Ours is the age of spectacle, in many ways and to a degree that would likely induce thrombosis in our ancestors — from the rampant sex and violence of our cinema and television to the excesses of the Web, where every proclivity under the sun finds not only expression but also a voracious audience. It’s a time when the notion of restraint has been rendered quaint at best, and when the most vocal condemnation of would-be turpitude often issues from sources that, under scrutiny, are found to be salaciously tottering on lusty feet of clay.
Thus, it’s a delicious irony that this month’s debut of Lucha VaVoom at the Ventura Theater heralds a return to the traditions of a vastly more innocent age. An eloquent, freewheeling synthesis of Mexican-style “lucha libre” wrestling, neo-burlesque pageantry and madcap comedy, the event — which has drawn sellout crowds and rave reviews in Los Angeles since 2003 — is, despite appearances to the contrary, less Grand Guignol than good clean fun. Don’t be fooled by the marquee promise of sexo y violencia; the event is an all-ages romp that pokes high-flying fun at an age when lowbrow entertainment has reached new heights.
Lucha VaVoom is the brainchild of Rita D’Albert and Liz Fairbairn, both film industry and promotions veterans; Fairbaim’s background includes the management of the highly theatrical horror-metal band Gwar, while D’Albert was behind the sensational Velvet Hammer, perhaps one of the most influential revues in the emergence of the neo-burlesque era.
Although lucha libre wrestling bears a resemblance to such American cousins as the World Wrestling Federation, in fact the sport — a major spectator pastime in Mexico, perhaps second only to fútbol — dates back to the 1930s. The elaborately theatrical mask, the time-honored trademark of the luchador, goes back even further, attributed to the 15th century heyday of the Aztecs — evoking character themes of heroes, villains, gods, animals and larger-than-life archetypes that share the common denominators of vibrant inventiveness and broad appeal. Among the characters one will find in Lucha VaVoom are the “Crazy Chickens,” “Chupacabra,” “Toro Rojo,” the diminutive “Minis” and more. By the same token, while the matches of American-style wrestling are carefully scripted, the matches of Lucha VaVoom are freewheeling affairs where surprises are the order of the day. “We never know quite what’s going to happen,” laughs Fairbaim. “We’ve seen our luchadores climb into the balcony, pull commentators into the ring — from one match to the next, it’s always a surprise.”
Whether the athletes toil on the side of righteousness (the técnicos) or chaos (the rudos), the mask is traditionally presented as the luchador’s public face, preserving the sport’s “kayfabe” (suspension of disbelief) to a degree that’s largely unheard-of in American-style wrestling. It’s not unusual for career luchadores to go to their graves masked, thus preserving their mystique for all time.
“Earning the respect of the luchadores was very much a trial by fire,” notes Fairbairn. “We were determined to present lucha libre in the grandest tradition, and we’ve stuck by it, from employing professional, licensed referees to returning the sport to the grand theaters of its heyday.”
“It’s unusual to find the sport in larger American venues,” agrees D’Albert. “Typical matches on this side of the border find cramped quarters in quinceñiera halls, rec centers and the like. Blue Demon Jr., whose father was a very well known luchador in his own right, has told us that our show gives him a sense of how it must have felt to perform in his father’s day.”
Similarly, Lucha VaVoom’s nod to burlesque very much conforms to the style, substance and, yes, the mores of days gone by; from its elaborate costumery and set pieces to its old-fashioned emphasis on the ‘tease’ in striptease, the intention and emphasis of the show’s “VaVoom” element is not in what’s revealed, but rather in what’s suggested. Keeping in line with the ‘all-ages’ watermark, the Lucha VaVoom ecdysiasts’ routines peel down no further than the bikini. “Honestly,” D’Albert notes, “the sensual content of our burlesque is tamer than the average music video.”
To quote the revue’s appropriately garish Web site, “Lucha VaVoom’s buxom beauties and masked Mexican marauders spread the love far and wide in a sexed-up, adrenaline-fueled carnival of kitsch.” If history is any barometer, they’re preparing an evening of fun of which even your grandmother could approve.
Lucha VaVoom, Saturday, Jan. 31, at the Ventura Theater, 26 S. Chestnut St., Ventura. 653-0721, www.luchavavoom.com)
Girls, girls, girls
Monthly burlesque show debuts in Ventura
by Michel Cicero
With stripper poles crossing over into suburban bedrooms, and pubescent females flocking to Web cams to expose themselves to anyone who will look, leaving something to the imagination may be an idea whose time has returned.
Back in the early part of the 20th century, when the popularity of burlesque reviews climaxed, it was more or less bawdy vaudeville with suggestive themes that sometimes mocked higher-brow entertainment, like opera. By the ’60s and ’70s, erotic striptease was killed by the full-frontal assault of the porn industry on American culture. Easy access to naked women and men doing naughty things via strip clubs, live sex shows and porn theaters (remember the Pussycat Theater in Ventura?) made Burlesque tame and passé.
Robert “Dr. Shocker” Best, a burlesque enthusiast turned promoter, thinks the striptease is a bigger turn-on then the strip down for one simple reason: mystery. The prospect of discovering what lies beneath that swath of fabric is more titillating than seeing it outright.
Best, a “fezhead” who belongs to a “secret society” know as the “Cult of the Eye,” has been deeply involved in the Los Angeles burlesque scene for a few years. Feeling that Ventura is overdue for an authentic burlesque review to call its own, Best rounded up a few of his gal pals and created the “Striptease by the Sea,” which will debut at Hush on Tuesday, Feb. 3.
While attempts have been made to showcase burlesque-style performances in Ventura, Best likens them to “go-go,” and says they’ve been severely lacking in the nuances of true burlesque. Even big name stars like the Pussycat Dolls, who call their show burlesque, are not true to the form, according to Best. “There is very much an art to burlesque,” he says. Elaborate costumes, stage props and scripted, often comedic routines are hallmarks of the real thing. “Striptease by the Sea” will feature seasoned performers who take their craft quite seriously. Among them are Scarlett Letter, who performs around the world; Lili Von Schtupp (remember Madeline Kahn’s character in Blazing Saddles?); and Red Snapper who will do a “Catholic schoolgirl” number for the Feb. 3 show.
Each performer has cultivated her own persona and is a star in her own right. Von Schtupp, who uses battery-operated toy poodles in her act — also hosts a popular podcast and runs the Web site burlesque411.com — legally changed her name, permanently committing to her burlesque alter-ego.
So, who goes to burlesque shows? Best says, “Anyone who has an open mind. The people who go are as varied as those who perform,” men, women, straight and gay. He recently met a couple in their 60s at a show who thought it was “amazing.” The thing to remember is that burlesque performers are not strippers. “This is not a seedy club you go to when your wife’s out of town,” he says. “It’s the same thing as going to ballet or a dance recital. It’s a cultural event, it’s performance.”
What everyone really wants to know is, do they ever get naked? The answer is, not entirely. By the very end of the show, or what they call “the final reveal,” a performer’s attire is usually reduced to a G-string and pasties.
Should the turnout for “Striptease by the Sea” meet his expectations, Best, who will serve as host of the event, plans to continue it on a monthly basis, maybe even incorporating male dancers into the show.
Striptease by the Sea, Tuesday, Feb. 3, at Hush restaurant and lounge, 185 E. Santa Clara St.,Ventura. 648-1462. Doors open at 7 p.m., show time is 9 p.m. Tickets are $10. Visit Striptease by the Sea at www.myspace.com/stripteasebythesea.