By J. Scott Hill
Burlesque has made a strong comeback into the popular imagination in recent years. 1950s pinup/stag-film star/bondage queen/legendary sex symbol Bettie Page was the subject of two recent biopics. The Burlesque dance troupe The Pussycat Dolls has become a chart-topping pop group. Retro-Burlesque performer Dita Von Teese has her own signature-edition Wonderbra.
There is Burlesque going on all over Chicago — as individual acts appearing in cabaret revues, as bartop shows, as late-night theatre shows, and even as full-blown, prime-time theatrical events. In just a year and a half, pinup model Red Hot Annie and her co-conspirator Dick Dijon have taken their Vaudezilla Productions to the forefront of the Chicago Burlesque scene.
Recently, Red Hot Annie, Dick Dijon, and the performers and “Vixens” of Vaudezilla gave Chicago Rollin’ Outta Here Naked: A Big Lebowski Burlesque, interspersing live actors recreating favorite scenes from the cult classic, with gorgeous Burlesque dancers provocatively removing nearly all of their clothing. One Vaudezilla dancer (Wham Bam Pam) played John Goodman’s character Walter, first having to tease her way out of the fat suit before teasing her way out of the lingerie underneath. Another of Vaudezilla’s talented Burlesque dancers (Maria May I) played John Turturro’s character Jesus Quintana, replete with the purple jumpsuit and obscene bowling-ball buffing routine. The show was highly entertaining and was so successful in its run at the Gorilla Tango Theatre that it enjoyed a one-night remount of two performances at the Chopin Theatre.
For Halloween, Vaudezilla took over the historic Portage Theatre for Vaudezilla’s Monster Burlesque Academy. About twenty Burlesque and variety acts from all over the city lined up to perform in this event. Most of the crowd came in their own sexy costumes. Vaudezilla performer Bonny Babs did what might be called an inverted-mermaid striptease that was thrillingly weird. Red Hot Annie herself ended the show with her own Bride of Frankenstein routine that heated up the evening of chills.
Vaudezilla is mounting revues in theatres and bars around the city at an ever-increasing rate. When they are not appearing all together in the altogether, Vaudezilla’s performers are appearing individually in lots of other Burlesque and cabaret shows around town. Even with so many commitments, Red Hot Annie was kind enough to talk with me about Vaudezilla and her own Burlesque routines.
CHICAGO STAGE REVIEW: Red Hot Annie, thank you for taking time out of your hectic schedule to talk with Chicago Stage Review. First off, how do you yourself refer to what you do onstage: Burlesque dancer, striptease artist, performance artist?
RED HOT ANNIE: Burlesque dancer is best, although I don’t mind any of the other titles.
CSR: What is the difference between a burlesque dancer in a Vaudezilla revue and a stripper at one of the “gentlemen’s clubs” advertised so prominently along the expressway?
RHA: Hah. You’d be surprised how often we get this question! The answer is that with Burlesque, you don’t work for tips, you don’t do private dances, and there’s an emphasis on the tease. In Chicago, we often wait until the very last minute to show our pasties, even.
CSR: Vaudezilla dancers certainly excel at the tease. At the Halloween show especially, the audience sounded like they were watching a fireworks display — ooohing and ahhhing. That was in a 1300-seat theater. How do the performances differ in a bar setting?
RHA: The bar shows are a little more casual in nature — the hosting is more straightforward, and there’s rarely an over-arching story like there was with Monster Burlesque Academy or Big Lebowski Burlesque…. The acts are a bit more random, too. We like to cultivate the feeling of a party when we are doing bar shows.
CSR: Your schedule seems pretty packed with bar shows, Vaudezilla revues, other Burlesque and cabaret revues, and teaching Burlesque classes…Vaudezilla has become ubiquitous in what seems like a short time. What inspired you to launch Vaudezilla in the first place?
