The women of the Burly-Q Girly Crew stick by their stars and garters.

Pasties On Parade 

The women of the Burly-Q Girly Crew stick by their stars and garters.

The Burly-Q Girly Crew is backstage getting ready.

On a makeshift stage on the cavernous first floor of the Hobbs Building, a stockyard-era brick warehouse in the West Bottoms, Michael Morales smashes cans of food on his "finger of doom."

But the cigarette-smoking twenty-somethings in leather jackets and sexy-librarian glasses won't have much more patience for Bob the Amazing Juggler and Jazzbo the conch player. Most of these people came to see burlesque.

A gaggle of girls and one lucky guy have volunteered to get on stage and strip to nothing but panties and pasties. This is the first time most of them have put on pasties, and there's some confusion backstage as to how the things work. While the women try to figure out this mystery -- some faring better than others -- the lanky and bespectacled Brodie Rush calmly walks around the dressing room in black briefs. He pulls blue thigh-high tights over his hairy legs. Over those go blue pants. Then, like the women, he begins smearing liquid latex around the edges of his nipples.

This crew won't be going out until the end of the night, so there's time to get the pasties on right.

Rita Brinkerhoff and Gillian Vandenberg have to hustle, though. They're performing intermittently throughout the evening, and they have to make several costume changes between now and the big-finish number.

Brinkerhoff is sweating it more than the others.

She's been reading about burlesque and wanting to try it for a long time, and this is her first chance to show Kansas City how great it can be. Just as most of the performers have never worn pasties, most people in the audience have never seen them. The spectators have read about burlesque in Bust magazine or heard about it on NPR, so they know that the old-fashioned striptease is making a comeback in New York and San Francisco. Still, few of them have seen it for themselves, and Brinkerhoff wants their first impression to be correct.

Brinkerhoff isn't worried about whether the crowd will like her act -- a bunch of curvy women stripping down to vintage underwear is sure to please. But the new burlesque troupes popping up nationwide put an array of modern spins on the antiquated art form, and Brinkerhoff has a clear vision of what she does -- and does not -- want hers to be.

A vaudeville show employing lavish costumes, humor, dance and music to perform a send-up of stripping that's basically a tease: Yes.

Arty girls taking off their clothes and calling it burlesque instead of stripping so they won't feel sleazy: No.

Do the women in the dressing room understand this distinction?

It's too late to worry about that.

Brinkerhoff and Vandenberg are about to go on stage for their first number.

Brinkerhoff mills about in the crowd that has assembled for what's been billed as the Voo Doo Carnival, promising daredevil entertainment -- a bullwhip act, a barefoot walk across mounds of broken glass, fire-eating and other astonishing performances. It's a benefit party for Review Magazine, so entertainers who usually work at places like the Renaissance Festival are transforming the art-studio building into a fun house where organizer and "finger of doom" wielder Morales hopes to intoxicate visitors with unusual and exciting sensory experiences.

On this crisp fall night, Brinkerhoff's cheeks are turning beet red. In her towering black-fur bandleader's hat, red peacoat, black combat boots and puffy, ruffled skirt, she looks like a Bolshevik cheerleader. She's beginning to overheat in the bulky costume, which she will take off one substantial layer at a time.

Just as she's about to take the stage, the cops show up.

Bob the Amazing Juggler is balancing a torch on his chin, and the sound of walkie-talkie static is unmistakable.

The crowd falls silent.

Everyone turns around the see a few uniformed men. Whispers circulate. People try to act normal. No one in the audience is sure whether they're doing anything wrong. Are the cops checking fire code? Making sure the party hasn't exceeded occupancy? Waiting to see how much the girls take off?

As in the old days, when appointed spectators near the back of performance halls held up red lights when the authorities arrived, burlesque suddenly feels dangerous.

Brinkerhoff and Vandenberg make their first-ever Kansas City appearance while policemen stare ominously from the back of the room.

"I was really scared," says Vandenberg (who asked that her real name not be used for this story), "because I could envision a typical thing going down in Kansas City: Cops shutting down anything that's cool."

