Denver's Largest Burlesque Variety Show, Carnivale de Sensuale, Celebrates Ten Years of Weird | Westword

Denver's Largest Burlesque Variety Show, Carnivale de Sensuale, Celebrates Ten Years of Weird

"Too satanic for the satanic temple."
Burlesque duo Kitten N Lou is one of this year's five headlining acts.
Burlesque duo Kitten N Lou is one of this year's five headlining acts. Carnivale de Sensuale
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Carnivale de Sensuale, Denver's largest burlesque and variety show, was conceived by producer Scott Happel a decade ago, with the help of a stiff drink.

"I was sitting in my office, drinking Fireball on the rocks and working on a haunted house. I convinced myself that before I tried to run an event that lasted six weeks and had to draw thousands of people, maybe I should try just doing an event for one night, that had to draw a few hundred people, and see if that worked out," Happel recalls. "That was around March of 2012, and the first Carnivale ever was at 3 Kings Tavern on Halloween of 2012."

The second Carnivale de Sensuale didn't happen until two years later, when Happel became a co-owner of the Oriental Theater in 2014. "We were looking for content that fall, and I was like, 'Hey, I did this show once, maybe I'll do it again,'" Happel recalls. The sophomore show's success led to another one in the following spring. By 2016, Carnivale de Sensuale was happening four times a year, each show coinciding with the shift between seasons. The fall show has always been during October, with an emphasis on all things spooky.

"It's always been the creepier, darker show," says Happel, who also acts as the show's emcee under the persona Hagbard Celine. "It's not specifically Halloween-themed, but performers naturally get darker and weirder and more horror-centric in the fall, I think."

Carnivale de Sensuale will ring in its tenth anniversary with the series' two biggest, most extravagant shows yet on October 14 and 15.
Scott Happel (pictured in character as Hagbard Celine) is the creator, producer, owner and emcee of Carnivale de Sensuale.
Carnivale de Sensuale
Carnivale de Sensuale always includes "a lot of weird, vaguely occult imagery," says Happel. "I think one of the things that sets Carnivale apart is that it's always weird. To me, burlesque is a performance art, and I encourage performers to explore that part of it. So you don't see a lot of the traditional, classic burlesque at my show. You see a lot more innovative, performance-art-driven stuff."

One of this year's headliners, Tigger!, who is burlesque royalty, shares in Happel's philosophy when it comes to theatrical performances. "Burlesque is theater," he states. "Stages come in a range of options, too: I've gone from a Rococo opera house in Portugal to a cum-stained hatbox in the East Village, and they're all stages — anyone who does that is an actor in some way. The power to captivate someone, whatever it is you're dong — that's acting."
Tigger! combines themes of politics, sex and religion in his boundary-pushing performances.
Carnivale de Sensuale
The freaky fanfare of today's Carnivale de Sensuale has taken time to build. "I had my vision of what the show should be, and the show wasn't that for a while. I had to figure it out and learn and grow," explains Happel. "That first year, I wanted to have burlesque, magic and sideshow acts. I didn't have any sideshow the first year, because I couldn't find anyone. And the magician was unfortunate."

But in time he found Claire Voyant, a mentalist and magician who brought Happel's original vision to life. "Finding a magician that is both amazing and aesthetically fits the show — and is one of my favorite people on Earth — was a big difference," he says.

In 2016, Happel was able to book his first national headliner, burlesque icon Lou Lou D'Vil, which he says gave the show more exposure in the burlesque world. "She had recently been crowned Queen of Burlesque, and she was my first big, expensive, national headlining act," he says. "A lot of what grew from that was exposing the show to performers all over the country, who had never heard of it, and getting more people interested in applying for the show."

With the right performers, Carnivale de Sensuale got stranger by the year, much to Happel's delight. "It grew weirder as it went along, because that's me, and that's what I wanted the show to be, but I also wanted people to come. Over the years I just started going weirder and weirder, to see if the audience would come along with me," Happel says.

