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Night Crawler 

And Now, the Devil-Ettes

Wednesday, Nov 10 1999
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And Now, the Devil-Ettes
A bevy of Devil-Ettes step onto an elevator in the Las Vegas airport. Bleary from four endless nights in Sin City, they adjust their matching red satin Devil-Ettes jackets and, with valiant flicks of their pigtails, set their cigarette smoke-dried eyes on the final stretch of carpet that will put them on a plane headed for home. After nearly nine months of preparation, the Las Vegas Grind - an annual go-go garage-rock gala that draws bands and fans from around the world to a tawdry Vegas hotel called the Gold Coast - is over. Exhaustion and relief are stippled with the hints of postpartum comedown, but the women joke and smile in their fatigued yet dauntless Devil-Ette way.

"Devil-Ettes! Devil-Ettes! Deviiiil-Eeeettes!"

The howl erupts from a group of well-sauced Brits on the escalator below who, in their 200th hour of boozing, have spied San Francisco's consummate synchronized dance troupe and taken it in their heads to touch them. A farcical chase ensues, up the escalator, through the waiting lounge, to the departure gate, where the blokes kneel at the dancers' feet begging for a photo.

It is the Devil-Ettes' Beatles' movie moment.

"There were a lot of Beatles' movie moments," says 28-year-old Saida Benguerel, more commonly known as The Cheerleader.

Twelve days earlier, The Cheerleader had dropped a 45-pound weight on her foot, severely breaking her toe. During the Grind, whenever the Devil-Ettes walked through the rowdy sold-out crowd, you could imagine The Cheerleader's internal mantra: "Please don't step on my foot. Please, please don't step on my foot." And still she danced -- day and night, all weekend, in the parking lot, in the casino, on the stage, and around the pool. Like the rest of the Devil-Ettes, she didn't do it for cash. (Most of the girls had to purchase their own tickets to the Grind, even though they were included as an attraction in the program.) She didn't do it for fame. (Britain's Channel Four filmed an interview, but there is no surety in its airing.) She didn't do it for love. (A monthlong visit with her beau in England actually left her feeling guilty about her absence from the troupe.) She did it for the Devil-Ettes.

The Devil-Ettes begin as a no-talent answer to a Christmas show held at the Radio Valencia. The 12-girl "synchronized dance troupe," mostly comprised of employees from Radio Valencia and its sister bar, Casanova, has a built-in fan base of indulgent customers and friends. The girls laughingly call themselves the Holiday Hoes. But something clicks. Before you can say "'60s cheesecake kitsch," the Devil-Ettes are playing underground parties. Fliers begin to appear in bars, nightclubs, restaurants, and hair salons; signs show up at yard sales and in apartment windows. Very quickly underground parties give way to legitimate club gigs, filled with Devil-Ette swag and custom costumes. There is a buzz on the street, and who better to keep it buzzing than a dozen sassy gals in the service industry.

Baby Doe, known as The Enforcer, emerges as co-choreographer and undisputed leader of the group, not for her dance experience, which is limited to a childhood admiration of the Solid Gold dancers, but for her enthusiasm. With the Devil-Ettes, contagious enthusiasm is passé partout. In fact, no one is kicked out of the troupe for lack of talent or mien, only for lack of time and compatibility. They rehearse at least twice a week for two hours, more right before a show. During auditions, which swell the glittery devil-horned ranks to 18, a personal questionnaire holds as much weight as the routine.

"We should all want to drink a beer together after rehearsal, you know?" says The Cheerleader, whose title comes more from her willingness to do PR - she contacted Lord Martine and The Man Who Came to Dinner - than her personality or physical type.

"I have a bad knee, an old basketball injury. I'm a bit of a bigger girl," says The Cheerleader, "but size and shape doesn't matter in the Devil-Ettes."

The idea of playing Las Vegas sets off a flurry of theme benefits -- prom night, toga party, pool party, slumber party, and a grand finale dress rehearsal - that reduce the financial strain of airfare, room, board, and flashy costumes for 18. Each fete is lavishly decorated, with custom apparel and routines to match. There are collectible programs with details on the "Devil-Ette of the Month." (The Temptress wears size 9 shoes and enjoys playing with dogs, spending money needlessly, and tasting red wine; The Sleeper likes warm peach pie, barbiturates, sky-blue nail polish, and choreographing for the girls.) There are Devil-Ette recipes (Devil's Food Cake, Deviled Eggs, Fried Devil Dogs), cocktails (Rum Twist), dating tests (from a 1960 magazine for teens), official wines (Ritratti), and sponsors (the Satanic Mechanics, whose 2000 pinup calendar includes three Devil-Ettes). There are T-shirts, Polaroid snapshots courtesy of Satanic Mechanics' Colin Herrick, and customized big-head drawings. Amid the furor of the accelerating cottage industry emerge documentary filmmakers Bob Lucas and Joe Dilliberto.

Folks begin amassing Devil-Ettes paraphernalia and arguing at the bar over their first choice (The Young One with her wild hair and good butt, or The Barracuda with her bad-girl smirk and button nose). Women like the diversity of the offerings (short, tall, skinny, plump), and men like the similarity (18 ladies in matching plumage). "Don't pick one, collect them all," says a devotee with well-carved sideburns, embroidered dice on his shirt, and six snapshots peeking out of his pocket.

