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Performing arts

Torch Song

Detroit’s one-of-a-kind circus sideshow vaudeville burlesque variety revue

Chantal, Jen House and Lily LaRue
A male performer prepares for baloon striptease
Snake dancer Chantal shows off her snake skills.
Shetan Noir mugs for the camera.
Torch-Bearers: Tiger Lily, Chantal, Jen House, Grace Detroit, Lily LaRue, and Lady Mischief take to the stage.
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Published 11/14/2007

Grace Detroit sashays onto the stage at Cliff Bell's wearing a flowing green number that sports wings and antennae. The bug-woman costume isn't her usual wardrobe as hostess and emcee of Torch with a Twist, the cabaret event that takes over the downtown bar once a month. "Torch night" has become a masquerade ball. In fact, when she makes her entrance, a hooting audience, mostly in costume, greets her. She gets right down to business, inviting one of the show's sexy girls out to parade before the crowd with a card announcing the first act.

Grace leans into the old-time radio mic and cautions with a laugh, "Don't be surprised if something goes wrong. You know, if somebody loses their underwear or something. And if somebody loses a pasty, please, be nice and give it back."

The five-piece band behind her strikes up "The Girl from Ipanema" and Grace sings along while burlesque dancer Lady Mischief enters stage right, dolled up in white, with stockings and ruffles, twirling a white parasol over her head coyly. As she teases her long gloves off, all eyes are upon her. Spellbound, it's easy to forget the singer is dressed as a bug, the trombonist is wearing a demon mask, and that you're sitting next to a banana.

The dancer points to her ear to encourage the slack-jawed audience to make some noise, and they roar with approval. Soon she slinks among them, tendering her clothes to guests, bending over limberly to flirt with and tease whole tables, exposing her ruffled rump to those turning to watch the fun. It's the sort of thing you'd feel greasy cheering on alone, but it works in a large group. When she's down to her pasties and struts backstage, Grace closes the performance with deadpan cheer: "In case you haven't noticed, this show's mostly about girls. We have so many more girls in this show."

But that's not all. Before the night is over, the scores of people who've jammed the tables and stacked the bar two deep in the midsized club will have seen jugglers, enjoyed a vaudeville comedy act, and heard numerous jazz and R&B numbers performed by a live band, all amid an audience of masked and costumed revelers, including the staff. Torch with a Twist has shades of P.T. Barnum too, with Shetan Noir, a full-figured belly dancer who walks on broken glass, and Chantal, a sinuous dancer whose routines include live snakes. And, yes, there are the girls, including burlesque dancers Lily LaRue, Jessica Rabbit and Lady Mischief doing fan dances, balloon striptease and even some risqué shadowplay.


'I HAVE THIS CRAZY IDEA'

Grace comes to lunch at Cass Avenue eatery Twingo's dressed in a flowing floor-length black outfit. It only adds to the mystery that the organizer behind Torch with a Twist refuses to give her real name, choosing to call herself simply "Grace Detroit." She's a native Detroiter — she says her mother went into labor with her on the Boblo boat — though she grew up outstate and came back at 20.

But her life hasn't been all glitter and glory. She had her first child at 17, and by her late 20s was a divorced single mom raising her children in Ferndale, working every job from coat-check girl to bartender. At 43, her polyethnic (half Mexican, a quarter Cherokee, a quarter Irish) good looks make her seem much younger than the mother of several grown children. Her warm, empathetic personality suggests a person who's faced some hardships, not unique to single parents. But where many mothers of grown children would be ground down by the experience, Grace's outgoing nature and desire to perform has demanded an audience.

Grace fondly quotes her burlesque friend Lady Mischief, by way of explanation, saying, "There's a hole in my heart that only applause can fill."

Her first tentative gigs were far from the over-the-top oddity of Torch with a Twist. She started playing with friends, doing folk and country songs in coffeehouses. Her fondness for American popular standards only hit pay dirt in 1998, when, while working at Nami Sushi Bar, she met a member of Tuxedo Junction, a Detroit-area swing orchestra. After a falling-out with the bandleader, Grace began playing out with a few of the Tuxedo boys, creating the act she now gives them at Torch night, "Grace and the Guys."

"I took a couple guys for a combo," she says, adding knowingly, "and jazz people know each other."

But she found limits to what a straight standards band can do: corporate functions, country club events, weddings, or occasional gigs at Lily's Seafood or the bar at the Townsend Hotel.

But as her children matured, Grace branched out of her Ferndale roost, finally moving into the city completely about two-and-a-half years ago.

