his phone and started taking pictures.
Don shrugged as if he’d run out of things to say and told Tigger! “I’m not even a performer, I just take pictures”, to be immediately shot down in the most Tigger! of ways. “It’s just you and me talking, will you cut the false modesty. You kick ass!”
You’ve got to respect a man who has been taking beautiful photographs just to make us all look good and be remembered. Bazuka Joe was making furious ‘wind-it-up’ motions from the side of the stage, Tigger! leapt up to lead the applause for Don, and I don’t know who moved in first but they kissed emphatically to rapturous applause. (I’d decided Tigger! should have a talk show on TV, I’d watch the hell out of that.)
Then Tigger! intro’d our next act, “Moving right along, because I’m a slut.” It’s singer, entertainer and general impresario Rob ‘The Pup’ Racine. Rob bantered with the audience, telling them that this weekend is all about the people you meet and the connections you make. He launched into a heartfelt version of “Fire” by Ellie Goulding. The audience was a sea of rapt faces. He announced that he never really learnt the lyrics to his next song but would doing it anyway. He belted out “Ladies Choice” from Hairspray and clearly wasn’t lying, as he knew less than a handful of the words, and played it to hilarious effect, with help from the River City Revue. As they conga’d offstage, Tigger! informed us that “We’ve all learnt a valuable lesson. Just bring on the River City Revue and it will all be fine.” I wondered internally if that advice would work with my tax return?
Addicted to Telling the Awful Truth
The next kiki guest hit Tigger!’s sofa. Tigger! billed him as the co-founder of Burlesque Beat, who is “wonderfully addicted to telling the awful truth,” and author of a novel published under his real name, Bradley Spinelli, at which Tigger! loudly whispered, eyes wide, “I’ve never said that out loud before!” J.D. Oxblood got onstage and sat down. Both gentlemen propped their feet up on the table and J.D. leant back expectantly, smiling. Tigger!’s opening gambit was that for burlesque as a community and an art form, “It is CRITICAL to have criticism,” because without it, we’ll never learn from our mistakes and we’ll never grow. J.D., he ventured, is seriously ballsy. “Because everybody has their little conversation about what they like and what they didn’t like, but you fucking PRINT IT.” J.D. leant forward and said that it is nerve-wracking (while looking fairly unnerve-wracked), because Burlesque Beat has recently started to print things during the BHoF weekend for everyone to read. And he’s there! Just walking about… And you have to appreciate that not everybody is going to agree with everything you have written.
But for him, writing about burlesque is not just about if something is good or not. It’s also about describing and documenting what is happening up there on that stage. He’s writing not just for the performers, but the audience, so that they can decide which kind of burlesque they want to see. Because there is just so much choice out there. Tigger! interjected that Jonny Porkpie coined the term “stupidlesque” Thursday night, and J.D. retaliated that Bazuka Joe’s puppet act from the top of the show “Gave [him] a plushy!” Two delightful examples of the variety happening in front of our very eyes this weekend.
J.D. warmed to his theme and talked about the difficulties of burlesque criticism, because there is such a wide knowledge base required to write intelligently and thoughtfully about burlesque performance. It isn’t just a style of dance, burlesque can include literary references, filmic references, specific cultural references… the breadth of what can be borrowed is almost endless.
J.D. exhorted the crowd to “make peace” with journalists because they “aren’t out to get you.” He told us that he can understand both sides of the coin, as an artist and as a critic. And there is more of a relationship between those two things than we know. “Most journalists don’t get much sleep, don’t make a lot of money, they also drink…” at which the audience all grinned encouragingly.
Tigger!, who had been uncharacteristically silent, asked if there have been any performers that he has had a particularly special relationship with. J.D.’s face lit up as he said, “Brian Newman, my BOY.” J.D. paid his own way to NoLA to write about Newman headlining Jazz Fest with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, because Newman is somebody he wants to write about. “We’re all trying to make something,” he explained, and there are good days and there are bad days. J.D. laughed that he was “phoning it in right now,” then turned to Tigger!: “I’ve seen you phone it in, honey!”
Tigger! asked JD to tell us about working with Melody Mudd. Melody blushed as J.D. looked over and said that Melody was gorgeous and supportive, that they’ve been married for three years now—which made it their leather anniversary—and during that time he has put out both a film and a novel. Speaking of her hard work, he said we all don’t realise just how many hours it takes to put a magazine together, while making probably negative money. But most importantly for us all, Melody edits J.D., “Which we should all be fucking grateful for.”
J.D. got up and leapt onto Tigger! and kissed him, while ringing the bell of inappropriateness. Even though it all seemed pretty damn appropriate to me and everybody else watching.
