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Making It Bigger

Baltimore burlesque grows up, with the help of a little girl and her monkey

By Chris Landers

It’s show time at Load of Fun on North Avenue, and a sold-out crowd files into the black box theater, lingering for a moment at the table in back to pick up a glass of wine or a can of beer before grabbing one of the few remaining folding chairs. Paco Fish, trusted television newsman, takes the stage to present an evening of morality tales about the dangers facing American youth, from hazards foreign and domestic–drugs, sex, homosexuality, communism–you know, “all manner of villainy.” He is joined by Viola van Wilde–a wide-eyed innocent–whose body is going through changes she doesn’t understand. After delivering some sage and slightly creepy advice, Paco exits, leaving little Viola to her journey of self-discovery set to a slinky big-band bump and grind.

The schoolgirl outfit doesn’t stay on for long.

It’s the first performance of The Nearly Naked Truth, staged by Gilded Lily Burlesque. Over the course of the evening, Maria Bella succumbs to the temptations of marijuana, Lena Grove demonstrates the torment of the sex addict, and the cast generally shows what happens when good girls go bad. All roads, apparently, lead to damnation, depravity, and pasties.

The Lilies started performing in 2007, a local burlesque troupe that moves from venue to venue–Baltimore’s answer to the neo-burlesque scene that started springing up around the country in the mid-’90s. It’s an homage filtered through drag shows, performance art, and mixed with a healthy dose of humor–there’s more laughter than leering in the house tonight.

The burlesque revival has largely passed through Baltimore for one-off shows before heading to more fertile ground in the New York clubs or Washington’s Palace of Wonders, though it wasn’t always this way. In 1967, TheNew York Times wrote that Baltimore was “known among most visitors to the country as the place to go for a sinful night out.” The occasion for their article was a charge by a Soviet newspaper that labeled Baltimore a city of sin and symbol of all things decadent and capitalist. The Lilies hope to bring back some of Baltimore’s bygone glamour and glitz, like when Blaze Starr hit the stage at the Two O’Clock Club alongside girls with names like Misty Night–“who moves like a ship sliding through the fog.”

If this show is any indication, the Lilies are finding an audience here, but it was another performer who laid the groundwork and put Baltimore on the neo-burlesque map. Well, two performers. If you count the monkey.

“I really believe that if it weren’t for Trixie, there wouldn’t be any burlesque in Baltimore,” says Paco Fish during a February interview, of Baltimore’s neo-burlesque vanguards.

Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey wasn’t the first act Keri Burneston put on stage. She was the founder of Baltimore’s Formstone-kitsch performance group Fluid Movement, which introduced audiences to singing sausages (Carmen: The Hot Dog Opera), biography as bellydance (1001 Freudian Nights), and the group’s trademark amateur water ballet and roller-skating extravaganzas (Poe on Wheels). Part of Fluid Movement’s goal was to put on shows in venues that brought them into the community–Patterson Park, for example–with performers who weren’t usually performers.

“I had been doing it for a long time, and I realized that I actually wanted to be in the show,” Burneston says by phone from the Vermont circus school where she and her boyfriend Adam Krandle (better known as the Evil Hate Monkey) are honing their new act Mumbo. “I just wanted it to be better and better–I guess I just got fancier ideas. By the time I met Adam, he actually had a ton of theater and musical theater training and dance experience. Our ideas were bigger for what we wanted to do.”

Burneston and Krandle met through their day jobs at the non-profit Living Classroom Foundation; she worked with kids, he maintained a fleet of sailboats. During a 2001 corporate-style, team-building retreat, Krandle treated his co-workers (including this reporter, at the time) to a performance he described loosely as a traditional Native American dance in between trust exercises and lessons on the history of the Chesapeake Bay. The loin-cloth and moccasins may have been traditional, the flaming hula-hoop was perhaps less so.

Asked whether this was how Krandle caught Burneston’s eye, she says, “No. It was when I found out he was a straight guy who could tap dance.”

The act that became Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey came together quickly. In 2002, Burneston had planned a burlesque act with another Fluid Movement member. It didn’t work out, but she had already booked a 14 Karat Cabaret performance. “I had been dating Adam at the time,” she says. “So I called him up and said, ‘Do you want to do this thing?’ And he said ‘Yeah, why not?’ I had a coworker at the time who called me Trixie Little, and Monkey was sort of my pet name for Adam. Within 10 minutes all the pieces fell into place.”

