Who does a good fan dance these days? The now-you-see-it, now-you-don't days of Sally Rand popped like a bubble decades ago in favor of more hardcore pursuits. But Denver swing kid Michelle Baldwin is so certain the time is right for burlesque to make a comeback that she's banking on it: With a little help from her friends, Baldwin has put together an extravaganza of comedy routines, vaudeville acts, rhinestones and general hokum that tries to re-create the burlesque show ethos to the letter. Burlesque...As It Was comes to the Bluebird Theater, itself a former vaudeville house, this Sunday night.
"People are getting into their parents' and grandparents' music," Baldwin says. "So we want to show them what their parents and grandparents thought was sexy."
Baldwin began at the library and the video store, slowly piecing together traditional burlesque skits and routines. Since coy illusion is the foremost weapon in the artillery of the burlesque girl's act, it follows that costuming would play an important role. And in local scenester Peter Yumi, whose father stitched up finery for Las Vegas tiger-meisters Siegfried and Roy, Baldwin found the perfect designer for the job.
Costumery comes easily to Yumi, who's worked hard to replicate the real thing. "To make them look like the old costumes is a challenge," he says. "From pictures, you'll see beads and fabrics you can't buy anymore." Yumi canvassed costume and hobby shops, thrift stores and his own closet looking for materials, goaded on by Vegas memories of four-foot-tall bejeweled headdresses. "We have a girl blowing glass right now for a glass bra to use in the finale," Yumi says proudly of the item, his favorite costume in the show. But the project is more difficult than you'd think, since the dancer who'll wear it is a 34DD. "That's a lot of glass," he says.
Yumi's also partial to the Geisha Girl act, which incorporates a hand-embroidered silk kimono from Tokyo. It fits with what he calls a "P.T. Barnum-esque" ambience: She's billed as "A Real Live Geisha Girl!" with an emphasis on exoticism. "She's actually an American-German girl," Yumi admits.
Jake Cressman, one of the show's set designers, consulted books documenting decor from Victorian times up through the art-deco era. For his favorite, an outer-space set, Cressman studied old films such as Metropolis and Journey to the Moon, both standard-bearers of kitschy futuristic design. "We're trying to make references to film and theater past, as a way of showing how burlesque led to vaudeville, and vaudeville led to Broadway, and how when motion pictures started, their comedy roots could be traced back to vaudeville."
If that seems pretty intellectual for a girlie show, don't be thrown. There'll be plenty of the ribald stuff, too. So, how much skin will the girls, a strange mixture of Naropa students, swing dancers and real-life strippers, actually show? Baldwin doesn't want to give too much away, but she hints around about the balloon dance and Voluptuous Vivian--billed as the granddaughter of pinup girl Betty Page--and the de rigueur mermaid-on-a-half-shell scenario. Yumi's not so evasive. "I hear they're going down to pasties and a G-string," he says. Adds Baldwin: "It's cheesy and bawdy and really cute. I think people will eat it up."
Burlesque...As It Was, 8 p.m. Sunday, July 26, Bluebird Theater, 3314 East Colfax, $8, 322-2308.