By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
LOS ANGELESThe last time I was at an all-nude strip club, the featured dancer took about 10 seconds to get completely bare, then spent the remainder of her two-song stint writhing on the stage and showing off her pink parts. Where's the mystery in that? While I appreciated her finely tuned bod (but could have done without the silicone knockers), part of me wanted to be teased for just a little bit longer. To imagine what lay beneath the peach thong and push-up brassiere before it was tossed hurriedly into a pile of crumpled dollar bills. I wanted to grow impatient for some sign of flesh under layers of skirt and underwear until finally all her secrets were revealed.
A few weeks ago, several hundred eager folksperhaps some with that same wishcrowded into the historic El Rey Theater to see an old-fashioned burlesque show called "The Velvet Hammer." From the girl next door to the vampy vixen, 17 nearly naked ladies strutted their best stuff and put the tease back into striptease.
"The Velvet Hammer" was hosted by the hilariously haughty Miss Astrid, a dour dominatrix with a German accent and a sharp tongue (she had clearly read the Weimar Berlin book Voluptuous Panic way too many times). The show featured such perky peelers as Summer Peaches, who captured the campy retro flavor of the evening with her pirate/buried-treasure number; after plenty of seductive shimmy and shake, she ended up with the X-marks-the-spot between her legs and skull-and-crossbones on her nipples. That was one of the refreshingly erotic aspects of the entire show: No one was seen in her birthday suit. How utterly modest! It was a strictly pasties-and-panties affair, and non-naked broads have never looked so sexy. Like all six feet of blond bombshell Kitten Deville, a Marilyn Monroe ringer who slithered out of her green dress with a raunchy and raucous attitude channeling Mae West, if Mae West had been a stripper and a really wild one.
Because each performance was as much about dressing up as it was about taking it off, the costumes were also the stars of the show (and a far cry from the typical stripperwear of itty-bitty spandex G-strings that cover the necessary orifices). Ursulina opened the show in an exquisite, elaborate 18th-century getup complete with tightly laced corset, under-the-dress bustle, and ladies-in-waiting to help her take it all off. Dirty Martini clothed herself in bright red balloons. (Later, she popped more than stripped.) As a black widow satin spider, Valentina Violette handmade her own red-fringed, black sparkled hip-hugging panties from a pair she found at a vintage clothing store. Each stripper had her own quintessential sparkling underpants, like tinsel and garland for the rear end, where the more the hips swivel and sway to the music, the more the glittery costume moves. Like if you looked long enough, you might go blind. The audience was in on the glamour act, and just as fabulous to ogle: loads of nostalgic zoot suits, retro gowns, even wigs and false eyelashes. I just love a show where folks get decked out to see striptease, where it's not about a two-drink minimum or tossing cash on the catwalk. Notably, there were as many women as there were men in the audience, and you know that's not the usual stripper fan base.
The requisite cheesy lighting and mirrored stage that "gentlemen's clubs" are infamous for would have ruined the look of this performance, and they weren't available at El Rey anyway; however, the dancers' backdrops were replaced by some painted sets that looked like they were dragged from the local junior high school's annual musical (that just added to their charm). How else could Ming Dynatease climb down her own long braid of hair to escape from the castle and weave her Asian Rapunzel story? There were several well-thought-out story lines, making each strip a mini erotic drama, like Honey Corday's tale of the snake that charms the charmer or the bawdy battle cry of armor-clad warrior woman Boudiccea. In the absence of the traditional stripper pole to wrap lithe legs around, performers proved their physical prowess in other ways. Scarlette Fever got up on her toes (when was the last time you saw actual ballet moves at a strip club?) and the four Flowers of the Desert gave one of the most inspired belly-dancing acts I've ever seen. Adding to all this theatricality was special guest performance artist Ann Magnuson, who did a little futuristic spaceman act, and, in the end, actually showed us her two moons.
In addition to all the clever creativity, the spectrum of bodies on stage was delightfully diverse. The zaftig New York beauty known as World Famous BOB (who routinely performs with drag king Murray Hill) boldly displayed every fold of herself, and flesh o' plenty never looked so good. Rumor has it she can mix a martini with just her breasts. Starlet O'Hara, a little person with a whole lotta gumption, worked her tiny body with plucky verve. The program photograph of Bubbles La Rue, a red-spangled cowgirl with chaps and pistols, looked straight out of a '50s pinup calendar. Her well-choreographed western dance number impressed, but it was her curves, from boobs to belly, that made me hot because they were real. Real bodies showing every wriggle and wrinkle seemed even more subversive happening on a stage in Hollywood, where skinny and tanned seem to dominate every inch of the town.