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Performers to revive retro burlesque show in SF

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Brian Lease, founder and drummer for Fisherman’s Famous San Francisco Burlesque, rehearses ahead of the group’s reunion show. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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When punk rock had run its course in the late 1990s, Brian “Fisherman” Lease set out on a search for the strange and provocative elsewhere, and set his sights on a fading art form: burlesque.

“I loved the juxtaposition — the goofiness, the silliness of the bands, the comics,” the classically trained musician, who now works as a gardener for Public Works, said Tuesday. “Then, suddenly, a dancer comes out to do a provocative, sensual dance. I loved that sweet and sour.”

In 1997, inspired by vintage records, films and pin-up magazines, Lease, now 50, channeled his love for music and nostalgia for punk’s do-it-yourself culture into his own full-scale burlesque show, Fisherman’s Famous San Francisco Burlesque.

Fisherman’s Burlesque toured for four years and came complete with an orchestra — a rarity in a time when the advent of the internet had dampened the excitement for live performance and nude strip clubs took the “tease” out of traditional burlesque performance — and is credited with reviving interest in the genre locally.

Today, two decades after its debut at The City’s Cocodrie Club in North Beach, the show and much of its original cast will return to the stage for a one-time anniversary celebration at the Makeout Room.

The reunion show will be hosted by its original emcee, Mad V. Dog, and includes a star-studded lineup, with performances by the international burlesque star and glamour photographer Bettina May, Harvest Moon of Cantankerous Lollies fame, the Hubba Hubba Revue’s Bunny Pistol and the only male burlesque performer to strip on a pogo stick, Roky Roulette.

Roulette, now an internationally renowned performer, said he was introduced to the art of burlesque through Fisherman’s Burlesque, where his ex-wife performed.

“I was inspired by the band, the show, the ladies, the crowd, and I thought that I could do something, too,” said Roulette, describing his act as “an Adonis on a metal stick with a spring that will answer all your dreams.”

With Lease on the drums, Fisherman’s Burlesque featured a range of acts including go-go dancers, bawdy comedians and accomplished burlesque artists, and served as a jumping board for many local up-and-coming performers in the genre.

“It was very punk rock. It wasn’t as glamorous and ‘frilly frilly’ as it is now. It was pretty raw, with more sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll,” remembered Kitty Chow, a burlesque dancer who left the Canadian strip club where she was working at the time to join the experimental Fisherman’s Burlesque troupe.

In its Golden Era, Burlesque was a popular form of live entertainment up until the 1950s, combining dance, comedy, theater and costumery, before giving way to modern striptease. According to Lease, “Every American city with a population over 100,000” boasted a burlesque theater.

But the sexual revolution and the “advent of legal topless dancing” marked the beginning of the end of the genre, according to Lease.

“Burlesque became a quaint thing nobody needed,” Lease said. “Everything was moving [in the] direction of more and more boundaries falling — [first there was] topless dancing, then bottomless dancing, then pornography.”

By the late 1970s, only a few dozen burlesque performers were scattered across the country, Lease said. He recalled having to bring up dancers from Los Angeles to perform in Fisherman’s Burlesque’s debut show, Tease-O-Rama, because he “couldn’t find any up here.”

He wrote the charts to the songs that accompanied the dancers’ skits, which were then performed by a live orchestra featuring Lease’s friends. The show sold out opening night.

“It had that nice old-school feeling of the tease more than just the reveal,” said Lease’s sister, Carla Lease, who joined the production as a singer in the band Go Going Gone Girls. “Brian instituted [burlesque] on the West Coast. It didn’t really exist as a retro thing until then.”

The revival expanded, and, for the next few years, Fisherman’s Burlesque performed at sold-out venues throughout The City. Lease was at one point hired as a burlesque consultant for The City’s notorious strip club, the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theatre.

“They brought in their own strippers to be part of the show, which was funny [because] they are nothing like this kind of burlesque,” Carla said.

By 2001, burlesque had made a full-fledged comeback, and Tease-O-Rama, the name Lease gave to his first show, was repurposed for a three day burlesque convention in New Orleans that drew hundreds of dancers and performers, with Fisherman’s Burlesque as the headliner.

Months later, Lease relocated to New York and became entrenched in the burgeoning neo-burlesque movement there, eventually performing live music for some of the genre’s biggest names, including Tempest Storm, Dixie Evans and Kitten Natividad.

In 2016, Lease was inducted into the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.

While recently looking at a poster in his apartment of Fisherman’s Burlesque’s first performance, Lease said he felt the time was ripe to bring back the show, which hasn’t performed in its original constellation in more than 15 years.

“It’s a reunion,” Lease said. “When I set this gig up, I texted everybody [to ask] if they are available, and every single person said ‘Yes.’ That’s magic.”

Fisherman’s Famous San Francisco Burlesque will perform today at the Makeout Room at 3225 22nd St. at 8 p.m. Tickets are available online for $15 or at the door for $20.

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