After a phenomenal appearance at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend 2013, the universally admired and adored Stage Door Johnnies – Bazuka Joe, Ray Gunn and Jett Adore – had a post-Weekend chat with me, explaining the hard work and planning behind each performance and describing their emotions and future plans…
First, congratulations to our new King! Ray, you must be ecstatic. Can you share what Saturday night was like for you, from preparations to announcement, and say a bit about the act you chose to compete with?
Ray Gunn: To prepare for the competition, I had to decline many offers from Bazuka Joe to hit the strip to avoid starting Saturday with a hangover. The costume which I had created for the act was constructed by Blue Barber, with some last minute alterations by Rosa LaMuerta, and was blinged the fuck out by Foxy Tan, Red Bone, and Musette the Mistress of Mischief. The Apple Cod Piece was designed by Ramsey Prince Jr. (Yeah, I know… It takes a village.) I have actually been perfecting and tweaking two different versions of this same act. The act originally started as a pole performance and was later transformed into a floor act. I felt it was an accurate interpretation of my burlesque aesthetic. It was an artistic balance of sex and athleticism with an inappropriate touch of humour. Winning felt great. The act I won with is the same act that I was declined from entering the competition with in 2010, my first year applying.
What do you have to say to new and upcoming male performers who aspire to reach the same level of achievement?
Ray: When choosing an act to compete with, submit an act that is true to who you are as a performer and stay away from acts that have an artistic balance of sex and athleticism with an inappropriate touch of humour.
You also made an appearance in Perle Noire’s gorgeous tribute to Toni Elling. Was that special for you, and do you like the fact that there was so much collaboration throughout the weekend this year?
Ray: It was an honour to be a part of the tribute act for Toni Elling. It was also the exact vision Perle and I had for our own wedding. Collaborating with Perle and the entire cast of the Cocktail Suite finale was exciting and a huge honour. In a way, it made me feel like I did when I had my own dance company in Chicago. The opportunity to work with some of the biggest names in the business – people who I admire and trust – is how I wish the burlesque community always operated. One of the issues in the community that goes relatively unspoken is the competition and rivalry between performers and groups. I thought it was great being a part of something so visible that shows what can come from collaboration.
Joe, you competed for Best Duet with Kami Oh!. Tell me about your act and how it came together.
Bazuka Joe: Kami Oh! and I have always got along great! Ever since we have known each other we would bat around ideas for duets and mention how our personal aesthetics were similar and how our body types matched each other well. Finally, about a year ago, we decided to go for it and created this whole act based on a vintage image of a pin-up model with snake gloves. We created a whole back story in our minds about who our characters were and why they were doing this dance, and as it evolved we took a lot of inspiration from old MGM movie musicals with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. Rehearsals were a BLAST, and more than anything we were just happy to be onstage with such other great duets from across the country.
Can you describe the history of your partnership? Do you intend to compete again and/or have other duets in the works?
Joe: Competing in Best Duo, at least for the two of us, was a one-shot deal. Sadly, Kami is moving from Chicago to pursue a new chapter of her life with her awesome husband, Kirk. And I’m working on some new solo concepts. We didn’t place a lot of emphasis on winning this year; were just happy to be included in the line-up of such a great event and show off work that we felt proud of.
Jett, please tell me more about your stunning ‘Butterfly’ production on Thursday Night, especially for the benefit of those who weren’t there to see it. Can you describe the concept and execution, the involvement of other performers, and share some details about the costume, particularly the construction of those fabulous wings?
Jett Adore: Well, in the last several years I have been inspired to stretch my imagination to create grander spectacle worthy of large stages, with the goal of joining what I see as the collective vision of many to promote burlesque as an elaborately theatrical art form. I am intrigued by so many metaphors to which the genre of burlesque lends itself, and this butterfly act for me was an exploration of ideas about truth, transformation, magic, the unexpected, self-discovery, and empowerment. I never intend the final product to be so heady; I hope only that through the glitz and fluff there is a whisper of rousing, intense connection.
As far as the costume concept, I had for a long time dreamed of a floor length ostrich feather cape which would transform into two giant feather fans opening to over twice my height; it just took me many months to figure out their construction and functionality and then to develop the story of the act with the giant butterfly puppets and dancers. I envisioned it rather as a staged poem that was simple, merely suggested, open wide to interpretation, yet capable of epic emotional impact, which could incorporate the burlesque stars in each of the different cities and shows in which I get to perform. In Vegas this year, I was hugely fortunate and grateful to have Michelle L’amour and Chicago Starlets Lili Bloom, Ivy Fabulous, and Honey Halfpint as the entrancing butterfly nymphs fluttering about me.
You also gave a farewell performance on Saturday Night with your Best Duo 2012 partner, Frenchie Kiss. Was it special to return to that stage a year later, with no competition at stake, and celebrate your partnership in front of all your friends and colleagues?
