Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Signs of Scott Ewalt; Interview, Part One


Burlesque signs have always rocked my world. As a child, every time I saw a burlesque sign on a lounge I got an illicit thrill, imagining women of impossible repute removing stockings with a knowing wink. I could picture the heavy lashes, the big hair, the chiffon robes. I was mesmerized.

As a teenager, I was excited by the signs on strip joints in Atlanta. I knew that the Domino Lounge was one of the last of the old school burlesque venues in town, but the contemporary signs got me riled up with promise—one day I’d be of age, and I’d know where to go by the signs. A favorite was the sign for Tattletale’s, of “Girls, Girls, Girls” fame—a delicate outline of a nude woman’s hip drawn from the back, her weight on one leg, her hand relaxed at her side, based on this line drawing by Picasso:
Later they had to take it down, since it incorporated Picasso’s drawing without permission. Bad strip joint! But good taste.

In the early 1980s I had started working in those clubs. One of them, The She Club, got shut down for trying to blow up Starcastle, the strip joint across the street. The government took possession of The She Club and publicly stated they would open and operate it, though they never did. I fantasized about them actually doing it so I could work there and tell my mother I was working for the government. For years afterward the big sign that had been posted at the entrance was leaned against a cement wall behind the club, and every time I drove by I coveted that sign.

Above: Scott at home with his Venus sign.

Scott Ewalt, like me, is fascinated by signs. He is fascinated by other things, which I’ll get to in other sections of this interview when I post them later, but I fixated on the collection of signs in his apartment the first time I saw them. I thanked him in the intro to my book—his passion for burlesque legends is contagious and has inspired me over and over. Also, he was the first DJ I worked with at the Slipper Room, spinning some of the best go-go music I’ve ever heard.

Currently he’s represented in the book Dead Flowers, edited by Participant Press and Vox Populi. It’s full of prepunk and postbunk artists that all segueway into each other. The main subject is Timothy Carey, a psychotronic filmmaker; the link between Scott and Timothy is that Lilly Christine taught Timothy his signature dance, which he debuted in a movie called “White Trash,” and Scott Ewalt has done extensive studies of Lilly Christine, including his latest, Which shows Lilly Christine walking in front of a building with burlesque signs on it. Scott also does reconstructions of Times Square Burlesque houses as digital artwork. His eye for the sign is as obsessive as mine, or as any cop perusing the signs on broadway. When I interviewed him about his collection, the signs were by far his favorites.

How did you get interested in Burlesque?
That's a many layered question. I was inspired by Bugs Bunny, the outro to Bullwinkle, I Love Lucy, seeing the Carol Doda sign at the Condor Club as a kid. Seeing the postwar burlesque houses in San Diego as a kid. A Date with Elvis by the Cramps. Meeting John Sex, Katie K, and International Chrysis. All these things combined helped me find this aesthetic.

How did you start collecting burlesque ephemera?
Paula Klaw from Movie Star News sold me a Tempest Storm Teaseorama poster and from that point on I was equally fascinated with burlesque as with the vintage S/M imagery I had been collecting. It would have been in 1986.

What are some of your favorite items in your collection?
Original Tura Satana lightbox, the Venus and Eros marquee neons, the first all-male burlesk sign ever put on the exterior of a building, my Zorita lifesize cutout, my Liz Renay silver hologram, my lifesize sign of Virginia Bell, the Babydoll Lounge sign, the Billy's Topless sign, my Patrick the All-American stripper 8 by 10, my Sally Rand fan dancer lamp from the 30s, and my Henry Dixey commemorative coin.

Tell me about some of the signs.

The Tura Satana Light box: A poster store called me and told me they were tearing down the theater next door to them, and when they pulled off all of the signage underneath there was this image of a woman, and when they told me it was Tura I almost lost my mind. It's from 1957. Buffalo New York. The guy from the store mailed it. He had sold me 24 Jon Voigt posters, the ones that wallpaper my kitchen. When I first met Tura she remembered having lost that sign. She kind of widened her eyes like: "Would you give it back?" and I kind of narrowed my eyes like "No"--I mean, she gets to be her, right?

