After-dark inquiry: Bastard Keith

One of burlesque's go-to MCs, along with partner Madame Rosebud, brings classic burlesque to Hotel Chantelle with a new revue, the Sophisticates.

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Bastard Keith

Bastard Keith Photograph: Leland Bobbe

Congratulations are in order—your debut at Hotel Chantelle last week was a smash.
It was a great success, and of course I was really pleased about that. You never know until the night comes how it's going to go. And then it's sometimes hard to tell how it's going. Burlesque in New York sometimes seems like this ongoing party, where you see the same faces over and over again, onstage and in the audience. The last thing we wanted this to be was the kind of thing where we just hang out with our friends and make a couple of bucks. But we got all these wonderful, unfamiliar faces, and everyone seemed to have such a wonderful time.

I understand that the Sophisticates had a bit of a bumpy birth.
We originally were looking for a way to take burlesque out of the bar environment, or at least it's traditional hole-in-the-wall environment. So we thought it might be a good idea to take burlesque uptown and give it a bit of gloss. We had a hookup with some people who had a hookup with the Plaza Hotel; we met with the guys at the Oak Room and they were all terribly excited. Thinking back, it went a little bit too smoothly. It was all going wonderfully; we gave them numbers they had never seen on a Sunday night before. And we got good press. Then some representatives from Mad Men said they wanted to screen their season opener there with our burlesque thing. Great! We were riding pretty high.

I'm guessing there's a but coming up.
Well, it turned out that our night was not a good fit with the image that the Plaza was trying to project. I'm not necessarily qualified to comment on the substance of all of the lawsuits that are swirling around. I do know that we're not liable for anything. But it was quite strange to learn that our rather harmless and slightly PG-13 burlesque show was a source of such consternation.

You're aiming for the Sophisticates to be sort of a throwback to classic burlesque, correct? It's hard to believe anybody would find that to be offensive nowadays.
It's not even sort of a throwback; it is 100 percent 1950s- and 1960s-style glitz and glamour. It's a period fantasia, and that aesthetic is very much due to Madame Rosebud. She is very much the brain behind this thing.

That aesthetic can seem almost quaint nowadays.
Absolutely! Modern culture is sexualized to such a degree that it's actually obliterated eroticism. There's absolutely no tease in modern culture.

And you're trying to bring the art of the tease back via the show?
Well, there are plenty of people doing striptease in New York; there's no shortage of those shows. But what we're trying to bring back is a very, very retro sense of comportment, of tease. We want it to be an intimate evening, but not intimate in a vulgar way. We've been getting a lot of couples at our show, and they really seem to enjoy it. As they should, of course.

The venue, Hotel Chantelle, kind of lends itself to that kind of show, doesn't it?
Upstairs, where we do the show, is magnificent. That rooftop looks like a Parisian caf from the 1940s, all black-checkered floors and street lamps. It's got a convertible roof, so when the weather is good, we can do open-air shows. It's gorgeous, an unbelievable place to do a show.

Judging from the lineups I've seen for upcoming parties, it seems as though you're able to attract the cream of the burlesque crop.
We consider ourselves very lucky. Rosebud herself has certainly become a name in her own right; we've already worked with Dirty Martini, and we'll be working with her again. Marlo Marquise is our bridge to the fetish world, and we've got a lot of the scene's fixtures, like Gal Friday and Jo Boobs, who's really the godmother of it all—the ocean from which flows the river.

A lot of your performers come from what people think of as the neoburlesque world. Have you found them eager to do the more traditional, classical sort of burlesque?
There actually are a lot of people, even within the conceptual neoburlesque scene, who do cherish the more traditional form, and they really enjoy having the chance to do it in this beautiful setting. I mean, everyone looks good there! If they've got a decent costume and they've got poise, than they're going to be fine. But we also have some people who are more comfortable doing the neoburlesque thing, and what makes the Sophisticates enjoyable for them is that they're not doing it on a postage-stamp-size stage in a bar. They're performing in a place where there's a real interplay with the audience; sometimes a performer can develop a real dialogue with the crowd, and that's the kind of framework that a neoburlesque person can work with. The venue lends itself to direct communication. It's large enough that it has scope, but it's small enough that there can be all these really minute moments between people.

Can you explain what those moments might be like?
Medianoche, for instance—she's a great performer, by the way—just exploded when she performed for us. She had these wonderful moments where she would have this small, intimate flirt with someone in the audience. And though the room is small enough that everyone can appreciate those moments, there's still this kind of secret between her and that person, and I think that's wonderful. I adore that.

What is your onstage role at the Sophisticates?
I'm the MC—which really means I try to be as amusing as possible while getting out of the fucking way of these extraordinary women.

But you are a notable performer yourself. You've been on the scene for a while now, right?
For five and a half years. It started when Jonny Porkpie, a very talented and successful burlesque producer, had asked me to play the part of his embarrassing relative in a show. This is when he was running for burlesque mayor of New York. He said, "I need a bastard half-brother for this thing. You can be him." I said sure, and I tried to think of a name that a real dickhead would have, and for some reason, the name Keith just popped into my head. And for the next few years of Keith's existence, he was a very, very spastic, hyper creation.

And what is he now?
I began to really enjoy that sort of Dean Martin, roast kind of thing, so that's part of him.

I was going to say that your persona has a real throwback quality to it, like something out of Broadway Danny Rose.
Well, Nick Apollo Forte is a hero of mine.

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