– all photography by Jun Ying
My hubby, Frank, and I take a subtle stance outside the Biltmore Cabaret in Vancouver.
They put the fun into flappers, the glitz into gangsters, the va-va-voom into vaudeville. And ah yes, the gin into bathtubs.
The Bootleggers’ Ball, a 25th-anniversary fundraiser for the Vancouver Police Museum, did a great job Friday night of evoking the speakeasy era (not that I’m old enough to remember that), complete with cheeky, Depression-era burlesque and a raid by a pretend vice squad in fedoras.
Chris Mathieson, the museum’s executive director, and his creative crew offered a quirky line-up of offbeat entertainment, including The Vaudevillians, a troupe of singing and dancing seniors. I liked their deadpan emcee, in white top hat and tails, who told us that their oldest member was in his nineties and that two others recently married at 81. Good for them.
It was heartening to see women in their mid-seventies tap dance, do the can-can, and other routines, and I liked the group’s overall campy style. But some of their traditional jokes, many decades old, should have stayed back in their original era. As their announcer explained, these performers were used to doing shows at seniors’ centres, not at a bar full of youngish drinkers. Some of their material was too worn and outdated for this edgy, urban crowd. (I’ve never seen so many tattoos on women in a crowd anywhere, except at Burning Man. Most female attendees came wearing a great range of flapper gear, truly providing oodles of atmosphere.)
A singing act from The Vaudevillians
My fave entertainment of the night was burlesque dancer Lola Frost. Woweee. Did she ever own that stage! Talk about sensual power and keeping an audience mesmerized. Female attendees, in particular, were giving loud hoots of appreciation for her show. She reminded me of a shit-stompin’ version of Catherine Zeta-Jones in Cabaret, except with far more erotic oomph and classic, gritty grinds.
Costume contest judges included Chris Mathieson (left) and Lola Frost (centre) and several others. The woman on the right won the competition. Frank and I were among the finalists.
As a feminist, I feel compelled to defend my viewing of these burlesque entertainers. All three acts — the other two were Darla DeVine and Lacey L’Amour — were performed in classic period style, with no total nudity or toplessness. They were campy, classy, and seemed a fun form of self-empowerment and creative self-expression. And the women in the crowd sure loved them. Were their shows exploitative? I didn’t think so.
The evening featured an excellent silent auction, with offerings from Grouse Mountain and Trialto Wines to Bard on the Beach and Granville Island Beer.
The finale act was the musical group The Creaking Planks (love the name), a bizarre klezmer concoction that had my friends and I scratching our heads. The lead singer’s version of The Police’s Roxanne, sounded like it was sung by the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street, in a strange, gravelly growl. I’m a big fan of eccentric alternative bands, but this one, which bills itself as “the jugband of the damned”, was offkey and seemed out of whack.. My friends, eager to dance, left after the first few songs, which brought no one to the dance floor.
The Creaking Planks in action
Our middle-aged gang left not long after The Creaking Planks started to play, but we must have missed the good dancing tunes because people packed the dance floor by the second set. Oh well. Our timing stunk.
Overall, I loved seeing so many women sashaying around with fringe, boas, and stoles, getting into the flavor of the 20s to 40s. The early mix of recorded music, including Glenn Miller’s In the Mood, set a stimulating mood of nostalgic rhythms.
It was a fun, theme event, emceed by Chris Coburn, the morning show host of The Peak 100.5 FM. I was glad to give money to the Museum through my ticket purchase; the evening raised almost $10,000. I appreciate their effort to save and revive intriguing slices of Vancouver history. I’ve attended one of their forensics evenings and want to join one of their Sins of the City walking tours.
My husband and I had a wonderful time. He rented his costume from BooLaLa in North Vancouver and I highly recommend them. They have a fantastic collection of every imaginable outfit and accessory. I could spend hours in their store. I put together my whole outfit, thanks to Value Village, Dressew, and the costume odds and ends I keep on hand. BooLaLa provided my stylish cigarette holder. (No, I don’t smoke — it was just a prop.)
Thanks for an evening of creative and historic zest. We need more of ‘em.
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Good-bye to an old gal
An historic afternote: While all of this Vancouver vaudeville celebration was happening, the city was preparing to demolish its oldest vaudeville/movie house, The Pantages Theatre.
Unfortunately, this once-glorious venue at 144-150 East Hastings near Main suffered too much rot and damage to be revived affordably, after sitting vacant since 1994. With rich stage curtains of billowy red, a salmon-pink arch over its proscenium, and gilt decor, The Pantages, built in 1907-08, symbolized Vancouver’s early desire to create a downtown mecca of enviable construction and cultural hotspots. Alas, another slice of our city’s history is gone.