The Venus and Eros Marquees: I lived in Times Square in the late 80s . I was walking home from work one days and they were taking down the Adonis sign and cutting it into one foot sections and dropping it into a dumpster. I tried to stop them and they said if I could take the sign right then I could have it, but my apartment wasn't even as big as the sign. So it piqued my interest and I realized that there was no effort being made to preserve these things. When Giuliani was closing all the burlesque houses I contacted Chelley Wilson, a grindhouse pioneer and the meanest woman in Times Square. She sold me the Venus and when she passed away her daughter sold me the Eros. They were just happy to have someone get them--it was a ridiculously low price. They were on 46th and 8th ave.

The first All-Male Burlesk sign--that was part of that lot. When I got it home it was about 4 inches thick and I realized it was more than one sign and I cracked it open and there was an older sign from when it was the one of the first gay theaters (three opened simultaneously in the 1960s) in the US.

Zorita cutout--I got it at the Chelsea flea market for 50 dollars. Rode it home on my bike--to cheers from people I passed by! They were cheering when I went by with Zorita flapping in the wind. Was it 1994? I never got to meet Zorita unfortunately. I had known about Zorita because I had found some 4 by 3 images of her in a box in the back of an adult book store in Loa Angeles, a store that was a front for a gambling and crack den, that actually had a rotating wall and it turned and behind the pornography were guys gambling and smoking crack.

Liz Renay hologram--Luke and Laura rescued it from her attic and it's a print plate for her 8 by 10s when I went through her collection; it was something I was allowed to pick for posterity. It was covered with rat turds but of course it's not anymore. I met Liz after having lunch with John Waters in 1994. He said to look her up she's in the phone book, tell her I sent you. I flew to Vegas, called her up, and I was there for five days and on the third day she said she had a cancellation for lunch and I could meet her. And I was hooked after that. Her memory was so sharp and she was so sweet. And funny. And sexy!

The Virginia Bell Sign: A man called me from Toledo and said he had a sign from the Roxy Burlesque and Vaudeville theater in Cleveland. Irma the Body, Tempest Storm, Blaze Starr--all those signs had been destroyed. The picture he sent me of the theater showed a tractor parked in front of it. His grandkids were getting old enough that they were starting to ask who the naked lady in the garage was. Actually his wife called me and asked if I could buy from him. I had bought some other ephemera from them.

The Babydoll Lounge Sign: I had some girlfriends that worked there. I went to visit them one day and I noticed that the shingle sign was gone. I went in and asked what happened to it and the owner looked at me like I was crazy and asked me how much I had in my pocket. I pulled out two twenties and said that was all I had, and he said to take it. One of my favorite things that attracted me to the Babydoll was the fact that it was across the street from the Mudd Club, and in a classic symbiotic relationship the musicians dated the strippers--Cookie Mueller was there. It's also the bar where the famous headline “headless body in topless bar” comes from, and it was Janis Joplin’s favorite hangout when it was a Hell's Angels bar. I love it for the crudeness of the painting. Hand-painting is definitely my ongoing fetish in all of them. They remind me of Stuart Davis paintings. He was an artist in the late 1920s who came from Paris to New York and did paintings of signage, and who is lightly regarded as the father of pop art.

The Billy’s Topless Sign: Billy’s was where the House of Domination all worked during the day, those performers from Jackie 60. One day I was there visiting them and the sign had blown off and I went into the back room and talked to him about purchasing the sign. He was much less green than the other people I had contacted, having worked with people like Gypsy Rose Lee, and he said he knew it was a valuable artifact. He said if Guiliani passed the text amendment that made the word "topless" illegal on the exterior sign of a business, he would sell me the sign for 300 dollars. Three months later I opened the paper and read that Guiliani had passed the text amendment, and I called the owner, and he said he'd been waiting for my call all day. He was able to keep the signs that read across in one line because he moved the exclamation point and made it Billy Stopless, but he couldn't do that on the shingle sign because it set in two lines.

I’ve been interviewing Scott about Boylesque as well as his involvement with the Burlesque Hall of Fame—lots more to come!

And, if you've got any photos of burlesque signs you'd like to share, please do! You can post links in the comments.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Breast Cancer Survivors Performing This Sunday

Pink Light Burlesque is a program to provide free classes for breast cancer patients and survivors, provided by The New York School of Burlesque.

Pink Light Burlesque Free Classes for Breast Cancer Patients and Survivors

December 4th is our first-ever showcase, featuring students and instructors of this program.

The show will be dedicated to our friend Diane Naegel, who was hoping to perform as part of the project but lost her battle with breast cancer due to complications on September 25. Our hearts go out to her and her friends and family, and to all others experiencing the same struggle.

