[This article was originally published March 5, 2009.]
I have been extremely lucky to work with some of the best musicians in burlesque. I've been performing, or at least dancing, to live music all my life, including one glorious night with Spinal Tap, but most of the time I was just dancing along to the music. In burlesque with live music, there's real collaboration. The dancers rehearse their numbers with the bands, and the musicians watch the dancers to see if they need to give them a drum hit when a glove drops to the floor, if the music needs to be sped up or slowed down, or if they need to repeat a form until the dancer is ready to finish her number.
In New York we have live music at the Slipper Room every Wednesday night with amazing musicians including Brian Fisherman, with whom I've been performing for over 10 years, Le Scandal has featured The New York City Blues Devils and the Le Scandal Orchestra, Big Apple Burlesque features a live band every week, Brian Newman produces a burlesque show with his trio at Duane Park, and there's more, including pianist and arranger Albert Garzon, who seeks out old burlesque music and creates shows based on burlesque legends like Lydia Thompson, Georgia Sothern, and Gypsy Rose Lee. We have a wealth of live music in our burlesque. While most cities that have a burlesque scene have a swing band or two that will collaborate with dancers in some burlesque shows, and more and more shows are working with their own bands, in this city we have long had a wealth of extremely talented and devoted musicians that are specifically interested in collaborating with burlesque shows and doing music intended specifically for burlesque dancers.
At the moment we're fortunate to have our own native son, Brooklyn-born Ronnie Magri, in his hometown. While living in New Orleans, he helped to create a scene there that fostered dancers who would become The Atomic Bombshells of Seattle, who recently performed in Shanghai.
I know Ronnie from another life, when he was in a rock band called The Throbs.
I also showed my photographs in a group show about burlesque with his amazing and beautiful wife, painter Charlene Lanzel.
More recently I've had the privilege of using his music on my instructional DVDs produced by World Dance New York, and of discussing a long term project I have in mind to promote appreciation of the music historically used in burlesque striptease, and the musicians who choose to collaborate with burlesque dancers today. Several months ago I interviewed him for this blog, and we decided to save the interview for the release of the DVD. So here it is, at long last, an interview with one of the legends of the burlesque revival!
First, tell us a little about the Throbs.
I joined The Throbs in the late 80s and we got signed to Geffen records, I suppose we were the hot shot New York band of the time. We were supposed to be the New York Guns N Roses, which was the kiss of death. It was a great band though. We got Little Richard to play piano and had Alice Coopers producer Bob Ezrin--we worked till ‘91 and we got dropped because we weren’t grungey. I kicked around New York a bit and ended up moving to New Orleans in 95. [The Throbs also played a reunion show at Don Hill's in January of 2009.]
How did you end up in New Orleans?
While I was making The Throbs record with Little Richard he was talking about New Orleans a lot and I moved there thinking I was going to play r n b, but that wasn’t happening. I kept going back and got into 20s 30s 40s type jazz. The first year I went all I did was listen, I didn’t play, I took it all in. I would just go sit and listen to people and would go watch my favorite drummers, I didn’t play at all, was just a fan, an observer of the music. That’s how I got into more jazz, which I wasn’t into in New York.
The thing about New Orleans is that music is a necessity there. It’s just not that important to people in New York now, but there were so many clubs and bands in New Orleans to play with, a real community, people willing to help you out. Tennessee Williams had a quote that New Orleans was the only city that ever loved him back. In New Orleans people care and want to help you. It was easy to just sit in with people and then the next think you're getting a call to do gigs. It just rolled. It was about helping each other out. Here a drummer would do a gig dying sick because he was afraid he’d lose his gig. It was a different vibe to get into the jazz New Orleans scene.
Above: At the Shim Sham Club
What was the Shim Sham Club?
It was a club in the French Quarter, operating under the name Maxwell's, and for years it was just a beautiful theater that was just falling apart. They would have bad music there. A friend of mine named Morgan Higby [associate producer of Shortbus] lived in LA and New Orleans, and he called me up one day and said he'd bought Maxwell’s Cabaret. He'd done a movie [Matters of Consequence] that featured the Pussycat Dolls in 199. When he moved to NOLA he wanted to do a burlesque kind of club. He decided to rename the space the Shim Sham Club after a place Louis Prima's brother Leon had owned, along with the 500 club where dancers like Lilly Christine had performed. Opening night we did a burlesque show with Sam Butera who had never played New Orleans even though it was his ome town. We did a show thinking it would be a one night only thing and when you put all that work into a show for one night it’s over so fast and you have the costumes and music and acts. Morgan decided to try it monthly, then weekly, every Sunday, two shows a night, and that was it. It just took off from there. New Orleans has such a history of burlesque. That got a lot of the press the media behind us. For better or for worse NEw Orleans has been known as sort of like a museum, where nothing was really about the future, it’s all about the past, so we’re recreating this, and the press ate it up, helped us get a crowd of locals, tourists, young and old. We couldn’t rely on any one type of audience. We got that it wasn’t a hipster underground thing.
We had the club owner behind us. We could use the space for rehearsals.
He paid for the girls' costumes, paid the girls, paid for the band, the music that had to be written, so we had backing. I don’t think we would have been able to do it that long if it hadn’t been for him.