She also began expanding her artistic horizons, joining a show at Hamtramck's Planet Ant Theatre in 2005, working with Mikey Brown and Nate DuFort on a sketch-comedy variety show, The Bannisters' Wholesome Family Fun Hour, a send-up of a washed-up Partridge Family-type band from the 1970s. At Planet Ant, Grace was not only performing, but recording, working with video production, using comic relief and developing characters.

Of the experience, Brown agrees, "I think we definitely pushed her in terms of acting. ... And she was a trouper."

But things really took a turn to the fringe when Grace got a job at Amsterdam Espresso, the independent coffeehouse in the Forest Arms apartment building hard by Wayne State University. She became friends with the owners, perennial visitors to Burning Man, an imaginative six-day artificial community in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. They introduced Grace to their friends, and spirited her off to her first "burn." The lifestyle of openness in that community left deep impressions on her, a temporary city where circus folk and fringe performers created an enclosed "gift economy."

"Burning Man is different for everybody, but there, in the desert for six days, you see how very little you need. You can appreciate what you have so much more."

But the burn forged some connections, as well. There she met both David "Dixon" Hammond, Torch's classically trained violinist, and Douglas "Fleck" Schell, the mysteriously calm master of feats of balance with tasseled sticks and translucent orbs. At a post-Burning Man party, she reconnected with some and met others in the Detroit Burning Man family, which the singer says is especially tight.

Last year, the chanteuse already had her combo playing a few gigs in the plush, period haunt Cliff Bell's after selling general manager Andrew Gyorke on the idea. But, working and living amid Detroit's active performance community, and inspired by the people she knew through Burning Man, she got an idea.

"This past fall, Andrew said he wanted something different to bring people in on Sunday nights."

Grace grows excited telling how she sold Gyorke on trying a burlesque-vaudeville-circus-sideshow, saying, "I have this crazy idea. You need something unusual. I know these people who can pull it off!"


CLIFF BELL'S: CABARET CENTRAL

If there is one character in the Torch cast that's not a living breathing person, it's the gloriously art deco splendor of Cliff Bell's. The deep reds and bright golds, the mixture of blond and dark wood, the candlelit tables sitting below vaulted ceilings endowed with rich wood tones all smack of a more sensuous era, when patrons haunted such smoky little cabarets with relish. Even the pendulous, breast-shaped lamps with nipple-shaped finials titillate. The joint is a joyful anachronism, having enjoyed its early heyday back when you could get a grilled prime steer porterhouse for $6.

It's not hard to get lost in the illusion of being in the raw, bustling spirit of 1940s Detroit, when the Arsenal of Democracy was a crowded factory town churning out armaments. Back then, reformers clucked about Detroit as a city of clip joints, dance halls and cheap cabaret entertainment. Seeing that sort of gritty history capitalized on downtown is an exciting rarity.

Though manager and gadabout Cliff Bell will have been dead for 30 years next month, the spot is enjoying a new lease on life thanks to manager Gyorke, 26, and his spirited staff. How spirited? When the bartender's pal shows up, she cries with a squeal, "Are you ready to lace me up in my corset?" before realizing she hasn't even punched in.

The band warms up, before the show, the drummer tapping out rim shots in front of the stage's signature sunburst pattern, the upright bassist and trombonist joining in for some razamatazz, while the bar fills with the sounds of ice being poured out and dozens of ashtrays being stacked on the bar. It recalls speakeasy days watching the performers trickle in, knocking on the locked doors, gaining entry from a flapper-attired staffer and strolling back to the cabaret's stock room in back with rows of blue lockers. When an office-style phone rings, it's a jarring disconnect. Then, the drummer breaks out a didgeridoo and the jazz combo takes a decidedly modern turn as well. But the bassist stays with him, building a sound that's hypnotic, sensuous and silky.

Soon, the jazz feeling is giving way, as the drummer breaks out a set of Indian tabla drums and begins powdering the skins. And it's getting weirder: Bar manager Eric Welsh, dressed as a werewolf, is discussing how many packs of cigarettes have gone missing since the night before. Techie Richie Wohlfeil is fixing gels in the club's old-looking lights, only a dozen of which seem to work, taking a moment to chat. But he does it in character. Tonight, he's come as Frank from Blue Velvet. It's a matter of time before he roars, "Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!" The staff is clearly in on the fun.

Grace arrives a bit late, dressed in her typical head-to-toe black outfit, pulling a rolling suitcase full of glittery gear. She tells how she fell down her apartment stairs, aggravating a sciatica flare-up, and jammed up her arm breaking her fall. She smiles through the discomfort, saying, "The show must go on."

