You might not know it from a quick survey of the dance floors at several LoDo nightclubs, but, as many people who first began going to disco-theme parties in the late '80s can tell you, '70s nostalgia ceased to be interesting around the same time Shelley Long stuck a Mrs. Brady wig on her head and played groovy for the movie cameras. One can only milk the irony out of a full-throttle freakout to "You Sexy Thing" for so long before it becomes apparent that all of those Disco Sucks T-shirts were printed -- and sold by the Pinto-load -- for a reason. (Hell, even Homer Simpson has one.)
Yet for many people, there's still something compelling about retro movements in general -- as evidenced by the ever-present rotation of fashions from the '50s, '60s, '70s and even the ungodly '80s. (Check out those weird zippery trousers everyone's wearing on the 16th Street Mall and try to tell yourself they don't resemble parachute pants just a little bit.) But in the realm of art and music, the challenge of revisitation lies in crafting something that incorporates elements of the past into something relevant to the present -- something that has more to do with inspiration than imitation.
For Michelle Baldwin and her fleet of dancing girls, it's all about slapping on some pasties and doing a pelvic grind.
It would not be accurate to call Baldwin a "madam" in the Mayflower or Heidi Fleiss sense of the word. She's not a pimp, after all; she's a producer. A vivacious visionary. But she probably wouldn't mind it if you did attach the title, so long as you did so in a reverent way. Madam Michelle has a certain vintage charm, a retro ring. Which is precisely what Baldwin's performance group, Burlesque As It Was, is all about. She does maintain a roster of more than twenty nubile young women who are more than willing to disrobe for audiences of strangers in a performance setting. Equal parts variety-style vaudeville, turn-of-the-century striptease, B-movie camp and modern theater, Burlesque As It Was aims to re-create -- and update -- an era that was more tease than T-back, a time when a little belly-wiggling was the closest one might come to a lap dance.
"The burlesque tradition is all about putting the 'tease' in striptease," Baldwin says. "It's sexy and cute. It's all about trying to pull audiences in rather than just putting everything out there."
Baldwin -- a photographer, writer, sculptor and, as Vivienne Vavoom, co-host of the Golden Aux Lounge Internet radio show on the locally based Auxiliary Radio (auxradio.com) -- says her interest in burlesque revival was sparked during a visit to New York City a couple of years ago. She stumbled across a performance, liked what she saw, and left inspired. ("I knew that I could do better," she says slyly.) Investigations of vaudeville/burlesque history followed: She learned about famous dancers like Gypsy Rose Lee, the costumes of the 1880s through the 1920s, traditional dances like the Southern Fan Dance. She learned about burlesque stars who became famous for their elaborate routines, such as starting a number in a bubbly bathtub, or acts that involved the putting on of one's clothes.
"The old burlesque was pretty simple, actually," Baldwin says. "It was very drawn out. It involved props and sets and costumes, but in a kind of limited way. I think modern audiences need something that's more of a spectacle, so what I am trying to do is incorporate burlesque traditions into more modern elements. We have very elaborate sets, and we work with bands that can help us enhance the show, as well as using old music from the era or other sources."
With her sister Andrea, Baldwin organized her first Denver-area burlesque show at the Bluebird in 1998; the Perry Weissman 3 provided music for an evening that Baldwin admits was pretty scattered. Since then, though, she has formed an informal partnership with Jason Stoval of Grim Productions, a local company that does everything from video and film production, Web design and advertising to event promotion. The pairing proved to be fortuitous: In addition to designing Baldwin's Web site (burlesqueasitwas.com), Stoval helped the sisters produce two more shows: the Ooh La La! Burlesque Français at the Gothic Theatre in October of 1999 and the Valentine's Day Burlesk at the Bluebird on February 13.
"Jason has been great at getting us sponsors and actual bookings," Baldwin says. "Rather than us renting a hall or something, he's been able to convince promoters and clubs that this is a viable performance that will sell tickets and should be allowed access."
(Stoval also has a hand placing some of the city's other unconventional acts, including a series of live, interactive gonzo game shows, hosted by the not-so-mysterious Sid Pink, that have been popping up in some of area's more curious nooks and crannies; on Friday, June 23, Pink will host "The Satan Says Show" as part of a lineup at the Aztlan Theater that also includes sets from Seraphim Shock and Obeah along with female oil wrestling.)
Fleshaphiles contemplating shelling out for future shows should note that there is no full nudity. All part of the tease, see. But the girls -- all of 'em "cute as pie," according to Baldwin -- get pretty darn close. So just who are the people paying cash money -- the year 2000 variety -- for a show that harks back to an era long gone?
"We have been getting all types at the shows," Baldwin says proudly. "We get young people, hipsters, people who know nothing about burlesque, and others who've had their interest piqued. The best is when we get these ninety-year old people who actually remember burlesque from the first time around. We had this one old guy sitting in the front row, catcalling the girls. He had a great time. When they come up to us afterward and say we really had it down, that is very cool."
In addition to their regular stage shows (which Baldwin plans to keep semi-infrequent -- the next one is tentatively slated for late August), performers from Burlesque As It Was have recently been spotted gyrating and wiggling on stages around town with bands like Maraca 5-0, the Down-N-Outs and others that share the girls' love of creative revivalism. Later this month, the Baldwin sisters and their posse will join the Down-N-Outs at the Grind Festival in Las Vegas, where they will perform a "very B-movie act, with science-fiction stuff and a real Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! vibe going on." Prior to this desert jaunt to the City of Sin -- appropriate, eh? -- the girls will showcase elements of their performance on Tuesday, June 27, at the Lion's Lair (with the Down-N-Outs, the Churchkeys and Sons of Hercules) and Wednesday, June 28, at the 15th Street Tavern (with Maraca 5-0, the Churchkeys and the Orangu-tones).
You gotta have a gimmick, as they say, and the Baldwin Sisters seem to have stumbled on one that's silly, sexy and entertaining enough to remain interesting for a while. It's a hell of a lot better than a return of the sock hop.
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Were there a birthday cake at the next meeting of the Colorado Music Association on Sunday, June 25, at the Soiled Dove, it would have one beautifully blazing candle stuck right down in its gooey center. COMA turns one this month -- and the growth rate of the past twelve months suggests that the organization is going to wind up a mighty creature indeed. President Dolly Zander says the membership roster has expanded to include more than 500 names. Not bad for a grassroots, not-for-profit group run by volunteers dedicated to assisting and developing all you musician types. To celebrate, Zander and the rest of the COMA folks are hosting a songwriters' circle after the meeting (which begins at 6 p.m.) so that aspiring song scribes might learn from the experience of tunesmiths Ritchie Furay, Richard Dean, Preacherboy and Michael Smith. (Smith, known for his tunes "The Dutchman" and "Spoon River," will also host a songwriters' workshop at Swallow Hill on Saturday, June 24, as well as perform a week's worth of shows around town; see listings for more information.) Congrats, COMA.
Quick note about the Fat Possum Mississippi Juke Joint Caravan show at the Bluebird on Tuesday night: Those in the crowd who grumbled about the evening's late start should remember that the median age of the night's performers was about 65. Old folks -- like T-Model Ford -- don't always travel so well. T-Model reportedly broke a denture before show time, and his handlers had to glue it back together, then wait for the glue to dry, before he could take the stage. Guess the blues do follow some people.