The proceeds of the show will benefit You Can Thrive, Sloan Kettering, and the operation of Pink Light Burlesque.

Sunday, December 4, 8-10.30 pm.
The Wild Project 195 East 3rd Street
New York, NY 10009
Contact Jo Weldon at
School of Burlesque Phone 212.561.1456
Wild Project Phone 212.228.1195

Buy General Admission Tickets
Tickets are $10, $15, and $20. Visibility is perfect from all seats; lower prices are furthest from the stage.
This is a small venue and seating is strictly limited, so do not wait to buy tickets.
Priority seating in the front two rows is available to donors and sponsors.
We have tiered the ticket prices to make this event affordable for as many people as possible.
If any tickets are remaining the night of the show, they will be available for cash purchase at the door for $25 preferred, $20 second tier, and $15 third tier.
Please contact us about donations or sponsorship opportunities.

Burlesque celebrates the human drive to amuse, provoke, charm, and seduce. The Pink Light Burlesque project invites survivors to take classes to experience the joyous and body-loving fun so many burlesque students embrace. For those who would like to perform, we hope to create a performing troupe of burlesque dancers made up of breast cancer patients and survivors (and a few of their allies). If they continue beyond the classes, these dancers may wish to perform professionally as well as to benefit charity and fund raising events.

We would like to thank Duane Park, home of some of the fiercest classic burlesque, live jazz music, and fabulous food and drink, for sponsoring our studio rentals for November and December.
Check them out!

We would also like to thank Night Owls, The Champagne Riot, and the friends and family of Diane Naegel for their substantial support.

We will be helping other burlesque schools to create similar programs in Seattle, Denver, Columbus, and more cities. Please contact us if are an instructor, survivor, or patron wishing to create a Pink Light Branch in your area.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Interview with Veronica Varlow

I've had this interview for awhile and have been trying to write the perfect intro for it, and I give up. She's just too awesome. I am so thrilled to have this woman as an instructor at The New York School of Burlesque, and that's that.

Me, David Byrne, Veronica Varlow
Above: Veronica Varlow and me with David Byrne at the Bowery Hotel. Why not?

How did you learn to do burlesque?
When I first saw burlesque, it was as if I was spying on an ancient and secret rite of women to claim the power in their own sensuality. I was awe-struck that first night I stumbled upon this world of burlesque in 2000 at the Slipper Room. That little corner of Orchard and Stanton became my version of church which I visited weekly to worship the power and beauty of the performers there.
At that point, I was learning. I was an eager pupil to learn the movement of confidence, to learn the slowness of sensuality, to learn the power of being unafraid.
I was a bystander for 3 years. A witness to the world I longed for. But, alas, the comforts of my cubicle were too good. I was skilled at the world of work, but I knew nothing about this mysterious world of boas, of fringe, of tassels.
In December of 2003, I was volunteering at a local animal shelter in Brooklyn, when a recently picked up dog, a rottwelier - sunk his teeth into my face. He ripped the right side of my nose and tip of my nose from my face and his top teeth landed less than an inch away from my left eye, digging into my skin.
I was in surgery for eight hours, staring at the ceiling, contemplating my life. In the end, that rottwelier was an angel in disguise. Lying in that hospital bed that day, I was at a crossroads. I realized that the only reason that I hadn't done burlesque is because I was afraid of what others would think of me. I realized that I had stayed in a comfortable life that I was bored with to appease others. I realized that the rottwelier could have killed me if he wanted to, that I could have possibly been lying there in the hospital with ten minutes left to live regretting all the things I hadn't done in my life.
That was the turning point.
I started watching old films of burlesque, going to shows, and developing my alter ego (who has since taken over entirely). I signed up for a Burlesque 101 class with the NY School of Burlesque when it was back at the Bowery Poetry Club and dragged a friend with me. World Famous Bob was a guest speaker that day and the things that the both of you said during class opened up my mind to what could be possible. You presented a whole new delicious road to me. A month later, I debuted in World Famous Bob's New Revue for the first time, and a week after that did my first full show with Ixion Burlesque, and I was hooked. The burlesque bug bit me. Hard.