Who were the dancers?
Kitten LaRue and The Atomic Bombshells came from the Shim Sham dancers, I'm proud to see what they've done. There were about a hundred dancers that went through our revues and I think half a dozen of them stuck with it. There were still some burlesque dancers that were still alive, Kitty West the Oyster Girl, Wild Cherry, and Linda Brigette. They would come to give lessons. Those women would come down during rehearsals and give the girls pointers. I was there for a couple of those sessions and it was not pretty. They would tell the girls straight out, you’re walking like a truck driver. That was one of Kitty’s favorite lines. A couple of the girls really wanted to learn and listened anyway.
The show was open for five years till Morgan left New Orleans and the people from the shows scattered all over the country. Dita performed with us several times.
What was it like to make the cd?
There was so little burlesque music on cd. I had a seven piece band every Sunday night, and I had the best band in the city. The band was phenomenal. Of course at the beginning I didn’t think about doing a cd and people kept asking for one. The demand brought me to it. It was kind of tricky because I had all those burlesque records and they’re all novelty records. I wanted to make a record that could be serious jazz record but burlesquey, fun but real. Over the course of time I picked out songs. The good thing about it was being able to do these shows and songs over the years, to find out what worked. We had the guitar player from Dr John’s band, the piano player from Gatemouth Brown’s band, the trumpet player from Squirrel Nut Zippers, Ruth Brown's bass player! We took two days in the studio and laid down the tracks. John Polt did liner notes about the musicians in burlesque, and Rick Delaup provided a history of burlesque.
Historically the thing with the musicians, you got into burlesque on your way up or your way down. You got strung out and now you’re working at a burlesque club. I kinda wanted it to not be such a novelty, to be the thing itself. I put Blaze Starr on the cover, and a lot of the old timers in no recognized her and would pick it up in the club and I’d hear a story about how they saw her.
Were you at the first Tease-o-rama Convention in New Orleans ?
It was good! We were the house band but not many of the dancers worked with us. The good thing about these big events is that people got to know each other. At that point that countrywide community wasn’t happening.
What has it been like working with women who did burlesque in the 1950s?
I’ve spoken to a number of the old burlesque dancers and the question I’ve asked a number of them, is there a time or event that you can tell me when burlesque died, and they all say the day they got rid of the bands. Kitty West told me this a number of times—burlesque died when they got rid of the bands.
She would try to show girls and they would say I can’t do it. I watched Kitty do the oyster girl to my cd with the shell, she knew the whole act and I’ve not seen anybody be that suggestive. On the cd I was able to record this music that had never been recorded, written by a New Orleans musician. I had the original sheet music dated November 1st 1954. The author of the music was still alive. I talked to him and said, "Herb, I'm redoing that song for Kitty." He said he was doing that burlesque shit in high school! He couldn’t believe I found the music. He said, "I couldn’t watch, I was too young, if I looked at her I’d start making mistakes." He’s 60-70 now, whispering while he’s talking to me so I know the wife is not too far away.
One of the things about my record was coolest was working with Kitty. While I was working with her she found the original music for her oyster girl act. I’ve seen her do her act and there’s no one who will ever come close to doing that act her way. It’s so raunchy. Everybody that she’s ever showed or wanted to teach hasn’t done it that raunchy.
[laughing]I'm a New Yorker, I'll do it raunchy.
You know the story? The story is that every hundred years her shell opens up and she’s got one chance to get it on with the pearl, and when she comes out of the shell she’s fucking the pearl, she’s gyrating all over it!
So that fuck has to be worth a hundred years!
When did you come back to New York?
After Katrina, 2005. I played with the Blues Devils at Le Scandal and it was my first taste of the New York new burlesque scene, had to learn the wing-it thing, after having had more control in the Shim Sham shows where it was all rehearsed. In New York people change their numbers in the middle of the show! We had a couple of guest stars with no real rehearsal, and I would have to tell the band to keep playing—if I saw she didn’t have her clothes off. In New Orleans the musicians were these really straight guys that had never had a band leader yelling keep playing till she’s naked. They’d be reading the music, not looking at the girl. Every so often you’d have a new guy who had to read the music and I’d have to yell, "S,he’s not naked yet just keep going! Keep playing till she's naked!"
Above: Ronnie Backs Me Up at the New York Burlesque Festival
I want a live music burlesque version of Godzilla so bad, I’ve got to get hold of Blue Oyster Cult.
Every dancer should have her own special music!
What would you like to do next?
I don’t know where I’ll be living, here or New Orleans, but I have a continuing interest in burlesque as a fan. I’m into it, just seeing what people are doing. I’d love to do another cd. Katrina derailed me along with everybody else. I didn’t lose all my belongings, but I had to pick up the pieces and move. I was in Paraguay and didn’t board up anything. I would really love to see a burlesque show on Broadway, in the sense where if you want a purple curtain you get a purple curtain. And I’d like to see people who've worked hard make money from this.
What's your favorite thing about burlesque?
Burlesque is one of the few art forms where Americans can say we invented jazz, and we invented this form of burlesque. I want to see people take it for what it is, the art it is.
Click above to hear Ronnie's CD
Posted by Jo Weldon, Headmistress of The New York School of Burlesque, for burlesquedaily.blogspot.com.