Earthy humor affords creative outlet
Burlesque show offers over-the-top laughs, dance and sexiness
From the late 19th century to the mid 20th century burlesque celebrated its golden age. A relic of the past for many decades, an unlikely worldwide rise from the ashes has seen burlesque heating up since the millennium.
Violetta Beretta, aka “Hawaii’s Burlesque Sweetheart,” is Hawaii’s burlesque ambassador, co-founder and co-producer of the Hawaii Burlesque Festival and Revue, and unofficial Honolulu burlesque historian. Although Maui burlesque troupes have appeared several times in the festival on Oahu, this year it comes to Maui with “The Maui Sexy Sideshows,” Saturday night’s big-top, high-flying burlesque extravaganza at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku.
Beretta, who is also compiling a book on the history of Honolulu burlesque, shared a few of her favorite performers and some of that history.
“Noel Toy was a lovely Chinese-American burlesque performer. She was famous for her feather-fan dances at the Forbidden City in the 1940s and 1950s,” said Beretta. “Princess Pahu was a very well-known local burlesque and cabaret performer in Honolulu in the ’50s. She was regarded as hypnotically beautiful and riotously funny. Little is known about her, but I do have some photos and some oral history that I’ve collected over the years.
“Prince Hanalei was an incredible local burlesque performer. He performed in Honolulu at The Glades, the Forbidden City and the Follies Polynesia during the ’60s and ’70s,” Berletta continued. “He was world famous for spinning flaming tassels while engaging in amazing acrobatic feats.”
I asked Violetta how her interest in burlesque came about.
“I was lucky enough to see Dirty Martini perform at Tease-O-Rama in San Francisco,” she said. “The freedom and ability to create is what struck me most about burlesque while watching her. I wanted that freedom and here I am.”
The French word “burlesque” was derived from the Italian words “burlesco” and “burla” which mean to joke, mock or parody.
In London, during the early Victorian era, burlesque troupes adapted operas and Shakespearean scenes and parodied them, often combining the original music or popular music of the time with re-written, bawdy and comedic lyrics.
The genre first came to America in 1868 when British stage star Lydia Thompson brought her troupe, The British Blondes, to New York City. Their female-run production, which showcased under-dressed women mimicking men, upset New York’s high society, but in the first year The British Blondes grossed $370,000.
Continued prudish outrage only fuelled demand for more burlesque and imitators began popping up all over Manhattan. Decades later in 1937, all houses of burlesque were closed by Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, “for corrupting the morals of the city.”
The Minsky brothers’ theaters had become the gold standard of burlesque in the jazz age with headliners like Lili St. Cyr and Gypsy Rose Lee along with comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Red Buttons, Danny Kaye and Red Skelton, but the forced move to New Jersey marked the beginning of the end of the golden age of burlesque.
I asked Buretta if she had any theories on why burlesque fell out of fashion and why it has seen a resurgence in the 21st century.
“My guess would be the onslaught of technology is behind the decline in popularity after its initial iniquitousness,” offered Beretta. “The mostly male audience that old-school burlesque catered to saw attending burlesque shows as their only opportunity to avail themselves the chance to see women they would not ordinarily be able to see in stages of undress.
“Technology, the advent of risque movies, magazines, VCRs, et cetera, allowed folks to access people and things they once were unable to and caused a huge shift in the way our society consumes entertainment in general,” she continued.
“I think the resurgence of burlesque is complex, but I feel that one of the main drivers is the creativity of burlesque and cabaret. That artistic license and freedom given are seen as a sound vehicle for self-expression in this era of the individual.”
Cabaret & Cocktails, comprised of Sarah Loney Mark as “Sadie Vine,” Felicia Chernicki-Wulf as “Miss F-Bomb,” Lily Campbell as “Lili O Lei” and Amanda Furgiuele as “Bourbon Layne,” has embraced that individual expression with a campy cabaret style. I asked Mark how the troupe came about.
“During ‘Graveyard Cabaret’ (a 2014 Historic Iao Theater Halloween-themed revue) we wanted to do a ‘devilette’ number and needed a third person. Lily and I had danced together growing up, so we grabbed her to be our third person for what would be ‘Take Your Skin Off and Dance.’ The next year we were asked to perform that number at the Hawaii Burlesque Festival, and we became our own group. We decided to call ourselves ‘Cabaret & Cocktails’ because we had so much fun planning things while enjoying some cocktails. Our cabaret style was influenced by our personalities and seeing all the performers at our first Hawaii Burlesque Festival,” she said.
I asked Mark if she had a theory on burlesque’s resurgence.
“Honestly, we think it’s the rise of feminism. It’s a very fem-positive art form since it’s an art that embraces all shapes and sizes and sexual preferences. As a performer, it’s very empowering. There’s no better ego boost than a burlesque audience cheering you on,” she said.
Cabaret & Cocktails will be joined by Berretta, Mainland headliner RedBone aka “The Cyclone of Burlesque,” and Maui’s Kit Kat Club Cabaret, emceed by Madame Munchausen.
“Being a part of the sixth annual Hawaii Burlesque Festival and Revue has helped us up our game,” shared Mark. “Having the headliners is amazing, and we’ve tried to bring in more local performers to make it a bigger spectacle.”
I asked Berretta what inspired her to initiate the festival six years ago.
“The Hawaii Burlesque Festival is a major undertaking not only for myself, but an entire team of highly talented people,” explained Berretta. “It takes a fun-loving, super creative and dedicated army to pull it off every year. I’m always immensely thankful for everyone involved and so proud of what we created.
“We’ve definitely grown by leaps and bounds and have expanded to include shows on Maui and Hilo this year in addition to our Oahu shows at the Honolulu Art Museum,” continued Berretta. “We’ve entertained roughly 2,000 audience members over the past six years, and we’re not stopping anytime soon.”
Also this weekend
The 2017 Ku Mai Ka Hula competition begins tonight with “Kakua Ka Pa’u: A Discussion on ‘A’ahu Hula.” This conversation explores the insight, traditions and creativity of a kumu hula. Participating kumu hula will include Kumu Hula Kamaka Kukona, Kumu Hula Kapono’ai Molitau and Kumu Hula ‘Iliahi and Haunani Paredes.
* Panel discussion is at 7:30 tonight in the McCoy Studio Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahului. Tickets are $15 (plus applicable fees). Ku Mai Ka Hula, featuring award-winning halau from Hawaii, the Mainland and Japan, will compete solo and in groups at 6 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. Saturday in the Castle Theater at the MACC. Tickets are $25 per day or $45 for two-day passes (plus applicable fees). For more information or to purchase tickets, call 242-7469 or visit www.mauiarts.org.
Maui OnStage continues its free, one-night-only theater series, ONO! on Monday with a staged reading of “The Handy Handbook On How To Start A Revolution,” an original comedy by local playwright Adriane Corwin. The free ONO! performances are at 6:30 p.m. every second Monday of the month at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku. For more information, visit www.mauionstage.com.
Maui OnStage will be holding auditions for the Hawaii premiere of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 16 at the Historic Iao Theater with callbacks on Sept. 18. All roles are open and all ages are welcome.
Actors should prepare two contrasting one-minute songs, one up-tempo and one ballad from a traditional musical theater piece. Actors must provide sheet music in their key or a karaoke track on CD or MP3. An accompanist will be provided. Rehearsals will begin in late September with three weeks of performances from Nov. 24 through Dec. 10. Appointments in increments of 10 minutes are required. To reserve an audition time, call 244-8680, ext. 23. For more information visit www.mauionstage.com.