Before COVID-19 restrictions went into place nearly a year ago, the Clocktower Cabaret, in the basement of the Daniels & Fisher Tower on the 16th Street Mall, could host 140 people. When the venue, which celebrates its fifteenth anniversary this month, reopens over Valentine’s Day weekend, only 32 customers will be allowed in under current state guidelines.
The room will look different, now that 70 percent of the seating has been removed to allow for social distancing. Excess tables and chairs have been stored away; out on the floor, stuffed animals in seats gently remind patrons where they can and cannot sit.
Until pandemic protocols ease up, the venue will only allow a couple performers on its small stage at a time. Selene Arca, who handles sales and marketing for the Cabaret, says that because of its limited square footage, the venue won't be hosting live music in the near future.
“It's just simply not safe to have that many people on stage," she says.
In the meantime, the club will continue to bring in burlesque, circus, drag and comedy acts. Those have contributed to the venue's success ever since singer and Colorado Music Hall of Famer Lannie Garrett, artist Lonnie Hanzon and Selene's husband, Jefferson Arca — who's emceed the venue’s popular burlesque shows as his alter-ego, Naughty Pierre — opened the Cabaret in 2006 after Rattlebrain Theater, a comedy club, moved out at the end of a three-year run.
Selene says that Garrett sold out every show for the first ten years. National acts including Judy Tenuta, Christina Crawford (daughter of Joan Crawford), Leslie Jordan, Raul Malo, Joe Piscopo, Jill Sobule, Julia Sweeney, Roseanne Barr and locals such as the Freddi-Henchi Band, Ron Ivory, Mary Louise Lee and the Jerseys performed. Although Garrett stepped down as a co-owner and manager five years ago, Jefferson has continued to bring in similar acts.
“One of the things that we're really proud of is that over the fifteen years, we've really found our niche with various kinds of performers, like the circus performers, aerial performers or burlesque — and our drag performers,” Selene says. “Those are the kinds of acts we can put on stage now, so we're getting creative with different scenes and with different ideas on how to still make that space for people to be able to come down and feel their feelings and do all the things that you can't do watching a show on your laptop. We're working within the boundaries of having one to two [performers], and we're very blessed to have a community of solo artists that can pull it off.”
The club reopens this week with Cupid’s Delight Valentine Burlesque & Comedy, which runs from Thursday, February 11, through Sunday, February 14, with two seatings per night; tables are limited to six people, and masks are required. Each night includes a different bouquet of burlesque acts and comedy cordials, sealed with a fully masked and socially distant kiss from emcees Bender Flames and Selene.
The following two weekends, Boolesque 2: Halloween Re-Do will pick up where the Clocktower Cabaret left off (it closed right after Halloween).
“We have a lot of people — not only in our audience, but on our stage — who are either themselves needing to be concerned about their safety, but also [worried about] people at home,” Selene says, explaining why the venue closed in late October, before Level Red COVID restrictions went into place. The Cabaret also opened briefly in July, before Denver's coronavirus case numbers started to go up.
Selene is looking forward to a time when things are a little more normal — when people can live without fear and restrictions, and she and Jefferson can bring live music back.
“Music is important,” she says. “Humanity's been dealt a lot of trauma from various places for various reasons, and I think music is your heartbeat, your brain waves. And if you can't experience that live, I think we're really, really suffering — not just our mental health, but our physical health, too. And places that allow you to just feel that and hear the horns and feel the beat, I think that's important — and people haven't had that in almost a year. We're excited to bring that back to our room, for sure.”
While the venue has hosted its share of legendary musicians over the past fifteen years, what's not widely known is that Prince once spent a night at the Clocktower Cabaret, following a show at the Ogden Theatre in 2013. Selene recalls getting a call from Prince’s security people, who had a lot of demands but didn’t immediately say who they were booking the room for.
“We were used to demands, but the demands were very high,” Selene says. “I thought it was Prince Harry — but it ended up being Prince. He came out for his show at the Ogden and used the club for a couple of hours with his band and his friends to just decompress after their show. It was awesome.”
Until live music returns, the club will continue to cater to the nostalgic arts, which people love, says Selene. “People love a time when things were better, a time when things were fancier.”
Over the years, the club has stayed true to the origins of vaudeville and burlesque. The Clocktower is one of the few spots in town to see regular burlesque acts, particularly in an underground, Moulin Rouge-like setting with a speakeasy vibe.
“Burlesque originally wasn't just a striptease,” Selene says. “It was more about making fun of politics; it was vaudeville. It evolved into what it is now, but I think that's why it really struck a chord, and I think it's only going to get bigger after the pandemic. I think there are going to be so many more opportunities.”
For more information, visit clocktowercabaret.com.
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