Somehow- quite inexplicably- I had fallen drunk in the short window of time between paying my bill at Pere Antonie’s and exiting the restaurant onto Royal Street. Perhaps the boozy, anything-goes atmosphere of the French Quarter had loosened whatever valve was keeping me from embarrassing myself inside Antoine’s. Since my first night in the Big Easy, I’d grown quite fond of its famous Hurricanes. I’m referring, of course, to the drink- a sweet cocktail of passionfruit juice and rum. I spent many an evening staggering down the middle of the road with a Hurricane in hand, which now that I think about it might be the quintessential French Quarter experience. Like I said, anything goes here, and the roads are used less for passing cars and more for drunkards to make asses of themselves.
At some point I ended up on Decatur Street, where I was lured by a siren’s promise of free fudge samples. Everyone in this city lets flourish their inner artist. The girl handing out samples outside the creamery was an exceedingly talented singer.
“I got what chu want, I got what chu need, I got free fudge!” she belted out.
Inside, her coworkers were placing bets on how many hugs the girl would receive from the many admirers of her voice. I got a large dish of orange sherbet ice cream, and left. I walked in circles around Jackson Square as I ate, swaying from side to side, feeling oppressively light-headed, and now and then giggling at nothing in particular.
A short time later, I approached the will-call booth at The House of Blues. The burlesque show didn’t start for two hours. Once again I found myself with time to kill. I decided to hit up one of the bars on Decatur Street. To me, the bar I chose was every bar in America. Wood paneling; a narrow but long room; the bar runs down the left-hand side, booths down the right; at the back are small tables; above us ceiling fans. A couple middle-aged women are singing a jaunty number evocative of a decade long before I was born. The place was classy but not pretentious. But moreover, it was American, and that’s what appealed to me.
I sat at the bar and asked for a rum and coke. I felt like I was in an Edward Hopper painting. I liked the place because it had an atmosphere that was lively but not so loud that you couldn’t hear yourself think. I hate any place where I have to yell at the bartender to give my order.
Around 8pm I left and headed back to the House of Blues. It was still an hour before the show began, but doors were opening and there was the promise of more rum inside. I was shocked to find that at this early stage, the line for the show extended all the way around the block. At the same time, I was excited, because it meant the show was popular.
One thing I love to do when solo-traveling is book a show of some kind. In London, it was The Book of Mormon with my friend Elizabeth. In Paris it was a night of whimsy and wonder at the Moulin Rouge with Aaron and Anne-Marie. And in Budapest last April I treated myself to a concert of classical music and folk dancing. In New Orleans I chose an authentic, 1950s-inspired burlesque. When looking into things to do prior to my arrival in the Big Easy, I was informed by my guidebook that one of the city’s famous burlesque shows would be a much more worthwhile cultural experience than taking in one of Bourbon Street’s strip clubs, or indeed that swinger’s playhouse that kept catching my eye. To me, burlesque was a niche art form that evoked a very specific era; when I think of burlesque I think of bootleggers, brass bands, Gatsbys, and Capones. I think of coiling cigar smoke rising from cabaret tables. I think of Interwar angst and alienation- the showgirl takes it all on her shoulders, tends to their wants and needs and insecurities with a maternal strength; the rowdy sailors are sitting at the front, and off to the side, leaning against a wall, the shy and impoverished Bohemian poet, who wants to immortalize her in his work. She’s not like anyone they’ve ever seen or dreamed of before- she’s an angel- and while she’s on stage everyone in that room wants her for himself. The bartender looks like Humphrey Bogart, and he knows all their little secrets. He tends to their weaknesses in a much more quiet- but no less significant- way. That’s what I had in mind as I waited outside The House of Blues on Decatur Street that night.
But I also thought of burlesque as a clandestine thing, something insulated from the street by a series of hidden doors and secret passwords. And this wasn’t that- this was a celebration of a bygone era. Perhaps everyone in line wanted the image I had. There were no sailors or pinstriped gangsters in sight; I was joined on the sidewalk mostly by groups of young people and middle-aged couples. An entirely wholesome demographic, and so I figured that taking in a burlesque was no different than catching a West End musical was for the people of London.
Inside, the theater was very intimate. It reminded me a little of The Globe Theatre, only smaller. The proximity of the audience to the performers encouraged participation. Most people had to stand- but luckily I had paid for VIP seating. A guy that looked like a bouncer for a Magic the Gathering convention escorted me to a small table in the front row- right next to the stage. I shared the table with an old couple, and I was delighted to find out that we were allowed to take photographs and videos, so long as we didn’t use our flash. I didn’t bring my camera with me, so the only photos I have are from my phone, and most of those I can’t upload because of the nudity.
