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Sophisticated Boom Boom 

S.F.'s Famous Burlesque Orchestra provides a safe haven for punks, gorillas, and other odd characters

Wednesday, Sep 25 2002
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Burlesque is back in a big way -- and we're not just talking bra size. The bawdy theatrical form, which disappeared after the advent of topless bars and porno flicks in the '60s, was originally considered high art (or at least high lowbrow art). Striptease icons such as Lili St. Cyr, Sally Rand, and Gypsy Rose Lee were on a par with movie stars. They wore elaborate costumes, performed intricate dance numbers, and often took very little off -- a far cry from today's strippers, who wander aimlessly across the stage before bursting free of whatever bits of fabric they have on.

But thanks to a growing number of former punks and disillusioned swing kids, burlesque has been resurrected with a postmodern, DIY spin. Michelle Carr fired the first shot, starting up the Velvet Hammer dance troupe in Los Angeles in 1995, with swing combo Royal Crown Revue often providing tunes. Soon after, one-time S.F. resident Lorelei Fuller formed the Shim Shamettes, a 15-member "beauty chorus" based out of New Orleans' Shim Sham Club, named after a similar Big Easy venue from the '30s. Along with its backing band the Shim Sham Revue, the company re-creates vintage routines from past legends, including Kitty West's famed Evangeline the Oyster Girl number.

As you'd expect, the Bay Area overflows with burlesque talent. There are the Devil-Ettes, a constantly growing ensemble of kitschily coiffed hoofers led by Baby Doe, the co-founder of America's first burlesque convention, Tease-O-Rama. (The second annual Tease-O-Rama takes place in San Francisco this week at Bimbo's and Broadway Studios, featuring over 200 performers.) There are Dane's Dames, the vaudeville slap(stick)-and-tickle outfit of ex-swing maven Eddie Dane; the Go-Going Gone Girls, a '60s song-and-dance troupe; and the Cantankerous Lollies, a trio of showgirls with a taste for French cancan and slinky cabaret. The glue that holds these acts together is S.F.'s Famous Burlesque Orchestra, a bunch of lapsed piano punks, warped accordionists, acid-jazzers, and horny gorillas who happily put the ring in ring-a-ding-ding.


S.F.'s Famous Burlesque Orchestra grew out of Fisherman's Famous Burlesque, a group started by Brian Lease in 1998 to provide sophisticated boom boom for the Cantankerous Lollies. Fisherman's Burlesque quickly became a repository for members of the local rock scene, including East Bay Ray, the Dead Kennedys guitarist who'd played with Lease in the saucy lounge group Frenchy; ex-Thinking Fellers drummer Paul Bergmann; and one-time Courtney Love bandmate Suzanne Ramsey.

In the mid-'80s Ramsey played with Love and future members of Babes in Toyland and L7 in a band called both Sugar Baby Doll and Sugar Babylon. "We were heavily influenced by the Cocteau Twins," she laughs, comparing the act with the wimpy, ethereal '80s altrockers. "I was the floweriest pianist you ever heard -- I [played] like a fairy running through the woods."

Not surprisingly, Sugar Baby Doll didn't last long. After the group broke up in 1987, Ramsey dropped out of the music scene, taking a job at a San Francisco antique store and working the occasional wedding and bar mitzvah. Ten years later, a customer introduced her to 80-year-old Bob Grimes, who supplies cabaret stars the world over with sheet music. After he gave Ramsey some "racy, naughty, silly stuff," her musical career was reborn. Calling herself "Kitten on the Keys," Ramsey began performing lascivious tunes from the '20s and '30s, numbers like Fats Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose," which she says is "a song about pussy, honey."

"I've always had a fascination for it," Ramsey says of the old-time style. "I used to skip school and stay home and watch old movies, especially Shirley Temple, Laurel & Hardy, and the Little Rascals."

"[The music's] gosh-darn fun," she continues. "It took a lot of intellect -- there's all this veiled naughtiness going on. They actually had to be very clever and very witty, and I don't think a lot of songwriters are very clever and witty today."

Ramsey's singing voice -- a hilarious Betty Boop coo that seems to wiggle as it leaves her lips -- is perfect for the songs. She has a terrific sense of phrasing as well, going from move-that-hand-just-don't-remove-that-hand flirtation to brassy give-me-what-I-need oomph. Her piano playing travels from jaunty to delicate to lurid with the grace of a cat.

And just when you think you've seen all of Ramsey's talents, she'll bust out with her Shirley Temple striptease, in which she sheds her threads to a lewd version of "On the Good Ship Lollipop."

Ramsey soon discovered that there were plenty of like-minded folks around town. Besides her solo show, she began playing smutty duets with Daddy Frank & the Uke You Can't Refute, accompanying the high-flying kicks of the Cantankerous Lollies, and tickling the ivories with Fisherman's Famous Burlesque, which originally featured one of her musical heroes, East Bay Ray.

"I tried to pay [Ray] off for sexual favors but ended up with autographed pink ruffle-y panties," Ramsey says. "I wear 'em to shows for good luck -- a peek is only a quarter."


Like Ramsey, Paul Bergmann, leader and bassist of S.F.'s Famous Burlesque Orchestra, began his musical career far from the dance halls of burlesque. He drummed for local art-rock combo Thinking Fellers in the late '80s, and later played with Barbara Manning's SF Seals, Mingo 2000, and other area indie bands. By 1997, however, he'd changed his focus and was performing with Brian Lease in what Bergmann describes as a "tiki bebop band." When the group was asked to play a one-off show called "Tease-O-Rama" at the Cocodrie, the members rounded up some dancers and learned some "raunchy '40s to '60s" tunes.

