After-dark inquiry: Bonnie Dunn
Burlesque vet Bonnie Dunn helms the weekly Le Scandal! Cabaret.
Thu Jun 7 2012
The godmother of burlesque and producer of Le Scandal! Cabaret dishes on the show’s history, performing in Times Square and her dream for a sizzling reality show.
What made a cabaret singer from New Orleans want to do striptease in New York City?
I started out in New Orleans, and burlesque never really died out there. I had a big pink fan at the jazz festival when I was in high school. I was producing shows on a much smaller scale, but I’ve always had a jazz band, a comedian and a variety act in between. Bourbon Street was my Disneyland.
How did you became involved with the Blue Angel, a spot that played a major role in New York City’s neoburlesque movement during the ’90s?
Well, in between doing my own cabaret, I pursued go-go dancing, like many performers. In the late ’80s there were singing telegrams, which were huge. You would go in costume, like an office worker, play a practical joke on the person, hit the boom box, and striptease, which is kind of like burlesque. I did that, and I worked in a strip club in Manhattan where they actually had other rooms for cabaret singers. I didn’t last long there because personally, the strip world can be very dark and depressing, at least back then. Burlesque is very female-empowering, and you pick up a different vibe from the audience.
One day I was walking around aimlessly, and I came across the Blue Angel. I went there and sang with a feather boa and was chosen. It was a strip club during the week, and then on Thursdays through Saturdays they would have performers sandwiched between the strip acts. People would pay $20 to come in, and they never knew what they were going to see. It had a Times Square–meets-Fellini vibe. Not Times Square today, but Times Square during the ’70s [Laughs]. When founder Uta Hanna left in 2000, she gave me the show. I tried to put it together a bit better from my professional experience of producing shows. She told me to change the name, and it became Le Scandal!
What has been the most outrageous performance you’ve ever seen at Le Scandal!?
When I first got the show, it was held at the Cutting Room, and we were there for eight years. I had a performer named Rose Wood, who’s now at the Box. Rose Wood deals with a lot of issues, like drug abuse, prostitution and gender. I don’t even understand some of the acts—I’m so square! She did one act where she was taped up, and there was another one where she was a puppet shooting up. Her life is about yoga and meditation, then her performances are totally the opposite. It’s kind of what she could have been if she didn’t change her life. Performers do a lot of that. I have this character who’s a has-been cabaret singer and an alcoholic. That’s my worst fear [Laughs], which is why I have that character.
Where do your performers come from?
I have some people who are pretty steady, like sword swallower Natasha Veruschka, but many of our performers rotate. The burlesque scene is very much a community here. And I think New York, to be a little bit prejudiced, has the best performers, because people move here to pursue performing careers. New York is where live theateris. I try to go out and see other shows when I get a chance, too. I actually found this woman name Sarah Scream‚she screams opera and strips. It’s hysterical, so she’s going to be joining us.
Did you purposely pick Times Square for Le Scandal!'s current location?
Not really. When the Cutting Room closed, I ran around to a few places. I met this guy who books drag shows and Joan Rivers; he was the one who told me about the West Bank. I really would have picked a bigger space, because we had a big stage at the Cutting Room. I had aerial, trapeze artists and fire. However, the West Bank has been so wonderful in many ways. I’ve had people from all over the world see Le Scandal! I’m in my 12th year, and I think its presence on the Internet is strong.
It’s interesting that Le Scandal! is held is held in a part of town that the epicenter of burlesque during the ’50s.
That’s really good, because a lot of reporters don’t know that. I knew about burlesque because my parents, who are in their eighties, are familiar with it. I used to get a lot of reporters who questioned me on how I got around that as a feminist. Like, “What’s the difference between burlesque and stripping?” Now anyone who sees a burlesque show knows. I’ve been accused online by people who would say Le Scandal!isn’t burlesque because it’s got variety, but they don’t know the history. A lot of comedians came out of burlesque.
Some have credited you for bringing burlesque to a mainstream audience. Do you agree?
I think it has to do with more than just the Times Square location, because I’ve only been there for three years. Just from self-reflecting, I think I brought in a business sense from putting my own shows together. Some people have actually criticized me because they thought I took something that was more underground and advertised it to the general public, not just the downtown crowd. I wanted to bring in people with a lot of talent and take away the shame of striptease. When I started it, I couldn’t get performers a lot of times, because strippers were making way too much money and they didn’t want to do burlesque. And then artists from the theatre world were like, “We don’t want to take off our clothes. That’s degrading.”
Why, in your opinion, are people coming back for more burlesque and variety at Le Scandal!?
I think because I try to keep the level of performances high. I reach out to a lot of people personally on the phone. I try to make the audience’s experience a good one. It’s hard to please everybody, but if anyone has any problems, I always reach out to them. And we also have a strong presence online. Plus, burlesque is huge. I’ve taken my 15-, 16-year-old nieces and nephews to see the show. I made sure it wasn’t too crazy. It’s pretty audience-friendly. I think it’s also my persona on stage. I try to be welcoming.
What’s next for Le Scandal!?
In a dream world, I would like to be licensed out, like Blue Man Group, where there would be a Le Scandal! in every city. And then somebody can do a documentary. I think it could be a great reality show—and I’ve seen some lame stuff on TV. There have been some proposals about it, but anyway… I’ve have a lot of thoughts about it, but I won’t get into that.
What advice can the godmother of burlesque give to those who’ll be seeing Le Scandal! for the first time?
Go with a feeling that you’re going to have fun. Don’t expect Cirque du Soleil, because I don’t have that kind of a budget. [Laughs] It’s not the opera or The Lion King. It’s just supposed to be fun. That’s the history of burlesque. It has a little bit of variety, and it’s an intimate art form. You can’t have it in a high arena, because you would lose the intimacy of it. I always want to see who I’m talking to in the audience. I’ve always wondered whether burlesque would ever go out of fashion, but if you make your show evolve with the times and you always have talented performers, people are always going to want to check it out.
Le Scandal! Cabaret is every Saturday night at Laurie Beechman Theatre (at the West Bank Café)