By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
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.
Tickets are $25-30
The Orchestra also plays the Tease-O-Rama closing party on Sunday, Sept. 29, at 9:30 p.m. at Broadway Studios, 435 Broadway (at Kearny), S.F. Tickets are $20-25; call 401-1152
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.