Smouldering, stripping songbird Renee Holiday shares her Iowa Burlesque Festival experience…
Friday October 24th
Show day, 5AM. At this point I am deeply regretting my choice to drive to Iowa. At least I’m not starting all the way from Dallas on a show day. I travelled to Wichita, KS last night and stayed with my in-laws. Several hours later the sun lazily rises above the distant horizon as if from a nice sleep. Mocking me.
…The day gets progressively better the more caffeinated I become.
Fast forward to my arrival to Davenport:
I roll in about an hour before tech is set to begin so I meet my Ruby Revue sisters Missy Lisa and Ginger Valentine at a cool little bar and grill. I know this place is cool because our server is wearing skinny jeans and they have a raw kale salad on the menu. Soon we are joined by the fabulous Minnie Tonka, who today is channelling ‘Bad Sandy’ with her leather jacket and tousled blonde hair. I decide I deserve a whiskey for my exhausting driving efforts. After tossing back my drink and a nice chat with the girls, we hug, kiss and part ways.
I arrive at the Adler Theater, hand off my sound gear to the capable crew and do a quick sound check, and then it’s off to the dressing rooms. I am among the first to arrive, but soon the other performers start trickling in and we begin our transformation. Friday night is competition night at the Iowa Burlesque Festival. For the ‘Best in Neo’ category, I will be performing La Petite Mort, a naughty little act in which I do one of my very favourite things – ahem – sing an operatic aria.
With my hair now piled high on my head and the hardest working feather in burlesque gripped in my hand, I find my way to the stage once again to watch from the wings. I stand with last year’s ‘Princess of A Peel’, Matt Finish, and fellow competitors Deirdre Von Derriere and Cherry Pop Pop Poppins as they announce the judges (Minnie Tonka, Lou Lou D’vil, The Baron, Iva Handfull, Athena, and The Maine Attraction). The festival begins with the Queen’s competition and it quickly becomes clear to us that there is more to this competition than we had anticipated. Unbeknownst to us (and apparently even to the Queens not long before the show) all the competitors for Queen will remain on stage after their performance and receive a quick critique from the judges! How’s that for a twist? The selfish part of me prays to any and all gods that I will not have to endure this as well. It turns out I will not. My feelings assuaged, my heart is free to go out to the Queens. We all know it’s not easy to do what we do, and being critiqued, even in a private setting, can be emotional. So I consider each of the girls vying for the 2014 ‘Queen of A Peel’ title incredibly brave for staying up there to be picked apart while in pasties. I also salute the judges for performing their roles with respect to the vulnerable performers.
The evening carries on smoothly. Each performer has the drama of the grand drape sweeping open just for them and above us shines the spectacular, custom sign reminding the audience which event is currently blowing them away. Mac Deville makes a splash with her moody glove and gown act, showing off some fancy floor work. A personal favourite of mine is Lola Coquette (also a contender for Neo). I had already met her backstage and having been so sweet to me, I already have a soft spot for her. A smile is plastered on my face throughout her upbeat, Latin inspired act and I can’t help but sing along with Copacabana. A crowd favorite in the ‘Nerdlesque’ category is another classic glove and gown performed by everyone’s favourite tentacled, anthropoidic deity, Cthulhu. The winners of each category are announced at the conclusion of the show and I am thrilled to be among them.
2014 Queen of A Peel: Mac Deville
Best in Boylesque: Mercury Stardust
Best in Classic: Ray Ray Sunshine
Best in Nerdlesque: Hot Tawdry
Best Group: Feist Club
…and me for Best in Neo.
We take our bows as our names are called but learn that we will receive our trophies during tomorrow night’s show. At this point I am really feeling the effects of my extra early morning so I pack up fairly quickly and after a brief recap of the night’s events with Ginger and Missy we all hit the sheets for some beauty sleep.
Saturday October 25th
This day begins as so many of ours do as travelling showgirls and boys: cursing the fact that I forgot to shut the blackout curtains before bed last night. Missy, Ginger and I decide that we will take Russell Bruner‘s Classic Jazz Dance workshop since we will be having him the following weekend in Dallas for our Ruby Revue Halloween show. We grab a quick breakfast and coffee and head off to class.
We are greeted by Russell himself who is very pleased to have just purchased a new top hat at the American Vintage Market below stairs. In fact, he invites us all to stroke his new beaver, and being well versed in the art of petting one’s beaver I am happy to oblige. After taking a class photo we do a little ‘follow the leader’ warm up followed by a short combination. I get the moves okay but Russell’s natural and loose style is very difficult to achieve in a single hour.
