Oliver X: Everybody seems to be trying to do a burlesque show these days. What is going on with that?
Reagan Riot: There's commonly so many misconceptions with burlesque. Mainstream reincarnations that are publicly considered consumable are very far from the original art form itself and what the resurgence involves and what the history up here involves...There has been a resurgence in burlesque for the past twenty years – and it's huge internationally!
We have the second longest history here in burlesque as a unique art form, American burlesque, growing out of the 1800s and the history of our region having Lydia Thompson and her “British Blondes” perform at Piper's Opera House. There's no reason why real burlesque should not be able to get a good foothold here with our burlesque tradition dating back to the Silver Rush that made the Comstock the entertainment capital of the world.
Oliver X: There's been several incarnations of Piper's. Is this current structure the third rebuild of the landmark?
Reagan Riot: It's burned down to the ground completely several times. This is the most bare bones version of Piper's that has existed. The town really came together to make it happen, using repurposed lumber and elbow greasing it back to life.
Oliver X: What drew you to burlesque as an art form?
Reagan Riot: My grandmother was the epitome of the 1950's housewife. I'd cook with her, sew with her. We did everything together. My grandmother's commentary, witty repartee, innuendo and use of double entendre made my jaw hit the floor. She taught me to laugh at life. So between her and our love of musicals, Flower Drum Song is my favorite musical. For me there's a song called “Fan Tan Fannie” where they recreate it and the fans snap closed, so the fans are covering the three strategic places.
Oliver X: Are there three?
Reagan Riot: [Laughter] There are three: two up top and one below. And it's still a bra and bikini underneath, but the fans snap. It's the innuendo; the power of sexuality, and the politics of parody by a woman that makes it so powerful. Also the Golden Age of Hollywood ran parallel to the Golden Age of burlesque. There was a lot of burlesque costume ripoffs in Hollywood film. There was the great Gypsy Rose Lee who combined the two worlds...I soaked all of this up. So put that all together with my family history in news, journalism and politics in the Comstock and combine it with somebody who doesn't like to be put in a box and you come up with a really beautiful way to express and experience life.
Burlesque allows me to create a conversation with my audience within their own mind. You allow the layers of your act to guide everybody. That's my favorite part. You can offend someone to their core and entertain them at the same time and force them to think about a conversation, that, if you were having it with words, they might cover their ears. That's what I've loved about burlesque.
Oliver X: What is the foundation of classic burlesque and what sprung forth from burlesque?
Reagan Riot: The Golden era of burlesque came through when vaudeville died. The really amazing thing is that life is burlesque. Life is a parody. When you go back as far as Shakespeare, the traditions of mocking the upper class and laughing at life. All of our variety and comedic late night and sketch comedy shows are still using the burlesque format. Standup comedy came out of burlesque. But it's always been rooted in taboo and in politics.
Oliver X: Comedy, satire and political commentary...
Reagan Riot: Exactly. Political commentary as a woman was showing your ankles in the 1800s. We had to have table clothes because we believed that men would become so aroused by the legs of a table that couldn't control themselves. [Laughter]
Some people feel that burlesque is the ultimate feminist statement and others see it as anti-feminist depending on the context of the conversation. Because my favorite this is context, burlesque offers you the opportunity to walk around the elephant in the room through the process of performing an act on stage.
Oliver X: What is the elephant in the room, that every man is a horny bastard and making fun of that?
Reagan Riot: It depends on your inspiration for an act. Realistically a woman owning her sensuality and sexuality in any way, shape or form, is a political statement, period. Dita is everybody's epitome. She's magnificent in so many things and yet I sit over here knowing how amazingly intelligent she is. I get frustrated because I would really love to see her come play in my world of politics and making statements.
Oliver X: Rather than in her world of beauty and glamor?
Reagan Riot: Yes. But at the same time, beauty and glamor does gives you a platform to make those statements. There was quite an uproar within burlesque on around topics like cultural appropriation and rape jokes. Not acceptable.
Oliver X: I've noticed that the plus-size performer is revered on stage in burlesque. You do not see that in any other form of dance or performance. The curves are celebrated. That predates modern feminism...
Reagan Riot: One of the hardest thing women experience is when we pick up a magazine and look at the model and the model looks nothing like she does in real life. I speak to my students in class and we talk about these body image issues.
Oliver X: What a strange dynamic that exists where burlesque celebrates the voluptuous woman as a sex object, yet in the sideshow tradition the fat lady is a freak.
Reagan Riot: There was a cartoon caricature recently that a friend sent to me and it was the circus and the sideshow. Specifically, the sideshow was going out of business because you're no longer considered to be a freak if you're the tattooed man.
Oliver X: Let's talk about your production.
Reagan Riot: I run a traditional revue, I do not run just a burlesque show. It's always been the Desert Rose Revue. It's always been a variety revue. It's always been a smorgasbord.
Oliver X: What can people expect when they come to see your production on October 20?
Reagan Riot: We have open casting now and I'm so excited to bring these performers to the Piper's stage. I'll be doing the traditional burlesque format of a top banana; I'll have your straight man and your funny man—again, standup comedy really came out of burlesque with stars like Fanny Brice and Abbott and Costello started in burlesque. I want to bring together the local and international community because I love our history here and I think there's always been an interesting dynamic being a tourist area. But Virginia City is a whole other world. So it will be very traditional in many aspects. I will do something elegant and mix my political messages so everybody can take their layers out of it. I want to bring in magic, I want to bring in cirque. I have sideshow performers. We have the autumn run and then New Year's Eve as well and two nights for Valentine's Day.
Tickets and show information for Reagan Riot's Heckle & Hyde Creepshow Peepshow Saturday, October 20 at 7pm at Piper's Opera House in Virginia City can be purchased at www.desertroserevue.com
1. 1890: Victorian burlesque dancers and their elaborate costumes
2. Lydia Thompson https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lydia_Thompson