A young woman teeters outside Club 181 on 8-inch, patent leather stripper heels. The shoes are a gleaming shade of naughty nurse white that catches the eye from a block away — perfect for a working girl stuck in the Tenderloin on a drizzly Sunday night. From the looks of it, though, this particular woman is only visiting. Her clean, well-kept face is momentarily stained orange as she takes a long drag off a menthol cigarette. She flicks the butt into the gathering mist and glides past the two hulking doormen, who are checking IDs with a silent bouncer glare. At the top of a long carpeted stairway, a tall, blond drag queen greets guests and hands out programs for tonight's performance of Above and Beyond the Valley of the Ultra Showgirls. The tables and wrought-iron chairs in front of the stage have already filled with an oddball assortment of folks: men in long fluffy coats and women with flapper skirts and inexcusable wigs. Androgynous characters with flowery jackets and beautifully conflicting plaid pants lean against the curving bar or spread out along the step that leads down to the sunken dance floor. Despite, or because of, the decadent speak-easy feel of 181, the PAs buzz with Led Zeppelin's “Whole Lotta Love.” A small breeze from a nearby fan nudges the mirror ball hanging in the middle of the room, sending lazy reflections bobbing across the ruddy walls.
Josie and her companionable handbag, Happy the Kitty, hold court at a nearby table. Josie was last seen attending “Stinky's Peepshow” dressed as a rambunctious cowgirl. Once again, she has accessorized with the occasion in mind. This evening's “showgirl outfit,” as she calls it, includes a coat that matches her cat-formed purse and a sheer, pink dress that leaves no question as to her taste in underthings. A handsome gentleman with shiny black nails and a stylish, Vampire Lestat-like demeanor strokes her red tresses with affection. Across the table, a woman tricked out as a Ziggy Stardust nymphet — red-sequined bodice, super-short shorts, and fishnets — sips cocktails with her companion. As usual, Josie and her friends are present because they are friendly with the evening's performers: Enrique, the costumed masterminds behind the forthcoming musical extravaganza, who will compete visually with the abundance of PVC and leopard skin already in attendance.
“I've been coming to Enrique shows since the '80s,” says Francis Roan, a bleach-blonde with thick-rimmed glasses and tasteful overalls. “They knew that the '70s were cool even before they were over. I'm not sure what they're doin' tonight. Some sort of Beyond-the-Valley-of-the-Dolls-in-Space thing, I think. It'll be fun.” The lights dim and five musicians slip onstage.
“Welcome to the stage, the Super Vixens!” shouts guitarist Peter Fogel. Noodle-artist/Enrique co-founder Jason Mecier enters dressed in a shiny micro-miniskirt and a frizzy auburn wig. He is followed by singer Kathy Fenker in white hip-huggers and a huge, brown super-do. The most made-up of the three frontpeople, co-founder D'Arcy Drollinger, enters wearing a blond wig and a bust-enhancing halter top. They launch into a raucous ditty called “Flesh Popsicle” until Dick Face, president of Warmer Sister Records, pushes his way up to the trio. He is the picture of L.A. sleaze (or “Baby Judy's” high fashion, depending on how you look at it): gold pants, open-collared shirt, after-dark sunglasses, thin mustache. The “girls” introduce themselves: Chardonnay (Mecier), Chablis (Drollinger), and GewYrztraminer (Fenker). Face licks Gert's hand and offers the girls a recording contract. A discussion follows: “There's something fishy about that Dick,” “I like Dick,” “Hey, Dick is huge and he's getting bigger all the time.” The Super Vixens decide to give Warmer Sister a chance.
At their “showcase” gig, Karla Rossi, a sign girl who looks like Traci Lords at her prime (15), gives the musical production an undeniable Cry-Baby feel. She pouts lightly and holds up placards that signify scene changes while flouncing about in a bikini. At the “181 Club,” Dick Face wears a Planet Hollywood T-shirt and gushes over the Vixens' sure hit, “Thunderpussy.” But all is not well in the Valley. Face has a hidden agenda. He introduces GewYrztraminer to her new backup singers, Chianti and Cabernet, and suggests that Gert change her name to Sherry and dump Chablis and Chardonnay. The crowd boos emphatically. Face offers Gert furs, cars, and cell phones in a decidedly Pontius Pilate-does-Jesus Christ Superstar-like manner. Gert/Sherry has to think about things in a Janet-does-The Rocky Horror Picture Show fashion: She sings her thoughts aloud. (It hurts Gert to think, and it hurts us to watch Gert think.) What follows is a series of horrifying happenings (deception, betrayal, drug addiction, murder, near-suicide, prostitution, imprisonment, crippling accidents, and so on) followed by even more horrifying songs (“Medicine [Pills, Booze, Yeah!],” “Arms and Legs,” “Just Screwed the Man Who Broke Up My Band,” and “Running From the Law”) with some alien intervention; and a Laugh-In-style grand finale that is just shy of the full monty. The whistles are genuine and the applause is long-lasting.
“I didn't think they would take off their …,” gasps Sean Morgan in mock exasperation. “I mean, I saw their ….” His eyes grow wide with emotion.
“It was just so bad,” laughs his companion. “It was almost genius.”
“We might become an underground-style Beach Blanket Babylon,” says Peter Fogel.
Maybe. Deep underground.
Enrique's Above and Beyond the Valley of the Ultra Showgirls runs every Sunday in September at Club 181, and every Friday in October at the Paradise Lounge.
By Silke Tudor