Time stood still for me last night at the Wham Slam Bam Variety Hour. Not because of any nostalgic cast to the evening (although DJ Cub does play a refreshingly eclectic mix of selections from across the decades) but because the battery in my watch died. Fortunately, as hostess Princess Sunshine was kind enough to warn me, hers is the kind of show where one can arrive twenty minutes late and still be ten minutes early. I was grateful for the caveat. Time is precious when you’re running from pillar to post; most variety hosts seem all too happy to squander it.
I am happy to report that not a minute was wasted in her economical little show in the basement at the Delancey in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. While the go-go preshow is a little too “Scores” for my taste, the Princess does get things moving once she decides to launch. Princess Sunshine (sometimes known as Juliet Jeske, I interviewed her in that guise once for Indie Theatre Now) is a deceptive one. For most of the evening she is a Texas Guinan-like hostess, foul-mouthed and apt to extemporize freely, uttering any notion that spills out of her pretty little head. Her shtick is that she is some sort of former children’s entertainer, a Krusty the Klown without a kid’s show. Ball-gowned and bewigged, she sports an accordion and plays it well, ad libbing dirty new lyrics to audience-suggested kiddie favorites, such as “Itsy Bitsy Spider”, introducing new phrases such as “heroine addict” and “shit” to the chestnut. This is a neat vaudeville hat trick and she can milk it til the cows come home. But I said she was deceptive and I meant it. At a couple of points during the show she trotted out a couple of self penned numbers from the Princess Sunshine canon, revealing herself to be a terrific songwriter and no mean singer. Full of pain and still hilarious, these are the real jewels in the Princess’s crown, and it wouldn’t disappoint me at all to hear a whole set of them with no “special guests” to dilute the experience.
But, as a socialite once disgusted me by saying when I told her I had a day job, “You’ve got to eat” (like she knew what the hell she was talking about). I understand the concept of economic necessity all too well and so I even forgive the Princess for raffling off homemade cookies in the lead up to the intermission, and the pantywaists full of Washingtons. This is a bottom line sort of town. The tourists want their merchandise; you dole it out or you starve. That the deceptive Princess Sunshine manages to do so (and she does so) without relinquishing something a little higher is a neat piece of sleight of hand. She probably doesn’t even know she does it herself. It begins at the top of the show when she introduces the audience to the concept of live theatre. Don’t laugh. I’ve begun to wish such a lecture were the curtain speech for EVERY show I see (or produce for that matter). The etiquette of applause and encouragement is quite foreign to modern audiences. They are accustomed to being entertained by Hal 9000. Even a girlie show in the cellar of a roadhouse deserves more respect than the yawns of retarded hipsters.
Furthermore, as the Princess reminds us, her show is a Variety hour. While burlesque comprises the bulk of the Wham Slam Bam experience, she also presents to us an expert, plate-spinning Ringling Brothers Clown (known as The Richterscale), and a bookish Iranian-American comedienne (Negin Farsad). Both scored big. Furthermore, Jeske shows taste and discretion as a burlesque booker. From Boozy Collins (whose act is enlivened by a clown nose and magic tricks), to the Betty Paige-like ministrations of Hazel Honeysuckle, to Coco La Pearl’s picnic routine (climaxed by the fellating of a banana), Sunshine guarantees a little value-added to each segment of the show. By the time we reach the curtain closer, in which an apparently gay middle-aged man proves himself to be a lusty, topless female (BooBess the Baroness), thus scaring off her underage pick-up (played by one Sticky Ricky), we are still amused, but ready to move on. And luckily it’s time to do so.
The Wham Bam Variety Hour is one of four monthly burlesque shows happening Tuesdays at The Delancey, 168 Delancey Street. For more info, go here.
To learn about the roots of variety entertainment, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.