The theater began to fill up, and I could feel myself cushioned by a wall of noise behind me. The crowd were extremely rowdy, and as it got closer to 9pm they started whistling and hooting. This led me to conclude that they were, by and large, locals rather than tourists. The curtains opened to reveal a jazz band, playing a rambunctious number that set the tone for an evening of playful decadence. I felt like Nucky Thompson sitting at that table. When the band finished, a stand-up comedian entered the stage wearing a top hat. He was the quintessential 20th century American comic- a slick, sharp-tongued jokester one step ahead of everyone else.
He needed a volunteer to help with a magic trick. He pointed to the guy next to me and asked if he had a dollar. The guy said no. The comedian then looked squarely at me.
“How about you, sir?”
I rummaged through my Abe Lincoln wallet and stood up to hand him a dollar. Before I sat back down, he quipped “Say, you haven’t got a fifty in there by any chance, do ya?”
Behind the curtain we heard a ba-dum-tss sting from the drummer. The comic turned around and thanked him. Then he focused his attention on me again and asked me my name. I told him.
“Where are ya from, Michael?”
“The U.K,” I answered.
“Sorry?” he said.
I repeated myself, louder.
“No, I heard you…that’s why I said sorry,” he said.
He then made a joke about my having to learn English or something now that I was here. I was already used to these sorts of barbs from my years of living in the USA, and I was surprised how calm I felt being the butt of his jokes. It’s always been one of my worst fears to get targeted by a stand-up comedian, since I am a frequent consumer of Frankie Boyle’s work. But this was okay. I was rolling with it as well as I could hope. It’s funny how well we adapt to a situation when it’s thrust upon us without warning. I think that helped- the suddenness of it. The comic ended up referring to me several times throughout the show, and I couldn’t help but realize that everyone in the theater had been looking at me and knew my name.
As he folded my dollar bill in front of me, he winked and said “Cheers.”
I snapped my fingers at him in approval and he said “See, I can speak English!”
It reminded me of the guy I met at Faulkner House Books. It was the chosen way for Americans to try and ingratiate themselves into British company.
“Don’t worry, Michael. Today we’re all here to laugh and have fun…at your expense.”
He ripped up the note into quarters, fiddled with it, and presented it to us good as new. Then he turned it around to reveal the secret: tape. Somehow he’d glued it back together without us noticing. Then he handed it back to me. Right now I’m keeping it for my scrapbook.
He then introduced the first performer: a Marilyn Monroe lookalike who flaunted her hourglass hips to screams of delight from the crowd. The vast majority of the audience were women. The performer then started the striptease, removing layer after layer of clothing until she wore only a G-string and a couple of tasseled pasties over her nipples. She then started doing circus tricks with her breasts, the tassel spinning around like the bowtie of a clown. The whole thing was not unlike what I had seen at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. The only difference was that the Féerie show had its emphasis on the extravagant costumes of the performers more than anything else. The dancers were topless, but they weren’t performing a striptease. This, however, was much more erotically-charged- but not to the point that it could be considered seedy.
It’s elevated from mere voyeurism by the fact that it’s very much a show- something with an artistic vision. It combines the bawdy dancing with jazz music and interesting fashion design. We also got some more stand-up comedy, a pair of acrobats, and even a snake-charmer. In a strip club, there isn’t the same sense of vision. Don’t get me wrong, the pole-dancers are very skilled gymnasts, but they aren’t performing in the context of a show. They are more or less trotted out on stage to go through the same motions they go through every day, and their bored expressions are unsettlingly reminiscent of the dead end desk jobs we’re presumably trying to get away from on a Friday night. There’s just no energy or excitement in a strip club- no passion. By contrast, the showgirls of the Bustout Burlesque were allowed to flourish, to spread their wings as artists. Each routine had an intensity to it; the showgirls had agency, they had power, they had artistry; something close to their heart that they let loose on stage for the world to see. That’s why I liked the show so much. I had no doubt that these performers’ first loyalty was to the art they had dedicated their lives to, and it was amazing to witness their talent firsthand.
The comic returned for a little skit between each dance.
“This next performer has a voice that makes my knees sweat. Ladies and gentleman, I give you the Fairy of the French Quarter: Miss Angie Z!”
A slim Flapper with a big bob-wig came onto the stage. She gave a sultry rendition of Dean Martin’s “Sway”, and the entire theater gave her their unblinking attention- and undying affection. I realized, before the song was over, that I had fallen hopelessly in love with this woman. It was the biggest cliché in the book: wannabe writer goes head over heels for cabaret singer.
The comedian came back- known professionally as Dante the Magician- to give us a Chaplinesque vaudeville act. It’s a silent routine where the comedian performs tricks to the accompaniment of upbeat jazz. He kept pulling cigarettes out of his mouth and out of his nose, and there were always more bananas up his sleeve. It was great fun.
The show ended, and I hurried back to my hotel to hydrate myself and catch some sleep. In retrospect I wish I had hung about and gotten to meet the performers- although I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to approach them. It had been a fantastic day however- seeing wild alligators in the afternoon and catching some authentic Big Easy entertainment in the evening.