Ask anyone in Atlanta’s neo-burlesque scene who started it here, and one name inevitably comes up— Eve “Torchy Taboo” Warren. She’s been dubbed the “Godfather of Atlanta Burlesque” and nothing seems more natural than her hosting the Dirty South Burlesque Showcase, a late-night cabaret on Saturday night for some of the best regional performers, one of several star-studded performance events at this weekend’s Southern Fried Burlesque Fest [read ATLRetro’s preview here].
With all the burlesque troupes and production companies performing here now, it’s hard to imagine that just 16 years ago, none of that existed. While Atlanta was home to one of the nation’s largest collections of adult entertainment venues, those venues had long ago left behind any appreciation of the art of the tease. Among all the stagnant bump and grind for big bucks, however, one dancer had a dream.
This red-haired 5-foot-nothing Rita Hayworth lookalike never had been an ordinary stripper. When she wasn’t dancing, she was vagabonding across Europe, performing at drag shows at The Sports Page, studying art history, sipping Polynesian cocktails, waxing poetically about corndogs and jitterbugging to rockabilly bands at the Star Bar. That’s how I met her in 1995 through my friend “Go-Go” Max Bernardi, another Star Bar regular and a singer, painter and performance artist whose artwork and acts were often seen at 800 East, an Inman Park warehouse that at the time was a haven for the city’s alternative creative scene.
Together, Eve and Max cooked up this crazy idea to put on a tribute to the burlesque variety shows of the mid-20th century which they would come to call GO-GO AND TORCHY’S TABOO REVUE. It took place at the Catch City Club, next to Center Stage in Midtown, on October 14-15, 1995, and included many top players in Atlanta’s burgeoning rockabilly, lounge and performance art scene. Useless Playboys former front man “Big Mike” Geier even returned to Atlanta from Richmond, Va., to emcee. Later on he’d found some band called Kingsized and perform with a neo-burlesque company called Dames Aflame, which incidentally also was founded by Torchy Taboo. Another reason why it’s only fittin’ that Big Mike will be hosting and the Dames Aflame are special guests at the FreeRange Burlesque Show Friday night at Southern Fried.
Kelly Hogan (The Jody Grind, Rock*A*Teens), Wanda Baker (Bleu Velveeta) and Dave Olsen (Atlanta rockabilly swing icons The Lost Continentals) sang solo numbers, and almost every number was performed live by a seven-member lounge band, featuring Olson and other members of The Lost Continentals. Dashing up-and-coming illusionist, Christopher Tracy, provided magic, and Ivy Godiva, the weekly guest star of the then-infamous Go-Go Rama dances at the Star Bar, delivered laughs as his ravishingly redneck assistant, as well as a red-hot striptease to a revved-up rockabilly version of Dion and the Belmonts’ “Ruby Baby.” Puppeteer Tim Monteith boogied woogied as all three Andrews Sisters; he still regularly performs at Syrens of the South and other local shows and is competing in the first annual Southern Fried Burlesque Pageant earlier on Saturday night. In an artistic interlude, modern dancers Anik Keuller and Sonya Sconiers re-interpreted the Greek myth of Persephone without removing a stitch. And a certain ATLRetro writer/editor danced and sang as a 1920s art deco Bumble Bee Queen, with Bee-ettes “Saasha Foo” Wilson, hostess to many of 800 East’s zany variety shows, and her friend and fellow disco dancer Faith Farley.
Was there any kind of burlesque scene back in 1995 before GO-GO AND TORCHY’S TABOO REVUE?
No, there was a beautiful and thriving performance art scene, a very inspiring performance art scene—but actual burlesque as anybody would define it outside of the deepest darkest most creative parts of Brooklyn, no. My personal desire was to be Rita Hayworth, what I thought a real stripper was. I had already been a stripper for 14 years at that point, but I was really bored. I had to fantasize all the feathers and rhinestones and that I was getting to dance to Duke Ellington—which I wasn’t.
It started with a Fourth of July  dinner party. We all had bottles of wine and went and jumped Brian Fulford’s trampoline. Walking back, I remember it so crystal clear even though we were tipsy—you and Go-Go Max telling me all about how much fun it was to go to DragonCon. I was poo-pooing it, and you said, “no, no, there’s this Bettie Page Lookalike Contest.” I said, “you can dress up like the ‘50s and do a little skit? That sounds like fun. I’ll do that.”
