Decline of Western Civilization IV: The Vaudeville years
by Summer Burkes
IN THE LATE 1800s and early 1900s, vaudeville was by far the most popular form of entertainment in America. Sadly, the advent of radio and talking pictures killed it off by about 1925 or so, as people became (and still are) more fascinated by compact, one- or two-dimensional forms of visual stimuli.
These days, with rock and roll and pop music reaching another stalemate and the empty-headed, Chinese-water-torture tactics of MTV forcing us short-attention-spanners to find alternative forms of entertainment, it fits that live, intimate, and sometimes ribald and strange variety shows are on the upswing again.
Perry Farrell experimented with the idea by adding sideshows to the first few Lollapaloozas, hoping to present a variety of entertainment experiences at once, but the cultural vampires at MTV and a dumbed-down mainstream audience imploded that one, too. For now at least, small, cabaret-style shows are a welcome, and burgeoning, addition to fringe culture.
Andrew Abelson, promoter of several vaudeville- and cabaret-type clubs around town, thinks that live rock and roll needs a new boost. “I get bored if I go to a club and only bands are playing,” he says. His other/former monthly club nights, including Lustre at Club 181 (his partner moved away), Tryst at Fumé (the venue closed down), and Lush (still going Saturdays at the CoCo Club), while more lounge oriented, all boasted musical as well as novelty, multicultural, and burlesque acts.
Now, with his (and his partner Ian Parks’s) “Symphonies for the Devil” series, he’s going the rock and roll route in North Beach. “People need a place to go in North Beach that’s relaxed and fun, where … where …” He pauses. “… they don’t have to sit around and pretend to be adults by listening to mediocre jazz?” I suggest.
Vaguely resembling the set of Cabaret, the Velvet Lounge (formerly Frankie’s Bohemian) provides the perfect venue for Parks and Abelson’s, um, cabaret. Vinyl booths and painted, exposed-brick walls reflect the candlelight from the tiny tables near the stage; the only velvet in the place swoops down in wisps from the stage’s proscenium. The ceiling in the main room rattles from the swing lessons going on at the dance studio upstairs.
Beautiful people in expensive clothes mingle and chat ; a slight woman in a negligee offers me a tacky Finlandia Vodka pin. “All Finlandia drinks are only $4 tonight. Would you like one?” I give her a blank stare. She doesn’t realize that her negligee, for me at least, isn’t enough encouragement to fork over $4 for a discounted overpriced vodka drink. An obscenely large Finlandia tour bus pulls up and four more reps in evening attire pour out and into the club. I guess the MTV set’s already trying to creep.
After an acoustic banjo set by Christof Wolfgang Certik and friends, Mover appears onstage. Sporting shag cuts and vintage threads, they sound remarkably like the Rolling Stones (and I don’t think they’d consider that an insult), occasionally veering into the Sgt. Pepper’s idiom. They rock like a bar band should.
Next, “Thet Myint, the Burmese Prince” performs a traditional Burmese dance to xylophone music. In his bejeweled satin costume, wristbands, and pointy shoes, he really does look like an elfin prince, exhibiting the graceful, intricate, and controlled movements common to classical southeast Asian dance. The small but appreciative crowd actually pays attention. The cabaret theme is working.
Andrew Abelson, in his monochromatic double-breasted suit and satin tie, takes the mic to MC. He works the crowd confidently, looking uncannily like the psycho party-hosting character Z-man from Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls: “I know you all expected to see Jordan L’amour channel Joan Jett tonight, but at this moment, he’s reportedly puking his guts out somewhere in the Lower Haight.”
Instead Abelson brings Godiva–a female illusionist who also performs popular arias–to the stage. She sings “O mio babbino caro” and then “Ebben, n’andro lontana” for the slightly bewildered crowd. Standing at least six feet tall, singing mostly on key in a register that doesn’t belong to her at all, and scene chewing with hammy facial expressions that match the somber lyrics, she makes quite an impression. Joan Jett would be proud.
Blue Canary, two more men in clothes from the ’60s, don’t play rock and roll at all. One sits in a chair and strums the flamenco guitar; the other one simultaneously plays harmonica, tap-dances, and sings with a mic effect that makes him sound as if he’s in a box. Their Roma-tinged songs, alternately haunting and whimsical, don’t really call for tap dancing. That’s why I like it when he tap-dances.
If Andrew is Z-man at this Beyond the Valley of the Dolls party, then the Minstrels are the house band. Half Frenchies and half Americans, the five-piece rips into some ’60s pop ˆ la Serge Gainsbourg and Velvet Underground. The page boy of a lead singer croons nervously; a wispy boy in a polyester fake-tuxedo shirt whirls as he plays the Hammond organ and twiddles knobs on a rack of electronics. Sophie (the contemplative, rail-thin tambourine player) steps up to the mic every once in a while to audibly pout in French. They’re not quite as energetic as a Barbarella soundtrack selection and not quite listless enough to sing “Candy Says.” They’re a stone gas, man.
Z-man returns to the stage. “Was that the Minstrels? Oh … My … GOD,” he gushes. By this time the room is comfortably full (not bad for a Wednesday night), and the crowd seems down with the format. “Please remember to support this venue the first Wednesday of every month. Don’t be afraid to come to North Beach, people,” he pleads.
Self-consciously wacky music filters in from the loudspeaker, the beautiful people mingle and chat again, and the Finlandia people still desperately try to hawk their wares. OK, so it’s not a fabulously decadent vaudeville show at the Moulin Rouge in turn-of-the-century Paris. But at least it’s a start.
Next week, The Spice Girls…
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