"Burlesque in San Francisco is different from places like Los Angeles or New York," Bo Vixxen explains during intermission at the intimate and eclectic Diva or Die burlesque show, in a cozy room at Exit Theatre, where the audience is barely an arm's-length away from sequins and twirling tassels. "There's much more of a performance—almost circus—aspect to it."
She's just sung a live version of Jessica Rabbit's "Why Don't You Do Right." Next, another performer comes out in—and then out of—a full Harley Quinn get-up (complete with a plush Joker doll), followed by a male and female burlesque duo who tangos and disrobes through a lovers' quarrel. Three nights before, across the Bay in Berkeley, fire-eating and a full-blown lion costume were the main course at the late-night dinner burlesque show at Revival Bar and Kitchen—in partial view of curious passersby through the loosely draped windows. And at the new monthly burlesque variety show at Harry Denton's Starlight Room, in the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, intricately costumed acts belt out ballads, belly dance, and use artfully placed fans to seduce the audience.
SF's long and storied burlesque scene continues to thrive with a sparkle all its own, perhaps because "burlesque performers end up accidentally eating a lot of glitter," Diva or Die's MC IfnWhendy admits. Events across the Bay Area—from the monthly underground gatherings Tourette's Without Regrets (first Thursdays at Oakland Metro Operahouse) to shows put on by the delightfully witchy Hex in the City—can feature everything from burlesque performers in bird cages to spectacles that seamlessly blend circus-style antics and seduction. Pick a day of the week, and a burlesque show likely lands on it at least once a month, in multiple Bay Area cities. And more and more bars and venues are realizing the appeal of artfully undressed women as a complement to their cocktail menus and entertainment lineups.
The Starlight Room capitalized on the potential for another recurring event with dolled up performers (it also hosts Sunday's a Drag brunch) in June, when it launched its inaugural Starlight Room Cabaret. The monthly shows celebrate the core cast of Drake's Gems burlesque performers, but also include ever-changing featured acts, comedians, and DJs.
"We wanted to work with the very talented and deep-rooted artistic community here in the Bay Area to bring to life a show that continues the legacy of the Starlight Room," says Linh Thanh Pham, the venue's director of food and beverage. "We are representing the best of Bay Area burlesque and variety, while elevating the art in an iconic venue."
Not too far away, FiDi's Pagan Idol, which the Future Bars team (also behind Bourbon & Branch and Local Edition) opened last February, brings in droves with an expertly crafted cocktail menu—so it doesn't exactly need a gimmick to pack the house. But every fourth Thursday of the month, the tiki bar hosts Island Hospitality, a blend of burlesque performers, hula-hooping, and DJs. It's burlesque for the hipster crowd, which may not yet be ready to seek out more indie performances but definitely won't say no to a pasty-clad nipple (or 10) at their favorite watering hole.
Many of the burlesque performers work multiple nights a week across the city, and if you frequent the Bay Area burlesque scene, their faces (and acts) will quickly become familiar. Another common fixture on the scene is photographer Jody Lyon, who shoots up to 10 burlesque shows a month and also hosts Revival Bar's monthly events. He made the transition from primarily shooting punk rock shows to burlesque in 2013, but says the two art forms—and the energy behind them—don't differ as much as you'd think.
"In many ways, [burlesque] isn't that different from other things I shoot. It's capturing someone's self expression," says Lyon. "It's a very visceral and often personal art form—there's definitely a lot more glitter and color than in punk shows, but some of the chaos is virtually the same, as is the passion. Summing up Bay Area burlesque would be impossible, so I tend to let my pictures tell the story."
Where to Catch a Show
Starlight Room Cabaret: Last Thursday of every month (starting at $10) at Harry Denton's Starlight Room, Sir Francis Drake Hotel, 450 Powell St. (Union Square), starlightroomsf.com
Hubba Hubba Revue: Every Monday ($7), and every second Friday ($15) at DNA Lounge (upstairs), 375 11th St. (SoMa), dnalounge.com
Nudie Nubies: Every first Wednesday ($10) at DNA Lounge (upstairs), 375 11th St. (SoMa), dnalounge.com
Little Minsky's Burlesque and Variety Show: Every second Thursday ($10) at Club DeLuxe, 1511 Haight St. (Haight), clubdeluxe.co
Island Hospitality: Every fourth Thursday (no cover) at Pagan Idol, 375 Bush St. (FiDi), paganidol.com
No Cover Cabaret: Every Friday (no cover) at Skylark Bar, 3089 16th St. (Mission), skylarkbar.com
Red Hots Burlesque: Every Friday ($10) at The Stud, 399 9th St. (SoMa), studsf.com
Diva or Die Burlesque: Every third Saturday ($15) at Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy St. (Tenderloin), theexit.org
Misfit Cabaret: Great Star Theater, check katrobichaud.com/misfit-cabaret for dates and details.
Hex in the City: Check Facebook for dates, location, and details.
Flux Vertical Theater: All pole revue, Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theater, and bi-monthly revue; check fluxverticaltheatre.com for details.
Burlesque at Revival (Late) Supper Show: Every second Wednesday ($5) at Revival Bar and Kitchen, 2102 Shattuck Ave. (Berkeley), facebook.com
Tourettes Without Regrets: Every first Thursday ($15) at Oakland Metro Operahouse, 522 Second St. (Oakland), touretteswithoutregrets.com
Fishnet Follies Classic Burlesque Revue: Every first Thursday ($8-$13) at Legionnaire Saloon, 2272 Telegraph Ave. (Oakland), fishnetfollies.com
Haus Serpens: Last Thursday of the month ($10) at Golden Bull, 412 14th St. (Oakland), facebook.com
Manarchy (all male burlesque revue): Every fourth Friday ($22-$27) at Oakland Metro Operahouse, 522 Second St. (Oakland), facebook.com/manarchymalerevue
Hubba Hubba Revue's Uptown Cabaret: Every fourth Saturday ($12-$22) at The Uptown, 1928 Telegraph Ave. (Oakland), uptownnightclub.com
Debauchery: Every third Sunday ($5-$15) at White Horse Bar, 6551 Telegraph Ave. (Oakland), whitehorsebar.com