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Grace Gotham
Photograph: Grace Gotham

After-dark inquiry: Grace Gotham

The vivacious Grace Gotham presents another edition of her Coup de Grace Burlesque.

By Bruce Tantum

The vivacious Grace Gotham presents another edition of her Coup de Grace Burlesque at the Triad on Saturday 23.

Do you remember what your first brush with burlesque was?

Oh, gosh! That was a while ago, in the early ’90s; I’m dating myself here. I’m from Dallas, and I used to work as a door girl and bartender at a place there called the Orbit Room. We used to show those Bettie Page fetish videos between the performances, and that really piqued my curiosity in burlesque and erotica, in that old-fashioned kind of style.

And how did you actually becoming involved in burlesque?
I have a dance background. All my life, I either was doing ballet or figure skating. While I was working in that bar, I used to dance in a cage—clothed—for this 1960sall-lesbian dance party, wearing vinyl cat suits and stuff. I always look back very fondly on that. It was for free beer and maybe $20, but it’s still one of my favorite jobs. Then in 1998, I moved up here and was working as a spokesperson for the Manhattan DA’s office.

Wow! That’s quite a left turn, careerwise.
Yeah! I was working for Robert Morgenthau. I had this whole plan: I was going to graduate from college, move to New York—which is where I always wanted to live—and first got a job in the office as a paralegal. But then I heard about an opening in the press office, and I managed to get that job.

Morgenthau was pushing 90 at this point, wasn’t he?
Almost. He was 86. He actually got into office the year I was born! [Laughs] At this point, my life was on a totally different track; I was actually planning on going to law school at night. I’mreally glad I didn’t! I finally did decide to leave that job, and opened a vintage clothing shop, Tallulah Vintage [Manhattan Media’s “Best Woman-Owned Business on the East Side” in 2003] in my neighborhood, at 88th at Second. I did 1920s through early 1960s. No ’70s, ’80s or ’90s—just the good stuff. I really liked that job. Through that, I met a lot of like-minded people who were into swing dancing, the ’20s thing, and stuff like the Jazz Age Lawn Party, which I’ve been involved with in the past several years.

Things were falling into place.
Definitely. I met Michael Arenella, who has a 12-piece ’20s orchestra [the Dreamland Orchestra]. He’s the one who got me into burlesque. It’s all his fault!

Did he just say something like, “You’re going to do burlesque for us?”
Pretty much. He knew I had danced in the cage, and he knows my personality; I’m always telling these double-entendre, wink-wink kind of jokes. He would always say, “You’d make such a good burlesque performer. You should really do it.” Then in 2008, I was recovering from a really bad Vespa accident—I have a piece of somebody else’s bone in my arm, which I jokingly say is the reason that I started performing.

That makes sense, kind of.
It might not be true.… But it’s kind of funny! Anyway, I realized that life is short, so screw it—give burlesque a try. It turned out that Michael was playing somewhere, and he found out three days beforehand that one of his dancers couldn’t make it. He came to me and said, “It’s now or never.” I had no act and three days to prepare.

And what did you come up with?
Funnily enough, I still perform this act. It was set to “Tiger Rag.” It involved a red retractable leash and a beaded, ’20s kind of costume with little ears and everything, and—at the end—tiger lingerie. I spin in and out of the leash; it was really playful. I had the time of my life!

And now you’re a triple threat: You’re a burlesque performer, you produce shows and you sing.
Well, somebody has to do it!

I’ve seen you do a song called “Mrs. Cellulite”; what’s the story behind that?
I never took any burlesque classes until after I started performing. But then, I took a performance art–burlesque class at the New York School of Burlesque. We were supposed to come up with an original concept, and I had already kind of thought of the “Mrs. Cellulite” concept; it’s based on “Mister Cellophane” [from Chicago]. I am a curvy girl, and I do have cellulite! Everyone who’s performing thinks about their body. You can’t help it. And if you’re watching, you can’t help it either. Thinking about physicality is just something that humans do, but no one ever talks about it. Why not joke about it and put it out there? That song may not be for everyone.… It may be more for the ladies than the guys. [Laughs]

I think most people who go to burlesque shows are ready for anything. As a performer, you don’t have to look or act any certain way.
It’s very free. You can be any way you like. You can be funny or you can be serious. You can be edgy and out there, or you can be super classic.