Still, swag sales can raise only so much cash, and some of the Devil-Ettes decide to diversify, entering a local roller-skating competition. It's no contest. Literally. The Devil-Ettes perform, there's no more contest. The $100 goes into the Vegas fund. Never mind that Skates on Haight is already a proud sponsor.

With only a month to go, rehearsals kick into overdrive - 20 days out of 30 - while everyone scrambles to work full-time jobs raising money for odds and ends (fish- nets, boas, slot machines, cigarettes). On the last night, The Enforcer works the girls hard. They go through each routine again and again and again. Anne O'Leary, The Bunny Girl, a statuesque 32-year-old former wrestler and soccer player, never loses her irrepres- sible smile.

"Through the Devil-Ettes, I've become something of a girl's girl, instead of a boy's girl," says The Bunny Girl. "When I was younger, I could've never done something so girly, but this is not about being cool. It's about fun and really working together."

At the end of rehearsal, The Enforcer passes around critique cards to be filled out at home, a check-in card to be filled out at the hotel, a routine schedule, a costume check-off, and a release form for Channel Four. Nan -- the Devil-Ettes' adopted den mother played with loving affection by Bob McIntyre -- passes out pencils. Then, without a word, everyone pitches in cash for the absent Devil-Ette whose finances have gotten in the way.

In Vegas, three of the Devil-Ettes are hindered by a late hotel shuttle. The rest of the troupe cross fingers and ready costumes for the latecomers, who stumble out of a cab just minutes before show time. In a sequin's twinkle, they're dressed in star-spangled glory and on the dance floor - the second level of an outdoor parking garage where, under a surreal desert skyline of neon lights, Egyptian pyramids, and Eiffel Towers, the Devil-Ettes perform a roller skate routine to "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Get On the Line" by the Archies, blaring out of a hatchback. The crowd of 50 or so in-the-know giggle and applaud appreciatively before strolling back to the bar.

Later that night, despite faulty music cues, the red toga-ed Devil-Ettes gallantly lead a chariot carrying underground British rock legend Billy Childish and Thee Mighty Caesars into the Gold Coast ballroom. The crowd goes wild, saluting with "Hail Caesar!" and raised fists. The Devil-Ettes are embraced by a new, somewhat cosmopolitan crowd that includes at least six Japanese superfans and a harmless Norwegian stalker. The following day, despite hangovers and roulette-table stares, a large Grind crowd, including Channel Four, turns out at the pool to watch a swimwear routine set to "Devil in Disguise" by Elvis and "C'mon Everybody Let's Swim" by the LifeGuards.

Ruthie Parejo, aka The Tumbler -- a 30-year-old ex-Olympic-level gymnast, veteran bike messenger, and devoted mother of a 3 1/2-year-old boy -- kills time for a faulty boombox with some spontaneous handstands, then joins the routine, which ends with half the Devil-Ettes in the pool wearing swimming caps with horn-holes. Props are lost in the water, but spectators are hooked, and, just like back home, word begins to spread. The grass-skirt hula routine kicks off the main-stage festivities at 5, and later the Devil-Ettes are caught in baby-doll nightgowns dancing in front of the slot machines with stuffed animals to Annette Funicello songs. No one gambling seems to mind in the least, and after the Devil-Ette cheer, the women are approached for more photo ops. But the cheer is a point of contention.

On closing night, an outraged punk chick adds insult to hurriedly repaired costumes and stage-fright sweat by yelling, "You're all just a bunch of cheerleaders!" This is not a shock for 24-year-old Krista Halverson, aka The Daddy's Girl, a former varsity cheerleader who once appeared on ESPN: "I am frequently reminded by other Devil-Ettes that they would have kicked my ass when I was 18. Cheerleading is not a socially acceptable outlet in San Francisco. ... Girls have their pictures taken with us because this is a positive way to be sexy and vibrant, to be exhibitionists without degrading ourselves."

"It's a thin line," says The Tumbler, who opted not to do the Devil-Ette cheer despite the allure of being San Francisco's very own dysfunctional cheerleaders. "Most of us are old punk rockers and drug addicts, and it's funny, but there are some good girls in the Devil-Ettes, too, and the joke doesn't always play out as American kitsch. Some people are going to think 'sorority caste system.'"

Still, good friends and fun outweigh teen politics.

During the Devil-Ettes' final routine, when a nearly naked man jumps onstage and dances along, members of the audience shout, "Fuck you! Get off the stage!" At stage right, nine Devil-Ettes, completely unaware of the man's presence, professionally grin through the humiliation of what they think is heckling; at stage left, The Barracuda kicks the man in the ass and knocks him into the audience. The crowd cheers.

"They are a particularly San Francisco phenomenon, I think," says documentarian Bob Lucas. "So diverse and interesting as individuals. And there are so many of them, committed to this strange thing."

Now what?

The opinions are as varied as the women - a few local shows here and there, world tours, and television. Who knows? For now, we can look forward to a "Devil's Den" party at Cafe Du Nord on Nov. 29 and a tiki Christmas bash at the Parkway Theater in Oakland on Dec. 9. Thanks girls.

Send comments, quips, and tips to crawler@sfweekly.com.

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Silke Tudor

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