The audience followed his lead: Carnivale de Sensuale has sold out almost every show since its inception. "Eventually [we got] the confidence, probably around 2017 or 2018, to do things like book an act where Tigger! is a priest, and there's an altar boy, and shit gets weird. Do people walk out? Yeah," Happel says. "But I will admit I enjoy that. You came to the wrong show, if you're going to get up and walk out."
Illusionist Claire Voyant is always part of the Carnivale de Sensuale cast.
Carnivale de Sensuale
Happel has always aimed to book entertainers who shock and surprise. While he used to have to seek acts out, performers now often approach him. To be booked for Carnivale de Sensuale, performers must pass a few basic qualifications. "There's a base level of quality. ... But then what takes you from there to being invited to be in the show is more a matter of surprising me," he explains."I tell people all the time, 'When you go home, the act you talk about is the act that surprised you the most. That's what people remember, and that's what they tell their friends about.'"

But that element of surprise doesn't necessarily have to be something disturbing or upsetting, he clarifies: "Lou Lou D'Vil is a pretty classical performer. Poison Ivory, who has headlined a couple times, is a very classical performer. But they still surprise you, just with their talent. So it's not just about how shocking it is. I'm not trying to have a Halloween show where everything is blood and gore, because that's just as boring as having ten people in a row doing a fan dance."

Carnivale de Sensuale's cast takes pleasure in pushing their audiences' boundaries. "We were literally told we were 'too satanic' for the Satanic Temple, which made us laugh hilariously, and also made us slightly proud. We're not over here sacrificing goats, but we definitely enjoy playing with that aesthetic, even though we don't take it seriously," Happel says.

Tigger!, who is infamous for testing the limits of his audiences, was someone Happel had always wanted to book for Carnivale. "Others have called my style 'search and destroy,'" Tigger! says of his approach to performing. "I definitely like to be a provocateur, and I think that is the important mission of burlesque. I love [watching] all forms, but I'm not interested in just presenting some glamorous fantasy. I don't want to leave the exact same person I was when I walked in — I need to be changed and shaken up. I quickly got the idea that sex is the ruse to lure people in, and then you can slip some subversive messages in."
Carnivale de Sensuale celebrates its tenth birthday with two nights of spooky and strange burlesque.
Carnivale de Sensuale

Tigger!, who has been performing burlesque since the mid-1990s, was first booked for Carnivale in 2019. This October will be his third time headlining the show, along with acts Kitten N Lou, Tansy and Joshua Dean as her lion, and Red Rum. When asked how Carnivale compares to the countless other burlesque shows and festivals he's done, Tigger! says, "They all have their own flavor, but I have to say, I love this. I love Scott. He is really open to letting us play and experiment. He's very supportive, and if he believes in you, he believes in you — period. That kind of trust and leverage to play is what I live for."

This year's tenth-anniversary shows will be "the biggest, craziest, most over-the-top" Carnivale events yet, Happel says. "It's the most expensive show that I've ever produced. Typically a show will have one headliner, and this show has five," he says. "The idea is it's a representation of all the best weirdness that Carnivale has had over ten years. A lot of the performers, since they are doing two nights, one night they may be doing what I would call a 'greatest hits act,' something they have done in previous years that the crowd really loved, and the other night they'll do something that's never been done."
Headliner Tansy's lion tamer act is a crowd favorite.
Carnivale de Sensuale
Tigger!, for example, will be doing two of his favorite, most macabre signature performances. "One is Shakespearean, drawing on my theatrical background, and I will be playing Lady Macbeth, which will go directly into a ridiculous and absurd suicide act. I do like to be a little bit triggering, but when it's set up right, I think it's helpful for friends who have lost people to suicide. What else are you going to do with trauma if not burlesque it to some extent? I find that's an excellent survival tool," he says. "Then Saturday night I'll be doing an act I call 'Tiggermortis,' which also deals with death, in a different way. I will have very special guest performers in both of those. And I'll be back in December, when I plan to bring my Virgin Mary abortion act for Christmas!"

Get to the show on time, urges Happel, because it will start with a bang. "The show open is always a musical act, and I sing and other craziness unfolds, so we're going for something particularly over-the-top with this show open. It will be bigger and grander than ever before, with some special guests," he promises. "So don't show up late."
Don't miss Carnivale de Sensuale's tenth-anniversary extravaganza.
Carnivale de Sensuale

Carnivale de Sensuale, 8 p.m. Friday, October 14, and Saturday, October 15, the Oriental Theater, 4335 West 44th Avenue. Tickets start at $25. This is a 21+ show.
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