RHA: I’ve worked a lot on film and photo shoots and one of the best things about large-scale projects is the team. At a photo shoot, you have a stylist, a makeup artist, an assistant, a digital tech person, a photographer — a bunch of people who are experts at their facets of the project. I wanted to build a team of performers who work really well together and can all play an important part in making larger-scale Chicago Burlesque projects. So, my partner Dick Dijon and I formed Vaudezilla, and have since added performers like Donna Touch, Wham Bam Pam, Bonny Babs, Maria May I, and Barrett All — all of whom play an integral part in making Vaudezilla the success it is today, both as performers as well as experts in their respective fields.
CSR: Dick Dijon…arguably the luckiest man in Chicago. At the Big Lebowski Burlesque, he played both The Stranger and Marty. It looked like he took the electric shears and plowed out a six-inch square out of his own hair to make Marty bald. That’s commitment, I say. He works the box office. He co-hosts. He does tech. That is just what I can see from a seat in the audience. What does Dick Dijon officially do? Or is it more appropriate to ask what doesn’t he do?
RHA: Well, Dick Dijon is a dedicated performer and producer. He’s talented and self-motivated, which makes him invaluable to all of our productions. By title, he’s the Technical Producer/Director for all of the shows, meaning he really specializes in all things related to tech — lights/sounds/music — and he does almost all of our writing — press releases, as well as skits/bits/shows. In our relationship, I may be the one who comes up with ideas, but he is the one who figures out how they can actually be done. Vaudezilla couldn’t exist without Dick Dijon. It’s simply icing on the cake that he is a fearless performer. There’s even a rumor that you may see him twirling pasties before the end of the year!
CSR: Spectacular! Are you currently close to adding any new pieces to your personal repertoire?
RHA: As far as new acts – yes, I’ve got several in the works. I just debuted a new act called “The Ballad of Red Hot Annie,” which actually features a full-sized hot dog cart and will tell the story of my ascension (depending on how you look at it) from hot dog vendor to Burlesque dancer. Vaudezilla is also proud to sponsor Viva La Muerte’s “The Wall” where I will putting together a special act to Pink Floyd’s “Hey You.” And finally, I’m working on a duet with Dick Dijon to an old Broadway standard, where we’ll sing a duet and strip. Should be fun!
CSR: As a performer, who are your influences?
RHA: As a Burlesque performer, I don’t really have many Burlesque performer influences. I’ve watched a lot of old Burlesque movies and I attend a lot of shows, but I don’t really think of other performers as being an influence, although I’m sure they are in subtle ways. I want to be someone who can tell a whole story with my face, so that’s almost always the focus of my pieces — my face — so, if I had to pick someone who inspires me in my burlesque, it would probably be Vaudeville/silent actors like Lucy or Charlie Chaplin.
CSR: Audience members at Vaudezilla shows are given Swag Bags — the grown-up version of the treat bags. What made you decide to pass these out, and what sort of goodies do they typically contain?
RHA: Well, I really like getting Swag Bags when I go to events, so I wanted to bring a little bit of that to the realm of Burlesque. We include trinkets like buttons, magnets, candy, stickers, key chains, as well as information about our upcoming shows. It’s really fun and people get a kick out of what’s in them at every show!
CSR: What performances are coming up next for Red Hot Annie and Vaudezilla?
Red Hot Annie’s Burlesque Calendar:
Every Thursday – Blue Bayou Bartop Burlesque – http://vaudezilla.com/bluebayou.htm
Nov 25 – Ruffle Your Features at Betty’s Blue Star – http://vaudezilla.com/thanksgiving.htm
Nov 27 – BROADZILLA! The Burlesque Beast at Exit – http://vaudezilla.com/broadzilla.htm
Nov 28 – Red Hot Annie @ Beast Women – http://redhotannie.com/img/beastwomen.jpg
Wednesdays through Dec 16 – Learn Burlesque with Red Hot Annie – http://vaudezilla.com/burlesqueclasses.htm
You can find our calendar of events at these pages:
Photos by Peter LeGrand and Callie Lipkin.