In 2003 I had the extreme pleasure of performing in the Lucky Stiff show at the Pussycat Lounge in New York's Financial District. The Pussycat has a cabaret venue upstairs and a regular strip joint downstairs. I've worked in the strip joint and I have to say it was different from any other strip joint I've ever worked in: it was all stage, topless only, people handing dollars across the bar to us, very little mingling, and no drink sales, table dances, or VIP rooms. Next door is a pizza parlor where the waitresses do lap dances in the back. The only place I can think of that remotely compares to it is the Clermont Lounge in Atlanta--which also houses rock shows on occasion.
Upstairs, the Pussycat's stage features live bands and other performances, which was where Lucky Stiff came in. The show was the brainchild of Tyler Fyre and Keith Bindlestiff, and it fused uncensored circus, sideshow, and anarchic burlesque. New York burlesque has had a long association with circus and sideshow; Dick Zigun has been nurturing burlesque at Coney Island's Sideshows by the Seashore for over 15 years, and the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus--I love love love me some BFC--has been featuring burlesque performers as well as brilliant sideshow and circus acts in its adults-only productions for well over a decade. I did some of the most bizarre things I've ever done onstage with Lucky Stiff, and I miss it still.
When I found out that my favorite independent circus will be spending Sundays in March at my favorite theatre, the Zipper, I decided the time couldn't be better to interview some folks who've had a significant part in the development of the New York burlesque scene. My good Friend Keith Nelson, also known as Mr. Pennygaff, took time out from his busy rope-twirling, balloon-swallowing schedule to contribute to this blog.
First, the Bindlestiff Bio:
Bindlestiff Family Variety Arts, Inc. (BFVA) is a non-profit performing arts organization dedicated to increasing the knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the history of circus, sideshow, vaudeville, and related arts through activities including performances, lectures, and workshops. We pride our organization on being a successor to variety entertainment's long tradition of making American folk arts accessible to the public. Through performance, teaching, and outreach, BFVA preserves, contemporizes, and enriches the cultural heritage of the variety arts.
In 1994 Keith Nelson met Stephanie Monseu and formed Fireplay, a pyrotic fire manipulating duo. Fireplay performed throughout the late night and underground world of New York City in such legendary shows as Otter's Trip and Go Naked, Jennifer Blowdryers' Smutfest, Charles Gatewoods Deviant Playground, and the Blue Angel Cabaret. The next year Fireplay, with the addition of performers like Baby Dee and James Murphy, evolved into the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. Bindlestiff was founded in 1995 as a variety arts performance series, Bindlestiff has since evolved into a multifaceted performance and educational organization. We incorporated as a non-profit variety arts organization in 1999.
Bindlestiff’s activities, which have involved more than 330 artists in just the past five years, include an annual winter season exhibiting a vast array of artists from New York and around the world; a nationally touring summer show (the 2007 tour included 33 cities in 14 states); original theatrical productions, including 2005's From the Gutter to the Glitter, presented at the Theater for the New City as part of Bindlestiff's 10-year anniversary season; a youth program; school workshops and programs; and partnerships with various arts organizations and educational institutions. In 2004 Bindlestiff launched the Cavalcade of Youth, a youth program offering the opportunity to hone their skills with variety arts professionals and perform. The Cavalcade of Youth program continues to expand as it enters its fifth season. Bindlestiff has also taught circus arts to city youth and has lectured and performed at colleges and universities.
Bindlestiff continually develops partnerships to fulfill its mission. From 2002-2004, in association with chashama, Bindlestiff created and operated the Palace of Variety and Free Museum of Times Square, a contemporary vaudeville house and dime museum. In 2005, in association with Play Outside, BFVA presented a free outdoor season in New York City parks. In 2007, Bindlestiff directed a two-week summer circus camp at Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island. Bindlestiff has participated in New York festivals and events, such as the Lower East Side Arts Festival, Coney Island's Siren Musical Festival, and New York's annual juggling festival.
And now, to interview my magical friends.
What is your vision for the Cirkus?
The Cirkus provides a roller coaster ride of glitter, grit, sawdust, sweat, daring acts, and amazing feats of strength. My goal has always been to entertain "his majesty, the people," and when possible to get folks thinking, and possibly even learn something.
Through Cirkus, Bindlestiff brings together community. We have become a hub for the variety arts.
Bindlestiff started as a traveling family of entertainers taking live performance across America to an overly television based culture.
When did you add burlesque to the mix?
Burlesque has been an integral part of the Bindlestiff mix since day one. I would say that in a sense, we have been able to pave the way for many of the shows and performers that have become the NY Burlesque scene. When I started performing in NY there were not Burlesque shows happening in the same way they are today. We performed variety acts in strip clubs: Lap dancing, strippers, jugglers, fire eaters, magicians, etc all sharing the stage.
What made you think burlesque would be a good complement to your show?
Circus and sexy acts have always been together. In the hey day of burlesque, circus and variety acts were a norm on the bill.
What makes a burlesque act interesting to you?
Skill acts--Juggling, rope spinning, magic, acrobatics, aerial, and tassle twirling--are what really makes a burlesque act interesting to me. I always seek the acts that tear down walls and force you to contemplate. In the traditional sense the tease is the most intriguing aspect. I can go anywhere to see someone naked, but to see someone who really knows how to take off a glove.... Ah, that is art!
Who are some of your favorite burlesque performers, and why?
As far as the folks from the past, my heart goes out to all the baggy pants comedians and variety acts who filled the bill of the burlesque show. These are the unsung heros cuz one can only watch so many sexy ladies.
As far as the currently working folks, my favorites include:
Jo Boobs, she is real and has an amazing understanding of the many facets of the more risque entertainment. [As always, I tell people that if they don't say something nice about me, they'll never work in this town again.}
Julie Atlas Muz. I continue to be impressed by the creative genius that makes Julie.
Dirty Martini. She is the master of tassel twirling.
Little Brooklyn. Have been entertained by watching her develop into one of the current burlesque stars!
And in the gender bender realm, Scotty the Blue Bunny and Tigger are my favorites.
You do both a PG and an R-Rated show. Which version do you do most frequently? What mix would be a perfect balance for you?
I would say we present G, PG and R. In our youth we were a bit more extreme. But now that I near forty, I have less need to drop trouser on stage. These days we do mostly a PG sort of thing. I personally like an equal balance. Ever since Pee Wee Herman's career was destroyed, I have had to wrestle with the reality that America is not open minded enough to understand that an entertainer can do amazing work on many facets. In Pee Wee's case, his reputation was destroyed simply because he had healthy adult some of our more colorful urges.
Can you tell me a bit about what's in store for audiences at the Zipper shows in March?
We will continue to present the unique blend of Circus, Sideshow, Vaudeville, and Burlesque that has made Bindlestiff Family Cirkus a New York icon.
I went this past Sunday and got to see one amazing act after another, including a balloon-twisting dominatrix and few contortionist friends visiting from Seattle's Circus Contraption. The 'Stiffs know how to put on a show!
Be sure to check out the Bindlestiffs on Sundays in March! I'll be there for certain.
The Bindlestiff Website
I also HIGHLY recommend checking out their DVD and music CDs. The Bindlestiffs always have incredible live music!