She works with the four-piece, running through her repertoire for the sound check. The group's violinist, Dixon, is fighting feedback from his wireless violin while the sound man adjusts for the imposing new speakers mounted above the stage. Lily LaRue walks out before the empty house to rehearse her dance, doing a fan dance to "Fever," with its dramatic pauses and rim shots. She drops her bra, fluttering her fans over her tasseled pasties.

Grace thinks it's a little fast. She asks the band to slow it down, and her words drip with sensuality.

"I don't want to rush you. This is sexy. And I'd like to keep it up as long as possible."


BUILDING A FIRE

Though Grace had proposed a vaudeville-meets-Burning Man show, she still had to rely on friends — and friends of friends — to make it happen. Her DIY connections paid off, big-time. The dancers make all make their own costumes, the comedians come up with their own material, the circus performers develop their own looks and tricks. Grace only tries to preserve the show's period feel.

Probably the only things you won't see at their events at Cliff Bell's are high-tech displays, fire acts (due to city regulations) and noir fetish dancers, as Grace tries to keep the show's burlesque component soft and sexy, leaving more to the imagination with innocence and innuendo.

"Everyone comes with their own skills. I just direct the show. There are no rehearsals. It just works."

The event has come a long way since its first show on Feb. 11. Then, the performers sometimes resorted to canned music and technology too modern for a period show. But they always packed them in, and the event snowballed.

The first five shows were organized by "e-mail, MySpace and word of mouth." Even today, there are no fliers, and perhaps only a dozen posters put up in the area each month. And yet the show consistently packs the house at Cliff Bell's once a month. In fact, when Torch with a Twist did a special show at Detroit's Theatre Bizarre, the spectacle attracted a mob of partygoers willing to brave a light rain to watch the juggling, stripteases and music on the unique venue's gaudy midway stage. At their July show at Cliff Bell's, it was standing room only with a line outside waiting to get in.

Many of the early spectators have been friends and fellow travelers, but the group is attracting new faces among the 120 to 200 guests at each event.

One of the main drivers of that word of mouth has been Northville resident Jeff Kramer, 32. Kramer has been bartending at downtown Detroit's Small Plates for five years, and he's one of the show's biggest fans.

"It was just dumb luck. I happened to walk in one Sunday night, even though Eric the bartender had told me about it before, saying, 'You've got to check this out.' I only went in for one beer, but I fell in love with the show and wound up closing the bar. Back at my bar, I started telling everybody about it. And that show packs the house every single time. It's probably the best thing they've got going over there, in my opinion."


PACKING THE HOUSE

The band is still running a final sound check as the door opens. Only a half dozen people are here. Among them is Daniel Huizar, 25, who is dressed in a full banana suit, which he says he's had for years. He works downtown, and it's his first time to Torch night, but he's excited to see the show.

Other first-timers include Kim Harris, owner of Why Not Costumes, a Wyandotte costume shop, and Nick Finazzo. It's their first "torch." She came after selling Cliff Bell's bartender Monica Gyorke (general manager Andrew's sister) a mask for the masquerade event. The 25-year-old Wayne State student from Ecorse insisted Harris attend. Clearly pleased as the evening's momentum builds, Harris says, "We've never been to a little place like this in Detroit."

A "leather daddy" identified only as Tammy is hanging out with more seasoned Torch nighters Stacey Mejia, 38, and husband Carlos Mejia of Redford. The couple arrived in costume, Stacey as a flapper and Carlos as a "lounge lizard," sporting a stylish blazer and a dinosaur head. (When asked his age, he kids, "Sixty-five million!") Stacey even took Monday off work to enjoy the outing. What keeps them coming to this remote nook on the west side of Foxtown on Sunday nights? After coming due to a recommendation from Kramer, natch, they fell for the music and ambience. Also among the Small Plates contingent is mad scientist Mike Valvona of Orchard Lake Township, whose girlfriend works there.

In a suit capped with a fedora, standup performer Jen House drops by in drag. Her pencil-moustached lips curl into a smile. She's already in character as some guy named Carlyle J. Carlyle C. Wentworthy. In a nasal sneer like Steve Buscemi, she chats about the off-the-cuff nature of the show.

"Grace gave me a week's notice. She said: 'Do that guy that you do. You know, Hal King,'" House says. "He's like a Tom Jones or Neil Diamond type entertainer, but this character I'm going to do tonight is more old-time, like Henny Youngman or the Marx Brothers."