I’m guessing that you prefer the latter, sinces, you ran a vintage-clothing shop and you bill Coup de Grace Burlesque as “an enchanting evening of early-20th-century burlesque and music.”
Yes, I do, but for the show, I choose performers that often don’t really perform early-20th-century burlesque, but who will come up with stuff. As an example, Ruby Valentine has this great nunchucks act, which is normally done to a ’70s song, but for Coup de Grace she did a version of it to a ’20s song. It can be a challenge for them, just like it is for me if I do some crazy theme show for somebody—something out of my comfort zone.

So you will stray out of your classic-burlesque mode from time to time?
Sure, on occasion. It’s fun. My personal style is to always include comedy as well. I’m inspired by people like Fanny Brice and Gypsy Rose Lee, who always spoke during her act. She didn’t hardly take anything off! Her act was very verbally oriented. I really, really think it should be brought back, especially since all the other aspects of vaudeville seem to be having such a resurgence. People are doing acrobatics and rope-twirlin’ and all kinds of stuff. I love that.

Yes, it seems like it’s not just the burlesque world that’s as big as it’s ever been, but the overall vaudeville world, too.
Yeah, it’s crazy! It’s very cool. It’s too bad they don’t have those wheels [circuits of vaudeville theaters] anymore, so people could tour all over the place.

Maybe you’ll be the one to arrange that someday.
That would be awesome.

But in the meantime, you have another edition of Coup de Grace Burlesque coming up. What can people expect?
Oh, so much. Before and after the show, we have this great guy, Michael Cumella, who will be playing all these great 78s on a vintage phonograph. Well, I guess they’re all vintage now, but you know what I mean. [Laughs] We always have live music between the acts; it will be Shelly the Singing Siren and her pianist, Broc Hempel. She’s great; she’ll be doing ragtime, music from the ’40s—things like that. A crazy aspect of my show—one that I know no other burlesque show has going on—are the co-emcees; one is my husband, and the other is his friend Howard. They’re both lawyers! Actually, Howard isn’t a practicing lawyer, but he’s written allthese books about international law and stuff. They’re very eccentric characters, and no one would ever guess they’re lawyers. They have a very interesting dynamic.

And you have an all-star lineup of performers, right?
Why yes, I do! I have several people who were just in Vegas [for the annual Burlesque Hall of Fame and Miss Exotic World Pageant]. I was out there myself—it’s such a huge deal! Anyway, we have Gin Minsky, Calamity Chang, Ruby Valentine, Nikki le Villain, Justina Flash, Cassandra Rosebeetle, Topher Bousquet—he’s gonna do this singing-while-doing-acrobatics thing, which is just fabulous—Beelzebabe, Pandora and Tansy. I always like to do a big show with a lot of performers, each one doing one act. Nikki le Villain is doing her snake dance; Justina is doing hooping, but a ’20s version; there will be acrobatics, and a lot more, too. There’s always a bit of variety thrown in there. A lot of them will be jumping a bit out of their comfort zone for the show, but several of the performers specialize in acts from the time era. They don’t mind dipping in the flapper era for a while.

Everybody likes to play dress-up, don’t they? Isn’t that part of the appeal of being a burlesque performer?
Yes! If only every single dollar and cent didn’t go back into the wardrobe.

Does the show get a regular crowd?
Sure, but we always get new people, and a lot of them have never seen burlesque. I don’t choose to do the old-fashioned, classic style for this reason, but I do think that the style can be a good starting point for people. It’s a little bit more modest and innocent. If someone is a little timid, and they think burlesque is going to be way over the top, they can dip their toe into the classic style. And they can be very surprised how benign it is.

You can almost bring your children.
Or your parents! My family has come to see me.

Were you nervous?
A little bit. But my mom is Brazilian—she’s not conservative at all. I don’t think she gets the vintage thing, though; she’s like, “It’s old—throw it away!” But the burlesque part? She’s like, “In Brazil, we can do that on the beach. And we have Carnival!”

So what’s next?
I live on the Upper East Side, and one thing I’ve always dreamed about is bringing burlesque up here. I might have to open my own space for that to happen—there’s not much up here—so we’ll see. It’s the real frontier. But more realistically, one of the things I’m planning on doing more is performances where I’m just singing. The idea both thrills and terrifies me. Now, I’m not saying they won’t be naughty songs—and I can’t promise that means my clothes will stay on, either.

Coup de Grace Burlesque is at the Triad Saturday, June 23


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