When I finally awoke on Saturday afternoon, the first day I had slept in in months, Mary and I headed to Cherokee street to grab dinner at La Vallesana (an amazing authentic Mexican restaurant that you must try if you are in St. Louis) before the closing show. Cherokee Street was abuzz with activity: people walking, dining, shopping and experiencing the culture of this adorable area of St. Louis After dinner, Mary and I headed to Casa Loma Ballroom, a venue that has been around for over 85 years and hosted acts such as Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra (to name a few), which was the setting for the main event of the festival: The Beggar’s Carnivale.
Casa Loma is a multi-storey venue, the top floor of which serves as a giant balcony overlooking the huge stage and ballroom floor. In this balcony area the Beggar’s Alley is set up offering an authentic carnival vibe: one may meet the Tattooed Man, have a caricature drawn, take a photo with a mermaid lady, buy lovely handmade wares from multiple vendors, check out sideshow acts and variety acts in the hooch tent and much more. While Beggar’s Alley is amazing it is simply the icing on the cake of the main show, but it also creates the perfect atmosphere for the main show.
Mary and I took our seats in the hooch tent area of the balcony, directly overlooking the side of the stage, next to the hospitality area that had been set up for all the performers, complete with booze, yummy and healthy food, and a mix of techs, volunteers and performers from throughout the festival who excitedly cheered on the Beggar’s performers. I have failed to mention until now that every performer, volunteer, tech and staff member is granted unlimited free access to all shows and events during Show Me (save the workshops), but I did mention earlier that Lola and her crew know how to take care of their performers, and this is just further proof. This is not one of those festivals that nickels-and-dimes its performers, and for that the Show Me performers are grateful.
For those who haven’t experienced The Beggar’s Carnivale, here’s a basic run-down. There is no emcee, and there is no talking throughout the show. Acts are announced via a large screen behind the stage, and each act is tied together with slapstick, silent-movie style comedy sketches from Sammich the Tramp and The Knock-a-bouts and the Beggar’s cast. A live band, the 3 Penny Symphony, accompanies the sketches, sometimes along with live singing, and sometimes the band accompanies live acts. The show presents a wide range of variety arts including fire performers, aerialists, singers, dancers, burlesque stripteasers, and more. Usually the show has an overlying theme with a narrative story line, like the Dappers and Flappers Beggar’s production I saw last fall that harkened to the 1920s prohibition era, but for Show Me the show is usually a bit more on the revue spectrum, and this year followed that ‘revue’ formula.
The Beggar’s Carnivale was split into three acts: one referencing the Dappers and Flappers event last fall, one referencing the ever-popular Van Ella Bordella events (which are exclusive events in the Van Ella studios that occur from time to time and essentially resemble what would happen if one were to create a Victorian gentleman’s club, sans any performer-to-patron contact), and the last act was an amalgamation of modern acts that didn’t fit in with the other themes: a sampler of excellence, if you will. That isn’t to lessen the excellence of the other acts, but it is the best-fitting description I am able to muster to sum up its flavour. There were intermissions between each act, allowing all the patrons to partake in Beggar’s Alley festivities including catching spirited variety acts in the hooch tent. Even though the show had two intermissions it did not drag at all. Every act was beautiful and riveting.
The show was jam-packed with some of the best talent from around the country in burlesque: Ray Gunn, Jett Adore, Victoria Deville, Gin Minsky, Foxy Tann and The Wham Bam Thank You Ma’ams, Lady Jack, Eva La Feva, Deanna Danger, and Sweetpea, to name (more than) a few. Ray Gunn brought his oozing sensuality and powerful dance skills to the stage in a duet with Rob Racine, who sang, as they each danced around a large, carved wooden chair. Jett Adore brought everyone to their feet for a standing ovation with his impeccable ‘Peacock’ act. Victoria DeVille awed the crowd with her perfect costuming, glorious voice, and a surprise striptease.
Gin Minsky wowed everyone in the entire house with her tap dance striptease, complete with microphoned tap shoes! Foxy Tann and The Wham Bam Thank You Ma’ams team (Red Bone and Jeez Loueez) had us all dancing in our seats to their epic Rollin’ On The River shimmy trio. Lady Jack and Eva la Feva presented a flawless contemporary dance duet as a rag doll and undead mad scientist that was inspiring and refreshing. Deanna Danger‘s ultra-glamorous costume, long legs and immaculate dance technique combined classic burlesque striptease with a Portishead song. And Sweetpea, oh God, Sweetpea! Sweetpea made kneepads sexy in her raw and powerful ‘Jungle Boogie’ act and gave everyone the vapours with her floorwork.
The locals also held their own, as always. Sammich the Tramp never fails to get the crowd riled up and ready for action. Her skills as a physical comedian are top-notch and she is truly a visionary in the field of variety performance arts and an essential catalyst in the vaudeville revival. Her Knock-a-bouts are just as crucial to the show and watching them all work together is a true treat and testament to the fact that physical theatre is not dead.
