The Atomic Bombshells Celebrate Ten Glamorous Years in Burlesque, by Crystal Tassels.
It seems like 2004 was a big year for burlesque. On one side of North America, Doc Wasabassco produced his first (three-hour long) burlesque show and started a New York institution. On the Pacific side, a dancer from New Orleans convinced a venue to let her non-existent burlesque troupe open for Dita Von Teese, and The Atomic Bombshells were born.
Ten years later, the Bombshells are a study in burlesque success, glamour, and camp. This month they’re celebrating their anniversary with CAKE! A Decade of Decadent Dazzle, which includes performances by striptease superstars Perle Noire and Kitten De Ville. Taking a break from her rigorous rehearsal schedule, I sat down with troupe founder Kitten LaRue to chat about the Bombshells’ rise to stardom.
LaRue learned the ABCs of bump-and-grind in New Orleans, where she worked regularly with burlesque legends like Kitty West and Wild Cherry as a member of the Shim Sham Revue. When the club closed in 2003, LaRue left the French Quarter and spent a summer exploring the burlesque scene in Seattle.
“It was still very much an underground, fringe scene at that moment,” she recalls. “I wasn’t seeing anything like the weekly, fully-produced shows like the one I came from in New Orleans.” Seeing a niche in the market, LaRue sat down with fellow NOLA-native Fanny N’ Flames and set to work. They wrote a business plan, established an aesthetic model, and arranged a meeting with Seattle’s Showbox Theater, a stage that had previously been graced by the likes of Gypsy Rose Lee and Duke Ellington.
“He said, ‘You’re booked!’ and we said, ‘Holy shit.’” Without even having performers lined up, The Atomic Bombshells were slated to open for Dita Von Teese in just one month’s time. “We sold them on a troupe that didn’t exist yet,” LaRue laughs. After reaching out to established performers from the local scene like Miss Indigo Blue, auditions were held and the super-troupe was born.
Shortly after their success at the Showbox, the Bombshells were picked up by Camel Cigarettes for the Camel Speakeasy Tour, a nationwide whirlwind that brought them through 30 cities across the country. Since then, the troupe has continued to tour in the US and internationally, performing in Portugal, Australia, and China. In addition, the Bombshells were scouted for a summer residency in drag mecca Provincetown, MA, where they’ve been spending the warmer months since 2007.
“Provincetown has been incredibly influential on both me as a producer and us as a troupe,” says LaRue, whose ‘bioqueen’ performance aesthetic is one of sky-high camp and exaggerated femininity. “[It’s] allowed us to work with some of the best drag queens in the theatre world.” More than just inspiring, summer in Provincetown is serious business, and performers maintain strenuous schedules to keep up with the crowds of tourists. “There was one season where we were doing six shows a week. You learn to hone your craft in an intense way.”
Next year, The Atomic Bombshells are looking forward to another trip to Australia to perform at the Perth Fringe Festival, as well as the seventh run of their Seattle Valentine’s Day show, J’Adore. But the troupe’s biggest news for 2015 is their intention to establish an East Coast division, with a second core group of performers in New York City. Although the Bombshells do have a few performers in mind that they’ve built relationships with over the years, they’re also planning on holding open auditions to round up some fresh faces.
With a decade of success behind her brand, I asked Kitten if she had any advice for those who are just getting started or trying to bring burlesque to new audiences. “Do your research,” she says. Thanks to the magic of the internet, it’s easy to see what other folks are doing to get a bigger-picture view of what’s happening out there. “Figure out where your interest is, then see what’s already out there so you can put a different perspective on it.”
“Also,” she emphasises, “practice!” The Bombshells put at least two months of rehearsal into every show they do. “Use studio spaces with mirrors, or video, whatever you have available. Just do it.”
She also suggests learning the history, as her early work with legends Kitty West and Wild Cherry had a huge impact on her artistic direction. “It was so invaluable having them pass along not only their tips on stage presence, movement, and choreography, but just… the stories of what it was like for them performing,” says LaRue. “It’s important to keep in mind that, for some of these women, they often were not in charge of their own careers. They didn’t have their own voice, or control over what they were doing creatively.” In today’s female-driven industry, the history offers a sense of perspective.
Even in the past ten years, burlesque has changed dramatically. “When I first started in New Orleans [in 2002],” LaRue explains, “doing classic burlesque did feel radical, and hearkening back to that classic glamour and vintage, pin-up inspired tableaus, that felt radical and underground, and it felt punk.” Now, the scene has broadened to accommodate a variety of subgenres and performance styles. “There’s literally a burlesque show for any cultural interest that you could have!”
Looking even further ahead, LaRue dreams of taking the troupe to the next level. “Lou [Henry Hoover] and I just had the honour of performing with Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett,” she says. “It would be really incredible for the Bombshells to be teamed up with an artist in that way on a tour.” LaRue would also love to bring The Atomic Bombshells to Broadway. “In a way, the kind of shows that we present … have become a sort of version of Broadway for Seattle. [It’s] a classy night out on the town where you can see song, dance, glamour, and spectacle on a gorgeous large stage.”
Her dream collaboration? “It would be my ultimate fantasy for the Bombshells to be the house dancers for Pee Wee’s Playhouse on Broadway, ha! That show had a massive influence on me as a child, and deeply affected my ideas about camp, humour, nostalgia, glamour, and gender presentation, all of which make their way into the shows I produce.”
At the rate they’re going, it just might happen.
Celebrate the Atomic Bombshell’s tenth anniversary at CAKE! A Decade of Decadent Dazzle at the Triple Door in Seattle on November 21st and 22nd.
For more info on upcoming shows and New York auditions, follow the Atomic Bombshells on Facebook.
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.