LAS VEGAS — The merchandise table was covered in sequined pasties — red, blue, glittery gold. Each was topped with a tassel and handmade by Athena, a headliner in New Orleans' Bustout Burlesque show. The pasties sparkled and caught the lights from the nearby slot machines.
But the ticketholders streaming past the merch table mostly ignored Athena's handiwork. They just wanted to see the pasties in action.
It was, after all, Las Vegas, and for one night, the Bustout Burlesque troupe had left its home at the House of Blues in New Orleans' French Quarter to perform in the showroom in The Orleans, a casino a mile or so off the Strip.
Like its namesake, The Orleans was affable, raffish and a bit worn around the edges. Just down the road were the mega-hotels of 21st-century Sin City, theme-free, charm-free complexes with names like Vdara and Cosmopolitan, where Vegas kitsch was downplayed in favor of spendy nightclubs with velvet ropes, bottle service and appearances by reality-TV celebrities.
The Orleans promised none of these things — just the $7.99 French Market Buffet ("featuring Italian, Mongolian, barbecue, American, seafood, Mexican and Chinese cooking"), penny-slot Fridays, crappy Mardi Gras beads, cumulus clouds of cigarette smoke and a large photo outside the theater of upcoming headliner Don Rickles.
And tonight, for one night only: a real New Orleans burlesque troupe, performing on its biggest stage yet — both literally and figuratively — while hoping to show Las Vegas how the strip is done in the city that made it an art.
"Do you think you could live in Las Vegas?" asked Rick Delaup, staring out of the windshield of his white panel van as it rolled down Interstate 15 through the heart of Vegas. Towering over the freeway on both sides, multi-story billboards advertised the latest attractions: Elton John and Shania Twain, the variety show Absinthe, endless variations of Cirque du Soleil.
From the back of the van, Delaup's wife Maria said — after a significant pause — "For a while."
"I could," her husband said dreamily.
Delaup started Bustout Burlesque in 2005, after a stint as artistic director of the burlesque-themed Shim Sham Revue at the Shim Sham Club (now One Eyed Jacks) on Toulouse Street. "I didn't have any experience with theater before that," he said, but he was hooked.
Bustout had its first show in the Parish at House of Blues in the summer of 2005 — and then Hurricane Katrina hit a week before the second performance. The Delaups, who lived in Gentilly, lost nearly everything, including Rick's collection of burlesque memorabilia and the extant archives of everything relating to the late Ruthie the Duck Girl, about whom he made a documentary in the early 2000s.
But the levee collapse couldn't wash away Delaup's dream. In 2006, he was walking through the French Quarter looking for a new home for Bustout Burlesque. The show reopened at Tipitina's on North Peters Street later that year and later moved back to House of Blues (this time on the main stage). In 2009, Delaup founded the New Orleans Burlesque Festival, which became a draw not only for the neo-burlesque movement, but also for the Bourbon Street stars of the 1950s and '60s, who found a new and younger audience eager to ask questions and pay for autographed photos. (Just before the first Burlesque Festival, Rita Alexander, who danced under the name "The Champagne Girl," told Gambit, "Obviously [Delaup] must have been a club owner that got killed in, like, the '40s, and he's still trying to get back there.")
One of Delaup's goals and dreams: to move Bustout into the showroom at Harrah's New Orleans, where it could be performed on a bigger stage several times a week. To that end, he'd been in contact with an entertainment director at Harrah's in Las Vegas before the trip; the company had even gotten him comps to the Absinthe variety show at Caesars Palace. Delaup hoped to return the favor. He invited Harrah's executives in Vegas to his own show.
But in a town that produces so much of its own megawatt razzle-dazzle, would the Vegas impresarios show up to appreciate what New Orleans could do?
And in a synthetic wonderland where female glamour equals freakishly enhanced reality-show star Coco Austin in a revue called Peepshow, did people want Delaup's meticulously recreated old-style Bourbon Street glamour?
"We're staying at the scuzziest Days Inn," Gogo McGregor said as she climbed out of the van a few hours earlier. "They found a dead hooker in one of the rooms." She sighed and stretched. "I'll just pretend it's a Quentin Tarantino film."
McGregor, a Bustout dancer whose specialty is a striptease while she sits atop a bed of nails painted like zebra skin, had driven in the Delaups' van from New Orleans with her boyfriend, Dr. Sick, who was the show's emcee. Inside the van were the props the Bustout performers needed — the bed of nails, the oyster shell big enough to hold Ginger Valentine and the giant motor that propels the wheel on which Miss Stormy Gayle, once divested of her clothes onstage, dances and contorts.
A stripped-down version of the show might have been fine; the peek-a-boo, pullaway costumes could fit in a suitcase, and Valentine (as "Evangeline the Oyster Girl") could have danced with her giant pearl without emerging from her shell. Instead, all of it had to be unloaded through the theater's back door located just outside the casino's main entrance. Cars waiting for the valets were already 12 deep across four lanes of traffic. Delaup blocked one of the lanes with the van. A valet lifted his head to the sky and bellowed the F-word.
Delaup wanted Vegas to have the real vintage Bourbon Street experience — and that meant props, sets, confetti and all the trimmings.
"The Burlesque Hall of Fame audience is performers and diehard fans," he explained. "But the rockabilly crowd? It's different. They're not automatically going to love just anything you put up there."