Then you guys got in my ear and talked to me about [Betty Pages/Tease Magazine editor/publisher] Greg [Theakston] and burlesque, and you guys gave me a stack of magazines to look at. Some of them were Betty Pages and a bachelor pad magazine, which is not the Bachelor Pad magazine of today. I did my research. At the time, I didn’t know that much about Bettie Page, and I didn’t really know the word “burlesque” or what that really added up to. I knew I wanted to do a stripper act and I knew I wanted it to be theatrical. But it was performing in and winning the Bettie Page Lookalike Contest that really kicked things off. That was the last year DragonCon did it. It was main programming, the main kick-off to the night’s entertainment in the main hall, and 2,000 people were in that room when I went up on that stage. I was like, “2,000 people seeing me in ‘50s underwear! I’m sold!”
Then we had another dinner party—we had a lot of dinner parties that summer. And Go-Go Max said, “let’s do a burlesque show.” I said “all right, let’s do it.” I have to give over a lot of credit to her and you guys for making it all sound like fun and something to do. I was just the one prone to taking my clothes off in public [laughs].
THE TABOO REVUE started as a very simple idea, but it evolved pretty quickly into a pretty big idea with a live band and lots of performers, including Mike Geier and Kelly Hogan, who already had a national reputation.
I knew Go-Go Max as a performance artist and all the things that she did like the Beatnik Burlesque Show and the other shows at 800 East. I didn’t know that she was a [theater] set designer and I was completely unaware of her level of connections. I was connected with the rockabilly people, and the band was something that fell on me, I guess. I remember doing it more or less. Amy Pike had just had her first baby, so she was on hiatus, and her band [The Lost Continentals] was sitting around. They didn’t know about burlesque, and little did they know that we were going to drag them out for 17 rehearsals! Can you imagine anybody agreeing to that now?
It’s still amazing to me that we had the live band, because that’s something that doesn’t happen so much now. The Dames Aflame are directly associated with Kingsized, but so many performances are done to recordings. No one has the budget for it. It had to be a labor of love for it to happen, didn’t it?
It did. Outside of Atlanta, it happens here and there, but honestly it happens with the same bands. Like KingSized has been in from the get-go in one capacity or another, the bands, even in New Orleans or New York, are pretty much bands and musicians that have been in it since the beginning [of the burlesque revival]. A live band is a great thing. The whole New Orleans Burlesque Festival has a live band. Going to that festival is like going to another planet. It’s a whole other level. I wish we had [a live band] all the time.
When you work with a recording, the song’s always the same and you’re probably lip-synching or just dancing. In some cases, we even sang our numbers which had me terrified. It was really ambitious for “I’ve got a barn, let’s put on a show.”
We didn’t start at the beginning. We started right in the middle, if even that. We shot for the moon right out of the starting gate because we didn’t know any better. I’m telling you. I have seen better shows over the years but not a whole lot. When I started touring to festivals, I had a dance partner who said “you don’t know what they’re going to do; let’s just do our little thing.” I was like “no, what if they bring all this amazing stuff; we’ve got to bring the noise.” My approach has always been to bring out your best game straight from the get-go.
Both you and Go-Go Max did a lot more than dance. You did a lot of choreography for other performers and you made quite a few of the costumes including that fabulous blue dress lined with peacock feathers that Wanda Baker wore.
I remember we had that super high-end follow spot [light], and man, that peacock dress looked just like the cat’s meow under that follow spot. That whole French number in that peacock dress took my breath away. That was like a dream come true for me as a producer.
Quite a few of the acts weren’t dance numbers but just songs—chanteuse moments. Mike Geier sang “Les Girls” to kick off the show, Kelly Hogan sang, and Wanda did those stunning Edith Piaf numbers. It wasn’t just about the strip. It really was a full 360-degree variety show.
My research was very fresh in my mind. I watched for the first time TEASERAMA and VARIETESE to see what the shows really consisted of. There was a formula. You had to have something like a magician—what they called a novelty act. We didn’t have a chorus line, so we got maybe more chanteuses. But stripping was the icing or the cherry, the whipped cream topping on the cake. It was the best entertainment you could bring with adult T&A right on the top.
Can you talk about how you and Go-Go Max assembled the performers? How did you find people like Christopher Tracy, Ivy Godiva and Tim Monteith. Was it just people you and Go-Go Max knew?
Yeah, just people we knew. Until I hired the Dames Aflame—I believe I hired them in 2002 or so—before that, the one, two or three shows I would do a year were all pick-up shows. It was all about begging people. “Come on.” “I don’t know burlesque.” “Well, I’ll help you. I’ll show you what you need to know.” And I would coach them. They were all performance artists, occasional strippers, go-go dancers like Ivy Godiva—that’s the best burlesque name ever!
Speaking of names, your stage name Torchy came out of the TABOO REVUE. As I recall, Go-Go Max suggested Torchy, which was the name of a sexy red-headed comic book character [Ed. note: invented by cartoonist Bill Ward as a morale-booster in late World War II]?