After hooking up with the Cantankerous Lollies the following year, the combo morphed into Fisherman's Famous Burlesque, a group that played with one foot on the Sunset Strip and the other in the gutter. Last August, Lease moved to New York City, and Bergmann changed the band's moniker and took over the reins. Currently, the ensemble includes Polkacide leader and saxophonist Ward Abronski (who blew on Flipper's punk classic "Sex Bomb"), trumpeter Andy DeGiovanni, one-time acid-jazz star Paul Scriver, ex-punk guitarist Frank Novicki, and former Jumbo Shrimp drummer Dana Burt, along with Kitten on the Keys.

Why are so many punks and rockers drawn to this sound? "It's still lowbrow sort of stuff," Bergmann explains with a laugh. "It's artistic but it's not high art."

Burlesque may not be high art, but it has provided the band with some unusual live gigs. Earlier this year, the troupe headed to L.A., where it played the famed Brown Derby as Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and five of his blond girlfriends watched. Then the collective traveled to Exotic World, the museum owned by the 70-year-old self-proclaimed "Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque," Dixie Evans. Out in the Mojave Desert, the group delivered backup music for routines by old-time queens Tempest Storm and Dee Milo and participated in accordion jams, fire-breathing contests, and Spin the Bottle games with former light technicians for ELO.

Burlesque Orchestra shows can take many forms. While the band supplies everything from sleazy noir-jazz to bopping pop-crunch to sultry spy-lounge, MC Mad V. Dog offers up comedic chestnuts that are funny because they're completely unfunny. The Cantankerous Lollies always kick up a storm, as do the Go-Going Gone Girls. Molotov and Felicity may swallow swords or breath fire, Simone de la Getto might sing "Zing Went the Strings of My Petticoat," and the Boing Boing Boy occasionally doffs his clothes while hopping on a pogo stick. If things get a little stale, there's always Gorilla X, who has practiced his banana-and-Red Bull-fueled hijinks onstage with No Doubt and on screen on TV's Maury.

"It's funny, it's mirthful, with a real powerful sense of humor, a real shtick, naughty and playful," pianist Ramsey says.

"The appeal for me in all burlesque is the creative titillation," says Novicki, who replaced guitarist Ray six months ago. "It's not pornographic, but it is pretty nasty, depending on how dirty your mind is. And it's not just a bunch of good-looking girls running around the stage taking their clothes off."

As for why the burlesque revival has been such a success, Novicki postulates, "This isn't a bunch of hacks trying to get a record deal or trying to be the next big thing -- it's people trying to put on a really good show."


SHOW AND TELL

Oddly enough, most folks go to Tease-O-Rama for the tease, not the tunes. Here are some of the highlights of the convention -- from solo sirens to tawdry troupes, horny honkers to hot how-tos.

Dance Workshop S.F.'s Brazilian burlesque group Hot Pink Feathers offers tips on how to shake and shimmy with the best of them.

The Gun St. Girls While this Seattle/Portland troupe dresses old-fashioned, it dances only to modern sounds -- punk, punk, and more punk. Using whips and guns onstage, Miss A. Sphyxia, Hangman Lola, and the other vixens drag glitter through the gutter.

Harvest Moon (featuring Fisherman) Having started the Cantankerous Lollies in San Francisco in 1995, Harvest Moon danced off to New York with multi-instrumentalist Brian Lease (ex-Fisherman's Famous Burlesque) last year. The couple's act, which they still perform in the Big Apple, includes hula hoops, contortions, and a mean-sounding xylophone.

The History of Burlesque New Orleans-based filmmaker Rick Delaup unveils the naked truth about old-time burlesque. Complete with guest commentary from icon Kitty West and film clips from the '50s.

Dee Milo Now in her 70s, this legendary hoofer began her career in 1949 as "the Venus of Dance." Hopefully, she'll perform her famous tease routines like "Sentimental Journey," in which she depicts a lovers' reunion after wartime, and "I Married an Angel," which provides a glimpse at what happens after the ceremony.

Pasty-making Workshop When not singing and dancing at New York's Le Scandal cabaret, Miss Bonnie Dunn shows ladies (and men, if they like) how to fashion their very own nipple protectors. Start the holiday gift-buying season off right.

The Sophisticats & the Sophistikittens New Orleans' answer to the Devil-Ettes, the Sophistikittens shake, rattle, and roll to the vintage sounds of the Sophisticats. Anything from surfy rumble to rumba lounge to bluesy swagger is fair game, as long as the horns are honking and the dames are dancing dirty.

Dita Von Teese This pinup girl is often called "The Modern-Day Bettie Page." On her Web site, www.dita.net, she proudly declares that she wears only vintage clothing and drives around in a 1939 Chrysler New Yorker. She's scheduled to be on the cover of Playboy in December, and Bizarre magazine once declared her the third "most sexiest woman."

The World Famous Bob This New Yorker's claim to fame is her ability to mix martinis in her cleavage. Who says burlesque ain't high art?

The World Famous Pontani Sisters While Helen, Tara, and Angie are indeed sisters, there's no way to know if they are, in fact, world famous. (Well, they have appeared in Dutch and Italian magazines.) Still, the trio proves that the family that strips together stays together -- especially when reviving old vaudeville, MGM musical, and Tin Pan Alley numbers. As seen on Late Night With Conan O'Brien.

About The Author

Dan Strachota

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