We got another variety act. But it was no ordinary pair of performers—the reigning King and Queen of Burlesque themselves took to the stage, or rather the floor in front of the stage. Midnight Martini and Mr. Gorgeous settled themselves under a pair of sheets, heads on pillows. “I Dreamed A Dream” from Les Mis sang out of the speakers and there was a sort of interpretative dance / duo acro thing going on with much mugging to the audience, who were squealing in delight as the sheets were discarded and Midnight balanced atop the impossibly tall and gorgeous Mr. Gorgeous. The record scratched abruptly to a halt and the pair doubled over, exhausted, with heavy breathing. Then they cracked open and chugged energy drinks. The pair tweaked out and the music kicked back in, a high energy dance version of “I Dreamed A Dream.” There was toilet paper choreography, disco choreography, and they collapsed under the sheet to close. The crowd got to its collective feet in a screaming standing ovation while Tigger! yelled, “They’re royalty. And this is what they do. Shower them with love and booze while their reign is still happening because they’ll soon become has-beens like me!”
The Amazon of Burlesque
After all that excitement came the cherry on top of our fabulous Kiki cake. It was the glorious and incomparable Marinka, the Amazon of Burlesque. Tigger! called out her plaudits, of which there were many, as she slunk up onto the stage. A burlesque performer since the 1960s, a Broadway performer, feature stripper in THE Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz”… Tigger! excitedly declared that he is IN LOVE with Marinka and we could all see why, she is still an absolute bombshell. In her fabulous accent Marinka declared that Tigger! was very sexy and Joe was also very sexy, at which Tigger! turned pink to the tips of his ears with delight. She sank into her chair like a cat and declared that burlesque came looking for her, that she was “afraid of burlesque, [I was] not prepared for burlesque.” And she regaled us with how she came to New York in 1959 and then in 1960, she entered and won a beauty contest. Part of her prize for winning the contest was a contract with The Powderpuff Review, which she told us was a very good and reputable review club at the time. There she met the famous stripteaser Rose La Rose who was in the process of opening her own theatre in Toledo, Ohio. Marinka went to work for Rose La Rose as an opening act, performing as a bellydancer.
Eyes twinkling, Marinka revealed to us that Rose suggested that she should do burlesque. Marinka replied “Oh God, with what!?” But Rose La Rose had gone from being a lowly ticket seller at Minsky’s to one of the best paid headline burlesque acts in the United States, so Marinka decided to let her help. But at the time she was decidedly shy. Rose told the young Marinka “I don’t want you to flash it like I do because you might get into trouble.” Rose wore a small lace g-string and she would “roll it and stick it in” Marinka, with a satisfied smile, informed us that when the police raided a venue and tried to arrest Rose, she’d unroll it and tell them, “Look! I have a g-string!” Rose also had a trick designed to waft her g-string in the direction of the “smellers” (Note: I’m 99% certain she said smellers. The miming also seemed to point towards that, but with her gorgeous accent I’m not 100% sure).
Rose gifted Marinka with the signature act of fucking the curtain. Marinka half rose from her seat and made suggestive, air fucking circles with her hips. The cry went up from the crowd to “GET THE CURTAIN.” Joe and Tigger! fell over each other rushing to collect Joe’s curtain. The curtain in place, Marinka sashayed across the stage while pulling up her skirt and giving us a good flash of her knickers and some enviable pins. She then aped her novice self and ground against the curtain naively, almost sweetly; before she took it home and showed us exactly how to throughly and fabulously fuck the damn curtain. She shrugged as she walked back to her seat and said, “Rose helped a lot of people, but that’s what she gave me.” She smirked over at Tigger! and told him that Tigger! as a girl would be Rose La Rose. Tigger! countered that was the most lovely thing that anybody had ever said about him. Markina fixed him with a flirty gaze and said, “You are one of those things that doesn’t come very often.” Tigger! swiftly brought the house down with the line, “Mainly because my husband is back in New York”.
We then heard about the other looming influence in her professional life, the legendary Bob Fosse. Marinka disclosed that she was a feature, working at The Top Hat in Long Island, and he came in one night. She drew his attention because he liked tall girls. She confessed that he was the most sensitive man that she ever met. He’d call her when he was in town, sometimes at 3 in the morning when he was having problems with his wife. And he had always promised her a role, which didn’t materialise too quickly. A while later, when she was back in New York and married to her third husband, her agent called and said that Bob Fosse had been calling the office looking for her number. She told her agent to pass it on to him, but to tell him that she was married—she didn’t want any more 3am phone calls! But Fosse was calling to offer her the role in “All That Jazz.” Bob hated the name Marinka, so she’s credited as Melanie Hunter, named by Bob for her first husband. She described her role in the film with the line “Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn,” then Marinka got to her feet and declared, “Then shake my tits in his face” while jiggling enthusiastically in front of the clearly delighted kiki audience.
Tigger! had one last ace up his sleeve. He said, with all the press surrounding Caitlyn Jenner, would Marinka like to address any of the rumours swirling around? Eyes in the audience widened in shock! Marinka sat regally back and considered the question. “All these words… transexual…transgender…it is much more than a woman living in a man’s body…” Then she trailed off, silent for a second before fixing the room with that megawatt smile and declared, “Unfortunately, darling I’m not going to answer that question. I’m working on my autobiography. Next year, when the book is out, you will have your answer.” MIC DROP MUCH?!?
I’m already excited for next year, although exactly how the hell Bazuka and Tigger! plan on topping this glorious, crazy piece of joy, I don’t know.
All photos used here with permission expressly for Burlesque Beat. Please obtain permission for any other use.