What are some of your favorite acts to perform?
I just performed with Gotham Burlesque singing My Heart Belongs to Daddy with Albert Garzon on piano - and that was an epic night. I love weaving magic into the words I'm singing and also creating a spell with the slow stripping out of my clothes simultaneously.
I also love doing my Isis number because it mixes the sacred and the sensual for me. I perform a magic ritual with my dance and I honor the dancing women of lifetimes past. It's a special one for me.
I debuted a new fire poi burlesque number at Coney Island this Summer. For me, that is reclaiming the fire, after we lost our home and our things in an electrical fire in April. When I was on stage, I was dancing with the fire as a partner. That powerful element swirled around me on the Coney Island stage in the dark, two months to the day that our house burned to the ground, and I truly felt like the Phoenix in that moment.

How did you come to tour with Emilie Autumn, and what was that like?
Amazing and life changing! Emilie doesn't hold auditions. She just puts the call out. She's a very magical person and she's incredible at manifesting the world she wants to create. My good friend, Aprella, was performing with her for a year and had suggested me as a possibility for a new member in the show.
What's crazy is that Emilie had seen me and bookmarked my Danger Dame site years before. So we were destined to perform together and when the moon was full and the stars perfectly aligned themselves, I found myself on a plane to Germany for rehearsals. We are a tight knit family and I am grateful for all the beautiful adventures we have had together all over the world and I'm looking forward to future adventures. We are headed to Australia in November!

When did you start teaching within the burlesque community?
I believe that was 2007 and it was inspired over a cup of tea at Teany's with you when I finally got the courage to ask you if I could teach a class at the NY School of Burlesque. You said that you wanted to create new classes that were different than anything else out there and asked what I was thinking of. Then I said I had this crazy idea of teaching my gypsy magic combined with performance - to be able to use magic to boost confidence and cast a gorgeous spell on a willing audience. You fully supported the birth of that idea and gave me a shot at teaching and I fell in love with it. I love passing on my Grandma Helen's magic in my classes to other women. It has changed my life and I hope it can help others as well.

Did you ever expect to be teaching regularly?
No! Teaching kind of weaved its way into my life and it's a definite passion of mine. It started as something I wanted to try and I'm in love with it. I just think back of my first class with you in 2005 and how much you changed my life by sharing your experiences and knowledge. Teaching has the power to make the world a better place. It really does.

What are some of the classes you teach?
I am so proud to be teaching all of my burlesque classes, Spellbinding Burlesque and Advanced Spellbinding Burlesque at the NY School of Burlesque. I'm excited for this September 17th to be teaching Spellbinding Burlesque again at NYSB.
I also teach non-burlesque classes at my own Danger Dame School of Deadly Charms, which has classes like: Love Magic for Couples, Foundations of the Femme Fatale and the Seven Secrets of Seduction. It's about confidence, signature style, and rocking it out in our day to day experiences as women. It's the sexy version of life coaching.

What have been some of your favorite experiences as an instructor?
Seeing change occur. When I worked with Andrea on MTV's Made - and I got a chance to be a teacher for her every day for six weeks, I saw a big change happen. One of my favorite things that made me cry, was just seeing the way she held herself, it had changed by the end. Her shoulders were back and proud and she held her head high. That was not the girl I met, it was the girl she became. We saw each other in March when I was on tour, and two years later, she is rocking her confidence. She has grown leaps and bounds and is an inspiration to others.
In Spellbinding Burlesque, one of my favorite parts is teaching them to strut with magic intent and then seeing all these badass girls strutting with me as we dance towards the mirror together. I have learned that the magic part is more than something you can see, it's something you can feel. You can feel the power radiating off of them. It's not something you can fake, it's something you have to draw from deep within. When it works, it's earth shattering. It's literally spellbinding. One of my favorite experiences as an instructor is being a witness to that.

Veronica Varlow. Photo by Burke Hefner
What do you most hope people take away from your classes?
I hope they can have a more positive and saucy outlook, knowing that we can create our experiences with the magic that we were born with.
I once heard this analogy that stuck with me.... I realized that when I was running around in my life doing all of these things I didn't enjoy and trying to please others, I was like a a person running up and down a beach with a flashlight trying to bring the boats in. Which doesn't work. Only when I stood tall in my true self, unashamed and wholly me, was when I could become the lighthouse and draw the right "boats" in. Everything in my life clicked when I was the true me. So I tell my students - Be the lighthouse. Shine who you are to the world and the world will come to you.

Veronica Varlow
Final word of advice for aspiring performers?
See you in class!

Catch Veronica's next class at The New York School of Burlesque!