A Fez In the Crowd

Backstage at New Orleans' Tease-O-Rama Festival.



The emcee is on stage making a joke. I can tell he's making a joke because he keeps wiggling his thick eyebrows up and down. Through the thick clouds of cigarette smoke shot through with shafts of pink and blue light I can only see the top of his head. Nothing else is visible from this distance. And although the emcee is miked, the crowd is putting up such a deafening caterwaul it's impossible to hear anything he says. Some guy in a Hawaiian shirt and a Shriner-style fez is laughing so hard he drops his beer, and the bottle shatters seemingly without a sound. He's not laughing at the emcee, that much is certain.

"Bottled water!" I scream into the bartender's ear. He winks and points at me, the universal sign for "gotcha," and proceeds to crack open a Budweiser. "No, not Budweiser, bottled water," I scream again as he takes my five and hands me back two and a quarter. Looks like I'm stuck with a beer I didn't want. Someone will want it.

There are no tables down front so everybody's crowding around the stage, and nobody past the first three rows can see a thing. I can't begin to count the number of tall fezzes in the house, some made from burgundy felt, others crafted from some fuzzy leopard-print fabric, all of which bob like dashboard ornaments and further obstruct the view. It's a terrible setup here at the Howling Wolf, I think, elbowing my way through the crush of vintage shirts and Betty Page haircuts to a reasonable vantage point near the action. You would expect better from New Orleans. I see a woman in the spotlight. She is not entirely pretty and is a bit beyond ample, but the crowd loves her. She dances to music I can barely hear and gingerly hangs laundry on a clothesline that spans the stage, all the while removing bits of her own costume. I continue to shove my way backstage, a privilege afforded by my pink wristband that informs the crew-cut, beady-eyed brute blocking my way that I'm with the show. The dancer has now positioned herself behind the clothesline and from my position just off-stage I can see that she is topless.

"I thought there was a no nudity rule," I scream to a stagehand nearby. "There is," she responds, "but the audience can't see anything so that's okay." Welcome to Tease-O-Rama, the first of what may become an annual convention for practitioners of classic burlesque, the tawdriest of all popular theatrical forms. After a half-century of obsolescence, burlesque is bumping and grinding its way to a full-fledged international comeback. This particular weekend, a dozen troupes from across America, Canada, and the U.K. have poured into New Orleans for three nights of bizarre comedy and highly stylized strip teases. Here Memphis Confidential, a ragtag group of Memphis revivalists, joins institutions like L.A.'s notorious Velvet Hammer, New York's fabulous Pontaini Sisters, and a handful of withered stars from the golden age of burlesque to provide exotic entertainments for the cocktail set.

A giant of a man in a shawl-collared tux and a bright red fez bends down and screams, "Love your costume," in my ear. His coffee breath knocks me into the wall. Besides, I'm not wearing a costume, only a battered old short-sleeved shirt and a porkpie hat that once belonged to my grandfather. Suddenly I sense the irony. I've been subtly insulted. The man proceeds to blow spit out of his trombone and all over my pants. I consider whacking him over the head with my unwanted beer, but the backstage guard, sensing something is amiss, is giving me the eyeball. Instead, I check my props. Cardboard fence, check. Set of loaded cap pistols, check. Schoolgirl uniforms, check. It's all here.

How in hell did I get here, I wonder, sloshing through the damp and sticky backstage area, past six or seven naked breasts, countless feather boas, and more tall men in fezzes. The women all look real here. Occasionally too real. No silicone, no obvious anorexia. Some are beautiful, others are shockingly plain. Imperfections are the norm. Dark hair prevails over peroxide and glamour is the rule in this dimly lit world of cardboard and sequins. I see a box marked "gorilla suit" with a clown's oversized bowtie on top of it. Our troupe also employs a gorilla suit and a big tie. Oh, well. We won't use those till tomorrow night anyway. Another generously proportioned lady, done up like Marilyn Monroe, is mixing martinis between her breasts. One dancer, whose costume is made entirely of balloons, snaps, "Watch out," at whoever happens to pass by, terrified, and rightly so, that they might pop one of her fragile ornaments. She looks like the Fruit of the Loom grape in drag, handling her ever-dwindling cigarette like a miner with a lit stick of dynamite and nowhere to throw it.

Tex Ritter's "Pistol Packing Mama" is playing and my beautiful bride-to-be is dressed like a cowgirl pinup from the 1950s and prancing around a prop fence. Somewhere deep down this bothers me somehow. I know the fence has been designed so that the audience will see only arms and legs and a little bit of belly. I know it's only an act. My friend Kelly, who reunited the all-but-disbanded Memphis Confidential troupe for this event, adjusts her costume. She looks like Barbara Eden from I Dream of Jeannie. Her boyfriend Rob is dressed like Major Healey. He's there to bottle up Jeannie's naughty shenanigans before they get out of hand. It's all part of the show.

Looking out over a sea of bowling shirts and rockabilly tattoos I fear the worst. No matter how good we are, nobody will hear a thing. And, as it turns out, they don't. But that's fine. There's always tomorrow night's show. And nobody is here for the comedy anyway. They want to see scantily clad vixens doing synchronized spinning in giant champagne glasses. They want to see fan dances, bubbles, and beach balls. And they will. Tomorrow night we've got the good stuff. We've got whorehouse comedy. We've got a girl draped in diamonds. We even have a catfight between a beautiful Amazon in a loincloth and an adorable midget bride. Tomorrow night everyone will be eating our dust. I'll never give up show business. Not as long as they keep making beautiful women -- and rubber chickens to chase them with.

You can e-mail Chris Davis at davis@memphisflyer.com.

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