No People Like Show People Ethel Merman's hearty pipes find new life in cabaret artiste Varla Jean Merman, a zaftig drag queen who describes herself as the bastard offspring of Ms. Merman and Ernest Borgnine. Opera News was apparently nonplused by Merman-the-younger's unconventional presence, and gave a breezy mention to her vocal remix of the Madama Butterfly aria "Un bel di" with Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." Theatergoers, meanwhile, enjoyed her as Mary Sunshine in the Broadway production of Chicago, and at Carnegie Hall, where she gave a Christmas concert for God's Love We Deliver. But with the exception of locals who saw her film debut in Franchesca Page at Sundance or here during the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival last month, Varla Jean (aka Jeff Roberson) is something of a new face on the left coast; she'll open her cabaret and video show I, Who Have Nothing at 10 p.m. tonight (through Aug. 2) at Josie's Cabaret & Juice Joint, 3583 16th St. (at Market), S.F. Admission is $10; call 861-7933.
On Fire The booming bass drum and loopy fun-house organ of Jonathan Fire*Eater's "Give Me Daughters" evoke nothing so much as a drunken brawl between mods, rockers, and street-corner prophets, with singer Stewart Lupton bellowing "Give me daughters/ And make them 1, 2, 3/ I will raise them/ They'll go to church with me" to a go-go beat. Named for pop idol Jonathan Richman, the Fire*Eaters look like the glorious waste of privileged youth (they are) and sound like they could be British popsters (they aren't). They've opened for Lenny Kravitz, will tour with Blur, and have been likened to Nick Cave and the Velvet Underground, which illustrates the delicious time-warp effect of their rollicking, soulful sound. Japan's Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her, who obviously recognize the lyric worth of XTC, precede Jonathan Fire*Eater; our own VSS open the show at 8 p.m. at the Kilowatt, 3160 16th St. (at Albion), S.F. Admission is $6; call 861-2595.
Inner Tubes, Kayaks, and Bears, Oh My! Maybe the nagging feeling that summer should be spent rafting white-water rapids and scaling rocky peaks has a little something to do with the kamikaze advertising of recreational products. Architecture-trained assemblage artist Peter Haberkorn thinks so, and to underscore his theory, he has created the installation Blow Out, an outdoorsy little tableau in which a grizzly bear lumbers through a maze of inner tubes and kayaks suspended from the gallery ceiling. There's a lesson for weekend warriors and Madison Avenue lurking somewhere in there. The exhibit opens with a reception and refreshments at 5:30 p.m. (and is up through Sept. 6) at Picture, 524 Third St. (at South Park), S.F. Admission is free; call 543-4124.
Ready, Steady, Betty Lowbrows will best remember Betty Buckley as Abby, the stepmom from '70s sitcom-drama Eight Is Enough (although "highbrow" may not adequately describe her fine dramatic work in Carrie). Buckley has seen her share of Andrew Lloyd Webber roles, too; she was Grizabella in Cats, for which she won a Tony Award, and she starred most recently as Norma Desmond in London and New York productions of Sunset Boulevard. Stagebill contributor Sheryl Flatow will interview the still-youthful-looking Buckley about the pleasures and perils of her brutal profession at a benefit for the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum at 6 p.m. at Star Classics, 425 Hayes (at Gough), S.F. Admission is $5; call 255-4800.
Say, Can You Sea? With the fate of NEA funding hanging in the balance and small venues regularly closing their doors, it's encouraging to find places like women's performance project space Luna Sea celebrating three years in operation. Over 60 women perform in four different programs over four nights in a marathon of comedy, spoken word, music, dance, and theatrical work representing seasons past. The first night finds Dossie Easton, who turns a sharp and comic phrase with her straightforward brand of erotica and poetry, sharing the bill with Michael Michaelangelo, formerly known as Dolphin Trahan, an engaging performer who gives pop-culture references a refreshing tweak. Hip-hop band Big Daddy Fraude charges up the third night, and performance artist Skeeter, whose mesmerizing tale of adolescent incarceration was a highlight of one of the project's dyke nights, appears in the fourth segment. There isn't room to describe the dozen or so entertainers on each program, so approach this show as the grab bag that it is, and sort through it all later. The marathon begins at 8 p.m. (and continues tomorrow and next Friday and Saturday, July 25 and 26) at Luna Sea, 2940 16th St. (at Capp), S.F. Admission is $8-12; call 863-2989.
Board Silly Surf's always up at "SwitchStance," a sight and sound tribute to local surfing and skateboarding tribes, ushered in by Super 8 film from Bernardo de la Rionda and live surf music sets by the Aqua Velvets and Planet Seven at the opening reception. A sound collage washes over this exhibit of handmade, '60s-era surfboards, surf photography, and paintings by artists who include Kevin Ancell, Jessica Dunne, Mark Bryce, and Elizabeth Pepin. Real Skateboards contributes archival boards to the line graphics and collage work in the skate section, and footage from The Source and Surfing for Life screens as part of a video compilation series. "SwitchStance Cinema" offers still more action with A Love Supreme, a skateboarding documentary set to the music of John Coltrane, along with the aforementioned Surfing for Life, a documentary on senior surfers and surf pioneers, and Skate Witches, a Super 8 featurette by Danny Plotnick. The cinema program begins at 7:30 p.m. July 26 at the San Francisco Art Institute (800 Chestnut). The exhibit opens with the reception tonight at 6 p.m. (and is up through Aug. 30) at the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery, 401 Van Ness (at McAllister), S.F. Admission is free; call 554-6080.