And it just stuck?
It stuck and do your remember there was a Little 5 Points neighborhood character—he’s passed away now—but he went by 315? You know, L5P was full of those Deacon Lunchbox-type characters, and he was a delight. Anyway, he would holler way down the street at me to say hi, but after that show, he would always say “Hey, Torchy, when’s the next Taboo Revue?” Then he started just yelling down the street “Hey Torchy Taboo,” and it just stuck, too. So Max named me Torchy and 315 named me Torchy Taboo.
And the Taboo Revue itself? When I think back, I seem to remember it was Eileen Passarelli [TABOO REVUE stage manager and then-co-owner of legendary L5P vintage boutique Dig-It]?
I don’t remember really, but it wasn’t me and I’m going to guess that that had everything to do with Eileen Passarelli because it’s very cocktail, very tiki. I didn’t know about PolyPop yet, but I was already a PolyPop freak. I just didn’t know it had a name. I liked the silly old serials with girls that dance around the fire and throw their hair around and throw their hands back like they were worshipping Tiki idols. I loved that stuff.
It’s funny to think that all of these Retro trends have names now.
Everything is defined now, and it is really funny. I guess that’s what the young people have lost now. They only know definitions. They don’t know what went before when it was just a big jumble of fun. It was just a big slumber party! Let’s play!
You were just living what we call now the Retro Revival—wearing vintage ‘50s dresses, drinking cocktails, listening to rockabilly.
Things that we’d seen in movies. To me, it was all about trying to find a place to live out my pretend world I’d seen in movies.
Back to the TABOO REVUE, your two acts were “Kiss of Fire,” in which you sang and played the drag king role in a sexually charged tango dance, and “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” Didn’t you paint your skin blue for the latter?
Actually it was the follow spot. Our follow spot had colored gels, including a blue gel. I had a lot of big glitter—like shiny glitter confetti—I had that stuck all over me. Whatever color they cast on me, I reflected.
Why did you pick those particular numbers?
Well, I was hanging out with a dance instructor and always loved the tango and Latin dancing. Also, in all of the actual real-live burlesque shows back in the day, they always had a partner dance whether it was an Apache dance or a tango. I always loved drag kings [played by Eileen Hewlett], and I wanted to do a little fire.
It was before I’d gotten into the really full-out research into the history of burlesque, but at the time, what I did recognize in my gut, having been a stripper and learned from old ladies that learned from old ladies, was that stripping was very concentrated on coochie theater. That’s an Americanized belly-dancing which goes all the way back to 1893 to the Little Egypt character at the Chicago World’s Fair. In case you don’t know this, there was never a specific woman that went by Little Egypt. Little Egypt was actually the name of the exhibit. They hired some dark girl—she could have been Italian or Mexican or Egyptian—and they made so much money off that one exhibit, that every carnival, every fair picked up on it through the newspaper. They would hire a girl and call the exhibit “Little Egypt.”
What can Atlanta’s burlesque community learn from your early experiences pulling together Go-Go and Torchy’s Taboo Revue?
This is the Bible Belt and there’s only so much audience that we’re going to be able to enjoy before it gets saturated. Also, there’s a perception that these are strippers doing this. And yes, I’m a stripper. I was a stripper. I planned on it since I was 10. But not everybody who does burlesque, and as a matter of fact, very few are actually from that background. Most of them now are theater or performance art people. The sex industry part of this is very vague and small. To say, it’s an adult form of entertainment, that’s absolutely correct. Burlesque absolutely is not for kids. But every adult deserves to be able to go out and light a cigarette if they do that, tip a straight shot of whiskey if they do that, and watch a naked person strutting around and act crazy on stage. It’s fun. It’s what grown-ups do.
You hit the key word there—pulling together. Pulling together as Southern grown-ups and deciding it’s OK to get together and do something grown-up and yet having to, as business people, recognize that if you do it every five minutes, it just waters it down. We have to stick together because you just can’t stretch out people’s attention for titties. Everybody has kids now. They don’t have time or money to go to a dozen different burlesque shows. They want to see the very best, and the Southern Fried Burlesque Festival will include some of those very best both locally and nationally.
Are you proud when you look at the local performers here in Atlanta? Do you see some real stars?
I do. The thing about the local girls is they already bring their best game. They’re good.
GO-GO AND TORCHY’S TABOO REVUE sold out both nights. Go-Go Max moved to New Orleans, performed with the legendary Shim Shamettes and now is a successful muralist and painter. Torchy Taboo went on to produce numerous other Atlanta burlesque shows at the Star Bar and other venues and win First Runner-Up at the Burlesque Hall of Fame and awards at other national competitions, earning an indelible place in the history of the Neo-Burlesque Revival.