Lola van Ella stripped, acted, and let us all hear her beautiful new original songs for the first time. Lola is undoubtedly the queen of St. Louis burlesque and to watch her on stage is always a privilege. Jeez Loueez lived up to her tag-line as the ‘Powerhouse of the Midwest’ as a dancing, singing, stripping machine that incited the audience to a frenzy, but I believe no one expects anything less than a stellar time when Jeez Loueez is on the bill of a show. The Bon Bons burlesque troupe dazzled us with their playful and sexy group number. Michelle Mynx wowed us with a Bonnie and Clyde solo pole routine with half of her costume representing Bonnie and the other half representing Clyde, and her movements corresponding to the side that she showed to the audience. Personally I love a good, theatrical pole act and Michelle never fails to deliver on that front.
Steele Starling proved that men can be just as sexy as women when it comes to striptease, and not only that, but he proved it to us while hanging from chains 15′ above the stage in a lumberjack aerial act. Indie Lou displayed her intense strength, flexibility and poise in another aerial act. Ami Amore presented a powerful belly dance performance complete with impeccable Isis wing manipulation skills. Pixie Nyx danced her way into our hearts with a modern contemporary dance number, and Venus in Flames fire troupe awed us with their skills as synchronised flow artists.
When the show came to an end the cast got a standing ovation from a crowd that oozed respect, love, and admiration. St. Louis crowds really know how to appreciate burlesque and I believe that is largely in part due to the Van Ella Productions and Beggar’s Carnivale crews, both on stage and behind-the-scenes, giving the audience nothing less than the best. While the performers usually get all the glory I feel compelled to mention one of the most professional and hard-working staffs I have ever had the pleasure of encountering: Mama Megan Cahill, stage manager and ‘mama’ extraordinaire; DJ Monsieur (Shawn) Gaston, a technical director that always delivers perfection in sound and lights; Sandi Powell, panty-wrangler and the fastest stage hand this side of the Mason-Dixon; and of course Greta Garter, a performer and ambassador to the festival who is always there to lend a hand with hair, makeup and costuming despite being at least 1,000 years old. At least.
While the festival may have been over for the public at that point, it was nowhere near over for the performers and crew. People gathered outside Casa Loma and waited for the great migration to Van Ella Studios for the after-party and the legendary Hot Mess Talent Show. While we were waiting I became entranced with Jett Adore’s snazzy attire, specifically his large, glimmering rings he wore on each finger and a perfectly folded silk pocket square. I get caught up in what I like to call ‘fashion-watching’. I suppose it’s a remnant of my days studying Apparel Design and Merchandising in college. Mary was also transfixed, commenting she had never seen a man so well-dressed. Cheers to you and your pristine taste in attire, Jett Adore!
Mary and I came out of our Adore-induced-sparkle-trance and walked down to the Van Ella Compound where the after party began with a bang. Food, drinks, dancing and groups of friends and colleagues laughing and canoodling filled the dance studio and the backyard. This was our chance to rejoice and, as Jeez Loueez says, ‘rage’: another successful Show Me Burlesque and Variety Festival had come to pass after all the months of hard work and preparation so now we could all really let loose and let our freak flags fly. And we did, especially at the Hot Mess Talent Show.
Adele Wolf got things started off with a very unfortunate and hilarious story about her grandmother, and as she spoke Jeez Loueez offered R Kelly Trapped-In-The-Closet-style backup vocals to punctuate the tale. We all laughed and chortled, but an inebriated Sammich the Tramp rolled on the floor, her head in Lola’s lap, laughing hysterically with tears in her eyes. Sammich is obsessed with Adele, just ask her. I would divulge the particulars of this story but Adele swore us all to secrecy, and I am not about to cross her. No ma’am. Tifa Tittlywinks and Sindee Hoo Hoo gave a spirited modern dance interpretation of poems supposedly written by cats that waxed poetic about peeing on everything. And then, oh, and then, Ray Gunn had us all screaming with joy as he gave Sammich an amazing lap dance. I think it was even better than the lap dance he gave Russell Bruner last year, especially because Sammich ended up lap dancing for Ray as well.
With that we went back into dance-party debauchery mode and raged until the wee hours of the morning when we got told to simmer down and find new digs to party. The remaining ragers gave their hugs and kisses goodbye and we all drunkenly promised to meet up the next day for brunch and City Museum Adventures. I ended up watching videos of trains travelling rural Japan and listening to the new Chromeo with some locals and started to wind down. I finally fell asleep at around 10 AM. Needless to say, I missed brunch and the City Museum because I was exhausted, but you can’t blame a nocturnal dame for raging and catching her Zs during the day hours.
Mary and I left town late on Sunday afternoon and we excitedly discussed our fun-filled weekend as we made the five hour trek back to Kentucky. I have never seen someone not directly involved in burlesque so moved and excited about burlesque as Mary was during that car ride. It gave me faith that there is still hope to spread the joy and fervour of the passion we as performers hold for our art form to non-performers. Mary has become one of our biggest fans, and I attribute that in part to the magic that happens in St. Louis at Show Me Burlesque and Variety Festival.
Quoted in major international newspapers and held in high esteem and affection by the international burlesque community, 21st Century Burlesque Magazine has documented the contemporary burlesque scene since 2007. Founded and edited by Holli-Mae Johnson.