"I do not want to miss any thing," she says with careful, feathery articulation, "but I also do not want to be distinct." Originally from Manila, Rosette is small-boned and ageless, as pretty as anything North Beach has to offer. She settles onto a low sidewalk step on Kearny and stretches a languid arm into the night, staring past the neon glow, into the shadowy stars above. The balmy weather and the giddy hustle of Broadway have left Rosette feeling sentimental: Eight years ago, she fell in love with a Navy man with whom she had spent as many weeks, and after he returned to the Chicago area, she followed, aided by the substantial bit of money he had left her.
"Why else would he leave me his address and so much money?" Rosette says demurely, glancing through her false lashes with large, searching, liquid-brown irises.
"Anywho," she says wrinkling her nose, "he tells me he's in love with a woman woman, and he's very angry, so I split and come here, meet some friends on Polk and do okay." But, still, Rosette has a soft spot for men in uniform, and every year, during Fleet Week, she comes to watch the rambunctious young recruits pass by, always hoping for the off chance her man might be among them.
"It's silly. I know. But I want to look at him, just a little," says Rosette, lighting a long, mentholated cigarette and smoothing out her thin, summer dress. "And the men in uniform are cute to watch. But I'm done for military men."
The landscape is littered with uniforms caught in the rosy shadow of strip clubs and adult theaters, the men loud and gunning for a good time. Some dangle out of street-level bar windows, seeming to overflow from the buildings as they heckle fellow servicemen passing by; others stop to talk too long with the exotic dancers outside their theaters, causing the ladies to roll their eyes as the men finally enter. Taken in groups, the men are eye-catching, somehow aesthetically engaging in their solidarity; isolated, they are gangly, overloud, hormone-challenged young males let loose in a strange new city where they are expected to appear bold and dauntless... except for Rosette's mark, a tall, square-shouldered Marine with a well-bred gait, who actually tips his hat before stepping aside to allow two women to pass by on the crowded sidewalk.
"Like Cary Grant," coos Rosette, stepping into the stream.
"Buddy, you don't want a burlesque show," says a civilian to a Navy boy too young to get into the Hi-Ball Lounge. "They don't take it off, and it's sold-out, anyway. Go down the street."
He goes, and misses something. Inside the Hi-Ball, surrounded by red velvet and Barbary Coast zebra skin, the burlesque bump-and-grind of the Fisherman's Xylophonic Brass Orchestra seems to complete the evening's queer sense of nostalgia. An up-tempo go-go number brings to stage the irrepressible Going Going Gone Girls, who shimmy and jiggle in short-shorts and go-go boots. MC Mad Dog, a man "destined to spend his life pulling on doors marked pull," takes the stage in an ill-fitting jacket filled with worse-fitting jokes.
"Working in a burlesque show is like working in a candy store. After the first day, it's no big deal but, oh brother, that first day!" The appropriate bad-joke drum roll is inserted by Fisherman here, and accents nearly every joke hereafter. "How do you put out hot pants? With pantyhose!" The crowd groans appreciatively, and silver-haired Felix Rowan leans over to excitedly squeeze his wife of 19 years.
San Francisco's Tap Darlings take the stage in pink boas and seamed stockings. If not terribly talented, they exhibit an enthusiasm that could charm the cherry out of a Manhattan, and the xylophone trills, and thrills, under the direction of Fisherman and his fez. More bad jokes and booing give way to a lusty song by Toots La Rue - Marilyn Monroe - who inspires a knife fight between two suitors before being saved by a man in a gorilla suit. Then the statuesque Kaotica du Flambeau enters through a plume of stifling incense to do the "dance of the mother goddess," an awkward, sexless belly-dance made dangerous by a flaming sword precariously balanced on her head. More bad jokes.
Forty-six-year-old Laura Ethington moans, "This is not titillating. There should be more boom-boom in burlesque," and wipes sweat from her brow. As if on cue, Mad Dog calls for an intermission, which sends the stage crew scampering onstage to struggle with a giant white screen in a way that would make the kings of slapstick proud. A few audience members of nervous dispositions, or short attention spans, leave the club, just as San Francisco's six-gal burlesque squad, the Cantankerous Lollies, appears in curvaceous silhouette behind the screen. Red hair, black hair, and platinum - their attributes are called out in verse as they sidle in front of the spotlight with Spanish shawls, fans, top hats, guns, and stilettos, with only their high-heeled feet revealed beneath the screen in vivid Technicolor.
"That's a little better," smiles Ethington as the Lollies exit and the stage crew once again struggles uproariously with the screen while the be-fezzed band continues its steady grind. After a moment, the entertainers return in fishnets and red tassels for synchronized chair dancing that requires a trollop in the audience to give up her seat. After another moment, it's long slinky gowns in pastel colors, with matching parasols that only occasionally threaten the dancers' high-piled, long-tendriled wigs; then white crinolines, ruffly underwear, and a can-can line that leaves someone in the crowd roaring, "Is it the heat, or the ladies?" The Going Going Gone Girls return with bikinis and Laugh-Injubilance while we await the featured attraction, Hollywood's Velvet Hammer Burlesque.
"Kitten Delight is a green-eyed, platinum-haired goddess who likes to listen to the Sonics while tooling around in her '63 Dodge Dart station wagon," reads Mad Dog. Miss Delight arrives on stage, all smooth-skinned and Hollywood-tanned. Under the grumble of Tom Waits, she quickly strips down to a beaded G-string and tassels. Ursalina follows, equally tan and blonde, in a huge pink boa and genie wrap, which she quickly loses. Then, it's the exotic Valentina Violette, who arrives in a gorilla mask with silver cuffs on her wrists and her ankles. Taking tropical inspiration from burlesque queen Blaze Starr, Violette rips off her mask and writhes to "jungle drums" before stripping off her zebra-skin loin cloth. Lastly, Miss Exotic World 1999 Lotus Derringer takes the stage in a beaded G-string that shimmers with every slow, methodical twitch. She smiles and flirts with darting eyes and a no-effort lipstick-red smile. She balances a sword atop a fall of perfect ebony hair accented by a large white flower. She pauses and shakes, undulating slowly. For the first time in the night, the sweltering room seems silent, lit only by Derringer's pale, luminescent skin. She slinks out of her glittery beads, down to a thin gold G-string and pasties. Within seconds, the mystique is gone and so is she.
"I bet that's how burlesque used to look back in the old days," says Nathan Iyer. "Like that Derringer chick. I think it's funny how the girls from San Francisco are kind of silly and messy and cute, and the girls from L.A. are all slick and professional like strippers. I don't know where that last girl was from, but she was pretty cool."
Outside, Rosette has returned to her stair on Kearny.
"I'm done for military men," she says with a breathy pout. "Good watching, only." She indicates the seat next to her and offers me a smoke. "Were the women inside prettier than me?" A slight roll of the shoulder joins the big, liquid brown eyes.
"Not much," I say.
"I could dance for San Francisco next time?"
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