After class Missy and Ginger dash away to tech and I wander through the American Vintage Market put on by American Pickers and IBF producer, Dannie Diesel. All manner of vintage goodies are on display at the Market – custom mopeds, art, and more – but what I really need is an outfit for the show tonight (I only packed one dress for the weekend. Oops.) so I make a beeline for the clothing booths. There are all sorts of jackets, sweaters, slips and nighties, but unfortunately nothing that will suit for the night. I decide to hit the streets of Davenport to explore some of the vintage clothing stores. I find my way to Abernathy’s and Trashcan Annie’s. Both of these places are super darling and totally affordable. Between the two I am able to put together something I’m excited to wear for the big Saturday Spectacular. Thanks Davenport for the cool duds! Back at the hotel I walk in on Ginger and Missy rehearsing their duet in the little front room which is quite a sight considering the stunts they are trying to execute in such a small space. We grab some dinner and then start getting ready for the night.
Once we are sufficiently made up we walk over to the Adler and before I know it it’s time for the show to begin. The large sign telling us all that we are at the Iowa Burlesque Festival shines brightly above the stage once again. It’s so hard not to just tell you everything about every act! They are all so good! But I do have some favourites. Last year’s IBF royalty Matt Finish showcases his classical dance training and athleticism to a West Side Story medley. The Baron is another standout performance. Okay, honestly? I have my hands over my eyes for part of this act but I make sure to peek through a little bit. The Baron is the bona fide owner of the strongest nipples in the world, but this is not his only talent. He bends metal with his teeth, hammers nails in his head, and lifts weights with his ears, nose, nipples (of course), and EYE LIDS!?!? Yeah. That’s the part I was covering my eyes for. Michelle L’amour and Russell Bruner perform their duet and I am so glad to see it live. Having grown up watching Fred and Ginger, Gene Kelly, and Mitzi Gaynor, this duet stirs something very special and nostalgic within me. Then when clothes begin to fall and things start to heat up, it stirs something else within me that is equally special.
Throughout the evening trophies and crowns are handed out to last night’s winners and when I claim mine I get to do something that I had secretly wanted to do since I walked into the beautiful Adler Theater. Host and local Iowan Molly Tov asks if I will give the audience a few notes. Normally I’m not a fan of singing when bidden but this theatre is calling my name! Free from my normal headset mic I belt out the opening of Ah! Je Veux Vivre from Roméo et Juliette. I am often asked if I’m actually singing in my act so it was fun to sing with no amplification for an audience. A little self-indulgent moment but I suppose we’ve all had those from time to time! There are still more stellar performances from Iva Handfull, The Ruby Revue (for whom I cheer very enthusiastically), Lou Lou D’vil, and of course Dannie Diesel. Dannie closes the show in a black and gold leotard and fedora dancing to Bad to the Bone. And what a closing it is!
We spill out into the lobby to mingle with fans, take pictures in front of the beautiful lighted sign, rave to our favourite performers and take selfies with them. Ginger, Missy, Minnie and I walk over to the hotel to drop off our gear before heading to the after party. Now you may not know this, but The Ruby Revue solve mysteries in our spare time. This time it’s Minnie Tonka and The Case of the Missing Phone. We follow all the clues, interview suspects, and finally follow the trail to the after party where the culprit is found. Iva Handfull had very considerately taken the phone thinking Minnie had forgotten it. And she would’ve gotten away with it too if it hadn’t been for us meddling strippers! With the case solved we are able to enjoy the party. We quickly obtain some whiskey drinks and toast to a job well done. The band, Davina and the Vagabonds, is really rockin’ with a super tight brass section and awesome vocals. Everyone is drinking, dancing, congratulating each other and generally celebrating a successful weekend. Later, with our tummies rumbling and brains buzzing, The Ruby Revue hoofs it back to the hotel for a floor picnic of pizza and hot wings, and watches Between Two Ferns until it’s finally time for sleep.
Sunday October 26th
I’m back on the lonesome road again. I had never been to Iowa before and I have to say it makes an excellent first impression! Many thanks to Dannie Diesel and all involved in the production of The 2nd Annual Iowa Burlesque Festival. And congratulations to all the performers who gave everything on stage! I had a great time and made some fond memories. Until next time Iowa!