A shimmy, a shake, a tease. The sound of seashells heavily hitting the stage floor.
Stacey Breakall laughs at the memory. It was 2001, and the first-ever performance of Kitty Kitty Bang Bang, the legendary Austin burlesque troupe she founded. There she was onstage, under her nom de plume of Tijuana Trixie, midway through a seductive siren-themed number. "We had some pasties out of seashells," she said, "and what we learned was that seashells are too heavy to be pasties. There's a big reveal, and seashells are just popping off left and right. I think people in the audience got a little bit more than they were expecting."
"You could hear the little 'clink,'" added Marita De La Torre, aka the stripping Southern assassin Venus Velvet, "and you were like, 'I wonder whose that one was?' and keep dancing."
Twenty years later, and a decade since their last performance, five of the original seven members of Kitty Kitty Bang Bang are reuniting for a final lingerie fling at the Texas Burlesque Festival.
That one night, June 4, will be a tribute to these godmothers of the still-vibrant Austin burlesque scene that they helped define, the Long Center's highfalutin stage a far remove from their early days playing clubs and speakeasies. Back then, the exotic arts were so underground, the audience needed educating. This was 2001, when most people associated burlesque with the Pussycat Dolls on TV and Moulin Rouge! in cinemas. They may never have seen a burlesque show in person before, and the ladies of Kitty Kitty Bang Bang realized that they needed to give the crowd permission to play their part in the production. De La Torre explained, "We'd always start with, 'More than anything, this is about fun. You can hoot and holler.'"
"We still do that, even at the festival," said TBF Director Terri Lynn Raridon. "Practice your best wolf whistle and catcall, because you're gonna need it because these performers have to have it, and they're not gonna take it off if they don't hear it."
Even if those early audiences were thinking of a millennial, Hollywood-glam version of burlesque, what Breakall and De La Torre were looking to bring back was the true golden era of the ecdysiast's art, and most especially the leggy legacy of Gypsy Rose Lee. Breakall had been entranced by her work since seeing the 1993 biopic Gypsy in high school ("Thanks, mom!"). She recalled, "I just loved the over-the-top costumes, and that playful sense of sexuality onstage." New regional burlesque scenes were starting to pop up internationally, given luscious life by Canada's Fluffgirl Burlesque Society and the Shim Shamettes in New Orleans, and Breakall wanted to bring the most professional version of the art to Austin that she could, even drawing up a business plan. "I knew that because it was something new, and because I was asking people to get onstage and take off their clothes, they would need to know that I was serious."
The first number she called was her old college friend De La Torre, already a fixture on the Austin theatre and dance scene, and, as Breakall credited her, one of those people who just knows everyone. "I guess I was that person that people would go, 'I want to do this, call Marita!'" De La Torre said, but there was something special in the double trouble she and Breakall could create. "She had the marketing business brain and I had the theatre production know-how, so here we go, unite, and Wonder Twin powers activate."
That first show, they didn't even put the troupe's name over the door, just the words "Burlesque Show." But that was enough to get audiences through the door and turn that first shell-shedding performance into a local institution. "Austin was ready," De La Torre said.
Not that there wasn't burlesque in Austin before these Kitties polished their claws. However, it was generally built around occasional shows like Burlesque for Peace, while peers like Red Light Burlesque were less troupes and more ensembles, with a series of soloists. The Kitty Kitty Bang Bang experience was built around themed shows, group pieces, and showstoppers with every dancer disrobing in unison. There was music, an emcee, a full-fledged vaudeville atmosphere, and shows would run for a full season. The ladies would throw away their 10-gallon hats (and a lot more) for the deeply Texan El Rancho, mob up as Prohibition-era molls for Cabaret Rouge, or do up just enough buttons on their trenchcoats for Spies, Thighs, and Private Eyes. "It was a vaudeville setup," said De La Torre.
A couple of years in and the shows were getting to the level of performance and theatrical complexity Breakall et al. wanted, so they started looking for a director. Enter Raridon, owner of Forbidden Fruit, future Texas Burlesque Festival director, and theatrical producer and choreographer, whose very first production in Austin was a Capital City Playhouse production of Gypsy, the 1959 musical based on the striptease legend's life. "It was a natural transition for me," Raridon said. "We did shows that were scripted. You're seeing burlesque in a theatrical production."
Jump to 2022, and it was actually Raridon's idea to bring the Bangers back together ("I'll take the blame for that," she said), not least because there would be no Texas Burlesque Festival without them. It was they who founded it in 2007, and she only took on the leadership role in 2009, the year that the troupe dissolved. Coming out of a two-year pandemic hiatus, she wanted to give them "one last swan song."
Right now, the Kitties are working on getting back in step, rehearsing one of their old and most beloved routines for one last display of dancing exhibitionism. It'll be just like the old days, complete with their longtime emcee David Lampe (aka Harvey Touchbottom) and his signature cape, while Venus Velvet will be sporting the original boots she wore the first time around. For De La Torre, the night will be like the old days in one specific and vital way: "We knew that it was always going to be playful, meaning full of play. That's what always drove our brand of burlesque, and why, when we think about our reunion, we think, 'I get to play.'"
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