In addition to her perennial one-woman shows, House has performed with the Hell's Belles burlesque troupe before, but she's "kinda nervous" about doing jokes rooted in period history, and not being able to joke about contemporary topics. But she loves the show. She's seen it twice, first popping in this summer on her bicycle after seeing Joan Jett at Riverfest. She seems ready to work the crowd.

The one-of-a-kind show, in fact, has already begun. One performer, identified only as "Shoebomb," begins slowly and hypnotically swinging balls on strings. They glow, faintly at first, strobing a bit as they cycle through the spectrum. The accompaniment, violin and dijeridoo, is exotic for an old-time revue, but convincingly foreign. The intensity picks up, and the man uses the balls to spin out discs of purple and green light.

Soon snake dancer Chantal is pulling serpents out of a vase and dancing gracefully as she holds out the slithering reptiles. And, all the while, local artist and cigarette girl Gwen Joy adds to the oddness, dropping by to sell smokes, candy and her deranged stuffed animals. It feels as though 10 minutes have gone by and the bar is absolutely packed with flappers, fruits, bikers and bombshells.


TORCHING THE JOINT

Grace, now changed into a dazzling, glittering red gown, is torching it up onstage. She's understated. During instrumental bridges, she turns her back to the audience and affects a simple soft-shoe, turning around at last with a hip sashay for the vocals. Rather than hitting it all perfectly, she sings with heart and slows it down, giving the evening a pleasantly boozy feel.

Her song choices are tantalizing, popular standards that are familiar in recent contexts, though their history sometimes stretches back to the jazz age and beyond. When Grace coos, "I Want to be Loved by You," the references cascade back to Marilyn Monroe, Betty Boop, Helen Kane and the roaring '20s. "At Last" calls to mind Etta James' 1961 recording, though swing fans may recall the 1941 Glenn Miller hit. The blues repertoire is similarly storied, with twelve-bar "Why Don't You Do Right?" (penned in 1936, popularized in 1942) and "Ain't Misbehavin'" (written in 1929, reprised in 1943 and resurrected for the 1978 musical).

Perhaps there's no song in her repertoire with a richer pedigree than "Just a Gigolo." YouTube viewers can chuckle over the hilarious, over-the-top 1985 video from "Diamond" David Lee Roth. Older listeners may recall Louis Prima's 1956 recording. Fans of motion-picture culture may be more likely to think of Marlene Dietrich or Betty Boop. And only the most pedantic fans of the cabaret will recognize the Weimar-spirited anthem adapted from Austria by Tin Pan Alley's Irving Caesar in 1929. These songs truly run generations deep.

Rangier choices draw on Broadway (Gus Kahn's "Makin' Whoopee!"), R&B (Little Willie John's "Fever") and country (1957's "Walkin' after Midnight"). The songs scarcely scrape the 1960s, going long to Brazil for Antonio Carlos Jobim's "The Girl from Ipanema," and cadging off Broadway for "Big Spender" from Sweet Charity. Why does it stop there? Grace says, "I sing songs mostly from between the '30s and the '50s." She adds, indicating her floor-length attire with a laugh, "I stop singing songs based on length of the dresses they wore."


A FAMILY AFFAIR

Grace Detroit has come a long way from singing folk songs in coffeehouses. But she says she only surrounds herself with people she trusts and is surprised at how smart they are. What makes the show work are the talented performers who work with the city's various fringe entertainment groups. You may not be able to see too many first-run movies in the city proper, but choices abound when it comes to live performance, ranging from theater and improv comedy to raunchier burlesque and fire shows, or freak enthusiasms like Theatre Bizarre, the Dirty Show, Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art Club or the Zombie Dance Party.

Torch night's changing roster of performers features people who have developed their talents with these sorts of Detroit groups. In addition to Jen House's work with Hell's Belles, sometime "torcher" Christopher Ledbetter heads up his own dance company, Causing a Scene Productions, Lady Mischief and Dixon team up for a fire act called Strings of Fire, and Jessica Rabbit works with the flamers of Fire Fabulon.

And for those who've joined the show from other, more competitive groups, they say it's different from anything they've done.

"They're often surprised that we're not competitive backstage. That we're hugging, kissing and helping each other out."


Torch with a Twist returns to Cliff Bell's (2030 Park Ave., Detroit; 313-961-2543) for a "Blue Christmas" on Dec. 23; $10; doors 8 p.m.

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to mjackman@metrotimes.com.

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