Jett: I love Frenchie immensely, and to express and share that love with our community in such an epic way was a thrill from which I have yet to recover. I have seldom felt so fulfilled as from this collaboration between Frenchie and I, bringing what we hope is a unique vision to this world we call burlesque. I am so excited that Frenchie and I will be performing together with my Stage Door Johnnies brothers for the New Zealand Burlesque festival and tour, and we both strive for more opportunities together to slather our love on audiences far and wide.
Let’s talk about the astonishing finale you put together for Sunday night! Talk me through the inspiration, planning and build up to the performance, as well as the performance itself – although I can imagine that might be a surreal memory!
Bazuka Joe: Ha, ha, ha! “Surreal” is an understatement! The whole act now seems like a fantastic dream! The original seed of the idea came from an act I created, in which I had intended four girls to dance with me. I debuted ‘The Martini Dance’ at a show we produced in Chicago with local dancers, and again at the Show-Me Burlesque Festival in St. Louis with the Hoochie Coochie Girls. It wasn’t until much later that we got the idea to expand the act into a three part suite. We used Bob Fosse’s Rich Man’s Frug as our point of inspiration, and designed Jett and Ray’s sections to reflect the type of drink we were each carrying, which incidentally spoke most to each of our personae (champagne, martini, and rocks glasses). We wanted each section to have the same construct, but to be distinctly different from each other. We also wanted to create a story arc that moved from smooth and sophisticated to rowdy and raucous.
Did you always plan to involve so many of your fellow performers in the act, or did that develop as things went on? Did they, in fact, through their advice and support, help to make the production what it eventually became? Was it an emotional experience to have them all with you on that stage?
Joe: The original intention was always to have dancers from the community with us. At the point of conception we didn’t know who those dancers would be, but as we travelled from city to city with this act in mind, we were naturally drawn to certain performers who we felt most accurately fit into our own sections. Each of us built our own casts based on how we connected with certain performers, and a LOT of consideration went into overall aesthetic and vibe. We have to say that we consider ourselves the absolute LUCKIEST guys in the world that everyone we approached was into the idea and up for the challenge. We made no reservations in letting our cast know just how fortunate and appreciative we felt having them all involved. That should never be taken for granted!
Putting the act together was a LOT of work! We sent out video instructions to each of our casts, but really the bulk of rehearsals took place in just the four days that we were all in Vegas. Again, fortunately, every single cast member was incredibly responsible and committed to showing up to rehearsal every morning (which, as we all know, is REALLY hard to do at BHoF) and rehearsing on their own, and asking productive and helpful questions. I think that the concentrated rehearsal process created a quick and strong bond between everyone and I know it was super emotional for most, if not all, of us! Even as the curtain was rising and we could hear the audience, our hands were shaking and our hearts were racing! By the end, we could barely hold our composure and ended up breaking into a giant group hug before the curtains even closed!
Did you feel a strong sense of your evolution as you received your applause? Did you imagine when you started out together that you would have the freedom and opportunity to create things like this and be the finale for such a magical and treasured event?
Joe: ABSOLUTELY! Again, luckiest guys in the world here. The best part about what happened onstage that night was that our intention for the act wasn’t to have a powerhouse star-studded piece onstage for name value only. What we really wanted to present was a sense of community, cooperation, and artistry. Basically, it’s how we envision the mission of BHoF to be. Sort of a ‘See what we can do when we all work together?’ Foxy Tann could not have introduced the act more perfectly, telling that audience that ‘This act is for YOU; this is our gift to our community.’ The added bonus for us personally was a chance to work alongside people who we consider our mentors, inspirations, and innovators. These were all people who we look up to as artists.
What was your overall experience like this year at BHoF? Are there any particular highlights, on and off stage, which you can share? How did it compare to previous years you have attended?
Joe: This year was very different for us in that we shifted our focus from competition and networking to bringing things to the table that we felt were artistic and integral to us. A lot of the partying and drinking was replaced with rehearsing and costuming. Jett elected not to compete so that he could include Michelle L’amour and the Starlets as dancers in his butterfly act (instead of cutting them out just to fit competition guidelines). Ray gave a raw and scaled down performance on Saturday, taking out the frills of set pieces so that the work could stand on its own. And I actually withdrew my solo application so that my attention could be pointed to my duet and the group act while we were there.
What are your individual and collective plans for the near future and beyond? What is in the works, and what are some of the upcoming opportunities people have to meet you and/or watch you in action?
Joe: We’re definitely trying to get to more places in the US that we haven’t been before like Knoxville, Cleveland and Provincetown, and our next big, big trip is to New Zealand for their burlesque festival in October. As for personal growth, we’re all working on acts right now that bring in more elements from our time spent in the theatre and dance worlds. We know a lot of other performers who are feeling the need to bridge that same gap and it’s great to see how things might evolve! We say, go with your gut! Take the risk!