Giving thanks: an evening of burlesque

Posted: Thursday, November 25, 2004

Melissa Davis has a passion for burlesque dance, and John Leo has a passion for burlesque comedy. In a town such as Juneau, it was almost inevitable that they would meet and decide to collaborate on a one-night, anything-goes burlesque blowout, lampooning popular culture, history and American desires and inhibitions.

The fortuitous part was that they picked the Saturday after Thanksgiving to do it. The holiday, with its Puritan origins, was an easy mark for a burlesque narrative. The result, "Horn-oh!-Plenty: Puritanical Burlesque at its Best," promises to be a madcap spoof of the Pilgrims, their journey and the story of Thanksgiving.

The story, emceed by Queen Anne of England (Glenn Merrill) and Curious George Bush (Beth Weigel) and presented as a spoof on elementary school pageants, will unwind as an ongoing serial during the night of burlesque song and dance at 10 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 27, at the Hangar Ballroom, across the hallway from the Hangar on The Wharf restaurant. At least 20 people will appear in the show, but more are expected.

"For me, doing this show is an opportunity to get out and perform and use burlesque as a sort of outlet for expression; social, political, sexual," Davis said. "(It's) a chance to use comedy and satire to sort of poke fun in a light-hearted, and in this case, almost absurd way at us as human beings. Sometimes the messages are very subtle and sometimes very in-your-face."

"In the election, people voted overwhelmingly on moral values over jobs and terrorists," Leo said. "It's absurd that we're a free culture and a free society, but we're still puritans at heart.

"We're making fun of gays, we're making fun of straights, we're making fun of everyone," he said. "There are some really hot bodies, but I don't want it to come across as a sex show. We're trying to attack all the issues. How can we offend everybody but make them all laugh at the same time?"

Doors open at 9 p.m. for "Horn-oh!-Plenty." The show likely will sell out, so get there early. The ballroom has a bar in the back, so audience members must be at least 21. Admission is on a sliding scale - between $7 and $15. You can decide how much you're able to pay.

An after-party dance, also at the ballroom, will be hosted by DJ Astronomar and the Go-Gos.

"It's very participatory," Leo said of the evening. "The whole theme is 'Sinner or Saint,' come dressed up or down. There's going to be a lot of parts where the audience sings and dances and gets props. It's sort of Rocky Horror-esque, but the props are cooler."

You may remember "Drag Race," Leo and Beth Weigel's highly successful drag evening on Valentine's Day of this year. The ticket queue stretched out the Hangar Ballroom door and down to Pizzeria Roma almost one hour before showtime.

"Up until an hour beforehand, the feeling was, 'Is this going to fly in Juneau?' " Leo said. "There was a lot of energy, and people went to the bar afterward still dressed in drag. It really sparked people's imaginations. And after it happened, people came to expect another.

"'Drag Race' was a bunch of acts thrown together, and for this we've been rehearsing, meeting and brainstorming, making costumes," he said. "We wanted to have drag, but we wanted it to appeal to a wider market, and that's burlesque."

The term "burlesque" cropped up in the 1840s to describe skits, plays and songs that were satirizing, or burlesquing, the operas and plays of the upper crust, according to John Kenrick's "A History of The Musical Burlesque." The Victorian British quickly discovered that audiences could be allured by the power of sexual suggestion and feminine smarts.

In 1868, bigtop organizer P.T. Barnum brought Miss Lydia Thompson's troupe to New York from England. "Ixion," a visual feast of mythological metaphor and skimpy tights, became Broadway's first bona fide burlesque hit. Newspapers, according to Kendrick, were initially enchanted with burlesque. Pressure from churches and conservatives soon convinced them to change their tone. Of course, it backfired, and burlesque was soon an outright phenomenon.

Davis was introduced to burlesque while working as a nanny in Olympia, Wash. She and a few friends were dancing at a rockabilly show when they were approached by a woman who admired their style. Soon, she was part of the Miss Burlesque Dancers - a cadre of women performing burlesque with a heavily theatrical 1950s and 1960s theme. The group has gained a following in Olympia and occasionally performs with punk and rockabilly groups in the Puget Sound area.

"In general, I'm a pretty shy person," Davis said. "But when you're performing, it's a whole different element. If you're confident about what you're doing, if you really enjoy the song or the dance, you're able to be in the moment."

In the story, the Queen gives birth to Bush and presents him with the bountiful New World as a present, in a spoof on America's imperialistic claims on the New World. God greets each performer as he or she arrives on stage. The props are an integral part of the show, as they aid the pilgrims in their wayward journey. The script was written by Michael Christensen, in collaboration with the rest of the cast.

"Burlesque is poles apart from what I normally write, which tends to be dark, avant-garde, and heavy on the soliloquies," Christensen said. "In fact, it's almost not writing at all. It's more on the stage than on the page."

Heather Haugland (La Gringa) and Antonio Diaz (Pepe) will perform a salsa spoof on the New World meeting the Old World. Chilkat Cone owner Tony Tengs, known at Pelican's Boardwalk Boogie for his dirty songs, will sing a dirty song. Two of Leo's friends from Homer, Cammy Matson and her husband, Kevin, will perform some sort of multi-media witch-burning paean.

Christensen has made a movie about gluttony. Shadow Hotch, a Cherokee, has written a song making fun of the fact that people often mistake her for Tlingit.

"On stage we can take a serious event such as this and lighten it a bit by throwing the events in a comical non-threatening environment like burlesque," Hotch said. "It makes it OK because of the theatrical setting, and it teaches our audience to not always take things to heart and to just have fun."

Leo will perform two drag numbers, one about the issues of gay marriage and abortion. Davis has a solo based on an old burlesque routine with balloons. She and two other women have also put together a skit where they wear silver and blue wigs and play robot women from outer space.

Davis, Doniece Falcon, Jesse Higdon and seamstress Sarah Ritter have made many of the show's costumes, ranging from sexy to outlandish.

"Juneau has always supported the finer arts, but it's just as important to support the clowns and the comics," said Eric Caldwell, sound designer for the show. "Everyone in this show has a connection with the mainstream arts, but they're here working on this show because it is fun."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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