• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

But, as it must do, the show went on. The Hell on Heels Valentine’s Day performance featured Martini Bombshell and four new-to-the-troupe dancers.

Martini Bombshell discusses burlesque.

Drop Dead Dames

Onstage at the Burlesque Circus Friday-night show, Dottie Deville, Ginger N. Whiskey, and four other ladies cloaked in fur coats and wearing sheer black stockings, dance to the tune of “The Man on the Flying Trapeze,” by Don Redman and his Orchestra. On a “hammock” suspended above them, a young “man” (it’s a girl) in shiny red tights and a striped shirt performs circus tricks. The dancers, bedazzled in 1920s-style hair and makeup, employ vaudevillian facial expressions and the hyper-dramatized movements of silent-movie performers while they dance and “peel.”

First, the coats come off to reveal high-waisted lacy-panty shorts, stockings held up with green lace garters, and black bras edged in the same green lace. Eventually, the bras come off, too, and the ladies flaunt and shake their shiny pasties at the audience.

These are the Drop Dead Dames, the troupe started by the former members of Hell on Heels.

“Hell on Heels has asked me to be part of their shows as a guest performer before,” Valentina Martin tells me. “Because of that, I really wanted to reciprocate and ask them to be part of my show [the Burlesque Circus], and I was planning on asking them, but then all of the performers left them. So then I ended up asking the new troupe to perform. It wasn’t the organizer of Hell on Heels that I wanted to be in my show, it was the performers. So now the Drop Dead Dames are in my show.”

While the schism wasn’t big news in the wide world, within San Diego’s burlesque community, it was a big deal that some are still shaking their heads over. For Deville, the impact was more than mere gossip or politics; it was personal.

When she first started with Hell on Heels, she says, “the girls instantly became my best friends.” But after the split, “it was really hard for me, because [Martini Bombshell] was my best friend, and she just stopped talking to me.”

For Ginger N. Whiskey, former co-owner of Hell on Heels and current co-owner of Drop Dead Dames, the split brought a new set of responsibilities.

For one, all the group numbers Whiskey created as the choreographer for Hell on Heels belong to her former troupe, so she’s had to start over with brand-new choreography. Fortunately, each girl owns her solo acts — usually two per show are done — so the group has had enough material to get started. Although Whiskey created a brief group finale for the Valentine’s Day show, the number they performed together at the Burlesque Circus was their first full-group act.

Because her former troupe produces all their shows at Brick by Brick in Linda Vista, Whiskey never had to deal with booking. These days, she’s finding it harder than she’d imagined. Although many burlesque shows can and do happen in dive bars, it’s not always a comfortable setting for the dancers.

“We love dive bars,” Whiskey says. “They can make for a fun night — if it’s the right crowd. But some people don’t want to stand, or they can’t stand all night, and they want an earlier show. We want to do shows that more people can attend, not just the 20-to-30-something crowd.”

The Valentine’s Day performance at Queen Bee’s was, she says, a luxury that the troupe wants more of. The stage is big enough and high enough that people in the back can see, but not too high. The Drop Dead Dames would love to make the place their home base.

“There’s a limited supply of theaters, and places that can serve alcohol through the show,” Whiskey says. “Right now, opportunities are greater. If there’s more interest, then there are going to be more people booking burlesque dancers, but as far as venues go, that’s still always a challenge, finding a good venue.”

My husband has a shotgun

“Up front, it looks like all we do is bathe in diamonds and glitter,” Deville tells me. “But we spend every dime we have on our costumes and we’re out pretty much every day rehearsing.”

I’m a little bummed to hear this, but I think I could handle it — I’m still engaged in fantasies of making my debut as a burlesque dancer and gracing the stage with Deville.

Then she mentions the prep time, which she estimates at five hours prior to shows.

“Drop Dead Dames is all about traditional-style burlesque, like the ’50s,” she says. “You need your hair set in the correct time period — victory rolls or whatever kind of vintage style. You have to use the right makeup, eyelashes, costumes, just prepping altogether, you know?”

Not ideal, I think, but I’m still game. Until she brings up the creep factor.

“It’s all Facebook stuff, like, crazy messages. I’ve had a guy ask me to fly to Russia with him and be his, pretty much a sex slave, and he would support me. That was a good one. I’ve had a lot of swingers, couples, message me about coming to their parties. Just weird things. I don’t respond to them.”

In person, she says, those kinds of people don’t tend to be at the shows, and if they are, they don’t make themselves known.

Lola Demure has received creepy messages on Facebook, requesting “casual encounters and ménage à trois.”

Lola Demure affirms this. She, too, has received creepy messages on Facebook, requesting “a casual encounter or a ménage à trois.” But the shows, she says, don’t draw that kind of ick factor.

“It’s not a strip club. It’s not vulgar. I feel like burlesque is more sensual than sexual. With a burlesque show, you’re going to get people that appreciate — ” She pauses. “Sure, they want to see the titties, but it’s not vulgar. Sure, you’ll get the occasional creepy guy. But if they’re being creepy, they’re going to get kicked out, and they’re going to get banned. And if that person’s ever seen again, they’re not going to be allowed in. But at a strip club, anybody can go in.”

For more on this article, read author Elizabeth Salaam's Backstory

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader


Jay Allen Sanford May 8, 2013 @ 1:25 p.m.

Great profiles of these local entertainers. I was amused by the quote that "Burlesque is blowing up in San Diego," though - for years, our city was home to one of the most famous burlesque theaters in the nation, the Hollywood Burlesque, which was featured in motion pictures and whose various incarnations (including a run as a legit Broadway-style theater) long anchored a sold block of downtown pre-Gasplamp acreage.

Built in 1913, the venue was originally known as the Lyceum, and then the Liberty, before becoming the Hollywood Burlesque in 1936. The 1948 film Hollywood Burlesque was shot in the bawdy hall -- once dubbed "San Diego's most famous dirty little secret" -- featuring well-known striptease dancers (including the iconic Lili St. Cyr) and various vaudeville acts.

Owner Bob Johnson had started at the Liberty as a concession clerk; he ended up with a house on Fort Stockton Drive, a Cadillac, a box at the Del Mar racetrack, and his own thoroughbred Hollywood Theatre Stables, plus he ran the popular downtown hangout Bob Johnson's Sports Palace. Business at the Burlesque died down as porn became more prolific, and the theater closed in February 1970.

Then, Pussycat Theater co-owner Vincent Miranda (who also owned, and lived part-time, at the Hotel San Diego on Broadway) negotiated a $3 million deal to purchase around two square blocks downtown, including two hotel spaces, several retail shops, and the old Hollywood Burlesque. He refurbished the theater exterior and interior, spending around $250,000 to remodel and install red carpeting and wallpaper.

The resultant 417-seat playhouse was renamed the Off Broadway Theatre and reopened March 16, 1971, a day officially declared by the City "Off Broadway Day." The debut production was Anything Goes, featuring movie star Dorothy Lamour and Sterling Holloway (best known as the voice of Winnie the Pooh). From there, Miranda hired various producers to stage ambitious musicals like Guys and Dolls, as well as hosting touring productions of shows like You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

More in the Reader cover feature Before It Was the Gaslamp - http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs...


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!