Revving With Cora Vette
Texas Burlesque Festival MC tells dirty jokes and career truths
By Richard Whittaker,
12:55PM, Fri. Apr. 10, 2015
Bustiers? Check. Feathered fascinators? Check. Sparkle and glitter? Check and check? Dirty joke book? Uh oh.
Like a Punch and Judy show without a crocodile, it's hard to imagine the Texas Burlesque Festival without the one and only Cora Vette. The definitive hostess with the mostest, part Mae West, part Blowfly, a dash of Ed Sullivan and a flash of Lisa Lampenelli, she's the glue that holds the show together, the turbine that speeds it along, and the joke-dealing, pun-wielding mistress of the nod and the wink.
So how does someone become a burlesque MC in the first place? "I was professional actress, a musical theatre performer, and I have my union card," she said after holding together last night's three-hour opening show. After living and performing in Las Vegas, including three years as Tanya in Mamma Mia! at the Mandalay Bay, she moved back to Denver. "There were only two theatres that hired union actors," she explained, so there were limited opportunities and, as an Equity member, she was limited in what she could do outside those venues. Fortunately for her, the burlesque scene was still wide open to her, "so I was able to move into a more improvisational, experimentational environment without jeopardizing my retirement."
Now, she is arguably America's go-to burlesque MC: she's hosted (deep breath) the New Orleans Burlesque Festival, St. Louis' Show Me Burlesque, Hot Rods and Heels in Dallas, Albuquerque's Southwest Burlesque Showcase, and the Texas Burlesque Festival for much of its history. That doesn't include the multiple events and troupes she has helped run and found, or the two burlesque musicals she wrote. It may seem like a big transition from belting out modern Broadway standards, but she's glad she made the change. "I love it," she said. "I've made a lot more money doing legitimate theatre, but I haven't been able to do exactly what I wanted to do, so I think the trade-off is great."
Until she told the crowd for the TBF's opening Nouveau Nuit that she'd left her closely guarded joke book at home in Denver, no one would have known she was even close to skipping a beat. She'd only flown into Austin that afternoon, but after a quick trip to Barnes and Noble, a new dirty joke book was acquired, and she got to test drive a whole new cavalcade of filthy laughs. "I do different things for different audiences. I feel them out, and try to work out what they'll accept and what they won't accept."
Even the same room on the same night can play completely differently for different crowds. Last weekend, she hosted all three sets of the Viva Las Vegas Burlesque show case in one evening. "The people who are there at 6 o'clock aren't really drinking. The people who are there at 9 have been drinking all day and are about ready to pass out. The people who are there at 11 are drunk professionals. The hardest show was the middle show, because they were the ones who were half in the bag and not prepared to deal with it. The people who are still out at 11:30 in Vegas, they're the ones who are like, we're good!"
But the missing joke book is a key to the craft. La Vette doesn't just tell them: she notes carefully when she last ran them out, so no audience gets the same routine twice. That's a long way from the strict choreography and repetition of the previous phase of her career. "There are things that will happen today that will never happen again," she said. "I'll never again have a guy get cream on his shirt and then leave. It stupidly makes me happy, and it's a lot more fun than cross over stage left, do this with this person, and wear what I tell you."
That doesn't mean everything is wiped clean. Every year at the TBF, Vette taunts and flirts with the long-suffering stage hand Blue (or, as she calls him this year, Tight Shirt). Expect the tease to continue across the remaining nights of the festival, as much of a tradition on this stage as the shimmy and the shake and the tassels and the rhinestones. Vette said, "His friends wait to give me something. They literally grab me and they were like, hey, hey, let me tell you something. Well, thank you, because now I have the rest of the show."
The Texas Burlesque Festival continues tonight, April 10, with Legends Night, and climaxes April 11 with the competition night. Marchesa Hall and Theater, 6226 Middle Fiskville. Doors 7:30pm, show 8:30pm. Tickets available on the door and at www.texasburlesquefestival.com.