Bustout Burlesque wasn't the only thing competing for the attentions of the crowd that weekend. The troupe was performing at the 16th Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender. It was Bustout's second appearance at the convention; Tom Ingram, the organizer, hired Delaup last year after the convention's longtime burlesque stager quit.
"At the time, the two didn't really go together much," Ingram said of the marriage of burlesque dancing and rockabilly music. "The big changes Rick has made is a live jazz band and making it an all-classic sort of burlesque. Big extravagant old-style costumes that go with the music."
Is Bustout one of the most popular attractions at Viva Las Vegas?
"Well," Ingram said, "we've got a lot of events."
Indeed they did — dozens of rockabilly bands, a vintage car show, dance competitions, slideshows, tiki pool parties with live surf music, dozens of vendors, retro fashion shows, performances by Little Richard and Dick Dale and more. (In Big Al's Oyster Bar off the casino floor, several games of "Burlesque Bingo" were scheduled; rather than pulling bingo balls, the caller would use the painted numbers on the floor where the women's clothes fell.)
By the time the van was empty, the wall-to-wall carpet in the casino's ersatz French Quarter was packed with rockabillys, shockabillys and psychobillys, vatos in zoot suits, boys in Mohawks and quiffs, girls in beehives and pincurls, flat tops and high-tops, hairhoppers and showstoppers and thousands of tattoos that varied wildly both in terms of quality and body location. One man with an astoundingly high flat top balanced a Budweiser tallboy on his hair while people snapped pictures.
Tickets to Bustout were free for Viva attendees, but wouldn't be doled out until noon on the day of the show. By 10 a.m., the line was already long — and by the end, all three performances in the 870-seat showroom were sold out.
So far, so good. But would the audience like it? And would the Harrah's executives show up?
The crowd for Bustout's 7:30 p.m. early show was thick outside the theater half an hour before the start. Just outside the door sat Tempest Storm, "The Girl With the Fabulous Front," a woman whose breasts were insured for a million dollars in their heyday 50 years ago. Now in her eighties, Storm was still statuesque and a bit imperious under a corona of Crayola-red hair. Two assistants sold memorabilia. A photo was $25. A copy of her new 7-inch "single" (no singing, just an interview with musician Jack White) drew some interest, but the 45 was $45, and a browser put it back on the table. Storm's impassive expression didn't change.
At another table sat Alexander, "The Champagne Girl," who was both more affable and affordable than Storm; her photos were only $20 and came with a big smile. "What's your name, honey?" she asked a fan, inscribing her name on a vintage glamour shot with a sparkly silver Sharpie.
There was a buzz. Despite all the fake New Orleans-ania in the air, the hotel had a certain careworn personality that the mega-resorts on the strip just couldn't recreate, and the plush red seats felt just right for a show from the French Quarter. Delaup, in a theatrical burgundy-colored paisley jacket and electric-blue shirt, was in the doorway greeting guests, seemingly at ease; inside the theater, every seat was filled.
Delaup was right to relax. From the minute the curtain went up and the six-piece band (led by Matt Bell) hit its first brassy notes, the audience made it clear: They were out for a good time.
Angi B. Lovely, a redheaded dancer and circus performer from Dallas, wowed the crowd, as did LouLou D'Vil of Helsinki, Finland ("Untamed glamour from the Arctic!") and Banbury Cross of London, the picture of a textbook 1950s blonde sex bomb. And the New Orleans performers were perhaps an even bigger hit, from Dr. Sick's leering jokes and singalong Russian drinking chantey to McGregor's bed-of-nails routine.
Miss Stormy Gayle began with a colorful veil striptease and ended with a show-stopping dance on a large vertical wheel, where she contorted her bare limbs like the arms of a clock as the wheel spun. And the rockabilly audience stomped and whistled for Athena, a talented singer (and recent American Idol semifinalist) who belted a couple of campy numbers — "Rock Me, Daddy," "Too Many Men" — while shedding her clothes.
The curtain call got wolf whistles and a standing ovation, and as the first audience streamed back into the casino, hundreds more were waiting to get in for the second show.
Back home a few days later, Delaup nursed a cold. "It went well. They seemed to like it," he said hoarsely. The executives from Harrah's Entertainment hadn't shown up.
Still, he remained positive: "The girls had the time of their lives. Those performances are all over Facebook." And a separate Saturday night "burlesque showcase" contest, featuring contestants from around the world (many of them decidedly not in the New Orleans style of stripping) also had a good reception.
Delaup still has plenty of goals and dreams, which include recording a CD of burlesque music with Bell and the band. If Bustout gets invited back to Vegas next year, expanding the booth at the Viva Las Vegas car show where the cast can meet their fans the day after the show, perhaps T-shirts and DVDs for the merch table.
And there's always the hope of moving Bustout into Harrah's New Orleans for more performances.
Perhaps the best review came from a middle-aged Canadian man sitting on the edge of The Orleans' pool the next day. It was a tiki party for hundreds, many in vintage swimwear; the AquaSonics played surf guitar as women broke into spontaneous go-go dance steps around the pool.
"Oh, yeah, that show last night was great," the Canadian said, dangling his feet in the pool. "All the women were excellent. I wasn't sure about that Stormy Gayle at first, she was just dancing, but then she climbed on that wheel, and — wow.
"New Orleans," he said thoughtfully. "That's definitely on our bucket list."
— Bustout Burlesque's next performance is April 12 at House of Blues (225 Decatur St., 504-310-4999). For more information, visit www.bustoutburlesque.com.