Burneston had always sought out interesting performances, from drag shows to the Mummers parade. For the Trixie act, they drew on the circus for their back story, and the duo started heading up to the New England Center for Circus Arts to learn more complex routines and tricks. She says Mumbo is their most ambitious show yet, and video from the circus school backs her up: Trixie and the Monkey dangle above the stage from a dual trapeze, flipping and catching each other without a net. Past shows have included motorcycle/trapeze acts (Krandle learned to operate a motorcycle just days before piloting across a 40-foot high wire as Burneston and another performer did tricks underneath). With every show, Trixie and Monkey have moved further from community theater and closer to full-on polished performers.

They’ve imparted that lesson to the students at the burlesque classes they’ve taught sporadically since 2005. In 2006, the students included Sable Sin Cyr, co-founder of the Gilded Lilies, and she returned for a more intensive class later, along with Paco Fish.

Paco Fish, who works as a cytogenetic laboratory tech under the name Paul Galbraith, sits across from Sable, aka Katie Gray, at a Mount Vernon coffee shop, stealing sips from her cup. In 2004, Galbraith took the Dresden Dolls up on their open invitation for fans to perform at their shows. He built a pair of 20-inch stilts and learned to juggle, but he says, “I wanted to put together some kind of act, instead of just flirting with people and walking around looking down their shirts.”

“Are they amply bosomed?” Gray asks.

“They’re generally corseted,” Galbraith says. “I saw the Fluid Movement water ballet–the one about Charles Darwin’s struggle to publish Origin of Species. I was like, ‘I need to be a part of this.’ I knew someone in the show, and I started bugging them until they told me about Glitterama, which was Fluid Movement’s variety show at the time. I made a juggling act for that and met Trixie at the show. She invited me to be in one of their shows, and then I took the class.”

The Gilded Lilies come from varied backgrounds, Gray’s fellow co-founder Maria Bella, who performs a day job under the name Maria Adams, had 15 years of dance training before she took on her pin-up persona. Gray is a trained opera singer with a degree in performing arts.

“At the work shop, Trixie and Monkey really pushed us to become as professional as possible,” Gray says. “They really emphasized the need to practice your ass off and make this fantastic. You can’t just get up there on stage and take your clothes off. That’s not what burlesque is about. Everything they taught us is the bible I use to create my acts now.”

“The key phrase in the class they kept using was ‘Make it bigger,’ which is sort of their philosophy outside the class as well,” Galbraith says. “If you’re going to do something, do it well. Make it bigger. Make it as glamorous as possible.”

“You could call it professionalism,” says Gray, in a tone that suggests you shouldn’t. “But it was more important that it be quality–that it was professional level, that there was some commitment and quality coming out of what you were doing. That you weren’t just screwing around.”

Though Galbraith and the Gilded Lily ladies have day jobs, they try to do individual performance or tour in smaller groups. “I do hope we’re able to travel more,” Adams says of the near future. “Really make a name for ourselves.”

Burneston and Krandle have more immediate plans. She is legally going to change her name to Trixie, and then they’re packing their bags for New York. It’s a bittersweet move, but one that brings them closer to their regular venues. Even while in Vermont, they’ve been supporting themselves by heading to New York to pack as many shows as possible into a weekend.

Burneston credits Baltimore for nurturing them as performers, from Fluid Movement on. “I don’t think it was the intention from the beginning, but there’s something about that quirky sensibility,” she says. “If Baltimore audiences didn’t get it, like, immediately, it probably would have died, but Fluid Movement had an audience from the beginning and we had an audience from the beginning. People just got it right away, and loved it right away, and wanted more all the time.

“It’s so fun for us to go back to Baltimore now, especially at the Ottobar,” she continues. “It’s just so rowdy. We opened our last show there, and it was just amazing, we were like crowd surfing in the audience. You don’t get that in New York.”

Trixie and Monkey have been able to make burlesque their day job, but it’s a tough path to follow. “As glamorous as burlesque is, there’s not a lot of money in it,” Galbraith says. “It’s all about creating the illusion of . . .”

He trails off for a second, and Gray finishes his sentence, “Fabulousness.”

This story was published 3/18/2009 in Baltimore City Paper

Published inStories