As it turns out, the police have a problem only with the indirect selling of beer, which Boulevard Brewing Company has donated to the party. "People paid money for tickets, and then with those tickets they could play games," Morales explains later. "The deal was that they could win various prizes, like stuffed animals or beer. Well, the guy who was in charge of the beer got drunk, and he ended up just handing people beer for tickets, which is essentially selling beer, and the police saw that."

Morales and Review owner Mike Miller offer the following solution: Beer will be free for the rest of the night. They'll no longer sell it, directly or indirectly. The police leave, having made the party a lot more fun.

With the crowd's adrenaline level now off the charts, Brinkerhoff and Vandenberg come back out in 1950s-style outfits and aprons. Brinkerhoff totes a little blue feather duster, and Vandenberg pushes a mop. Both wear strappy red high heels.

Brinkerhoff and Vandenberg dust the air and mop the floor in time to the Zombies' trippy "Time of the Season." As the scene progresses, they "accidentally" dust off one another instead, making melodramatically shocked faces when the duster gives them a little tickle. They take off big matronly aprons to reveal sexy little aprons.

As the Chordettes break into "Mr. Sandman," they take off big matronly bras to reveal sexy little bras. The voluptuous Brinkerhoff finds abundant opportunities to turn her back to the audience and stick out her rear, showing off fabulous ruffled undies. The skinny Vandenberg's skirtlike bloomers just barely cover what the audience is hoping to see. (Her full-back tattoo is the only clue that she hasn't walked straight out of 1955.) As the Chordettes make their final plea for Mr. Sandman to bring them a dream, Brinkerhoff lies on her back with her legs in the air, pin-up style. Vandenberg kneels gracefully behind her, looking dreamy and innocent indeed.

Between acts, a woman with a toothy grin, wearing tightly pulled pigtails and a low-cut dress, roams the floor, stopping to gossip. Camille, a member of the band the Stretchmarxxx, is set to appear in the closing number, and she's brought her dominatrix whip and mask. Her pasties won't be ruffly or sequined -- they'll be Xs, made of black electrical tape. And, to incorporate an S&M angle, she's brought nipple clamps. In a voice loud enough for passersby to hear, she tells acquaintances that Brinkerhoff asked her not to bring these items. But she's brought them anyway. She wants to push the envelope, take burlesque to the next level, do something that will shock today's audiences the way this old-fashioned stuff once shocked yesterday's.

Brinkerhoff, unaware of this subversive element, gets ready to perform briefly as Gladiola Ditchwater (the stage name she used in the recently dissolved band Big Jeter). For this act, her role is to assist Baby Mystico, who "magically" transforms eggs into omelets. Brinkerhoff wears a skin-tight black sequined dress -- backward, to show most of her breasts. Ditchwater is supposed to write Baby Mystico on a chalkboard, but she is not only dimwitted but also supertrashy, and she is constantly distracted by her own lasciviousness. Baby Mystico and Gladiola Ditchwater, he a tyrannical magician and she a lustful specimen of minimal intellect, yell at each other, and the audience roars with laughter from start to finish, even accepting the eggs that have been thrust their way on paper plates.

Next, dressed in shiny pink fringed outfits, Brinkerhoff and Vandenberg do a number to Serge Gainsbourg's song "Comic Strip," pretending to shoot each other and the audience with toy guns. Cued by the song, they shoot from between their legs (shabam!); they shoot backward over their shoulders (pop!); they shoot kicking one leg up (whiz!). Between silly gun maneuvers, Brinkerhoff and Vandenberg shimmy out of their clothes.

It's in this skimpily clad state that they dance to a song called "Teach Me, Tiger," by a husky-voiced Ann-Margaret. They mount, stroke and cuddle huge foam-stuffed jungle cats, looking exaggeratedly sultry as they mouth the words to the ridiculous musical selection: Teach me tiger/How to love you/ Owowowowow! (Humping motions accompany the Owowowowows.) As the tune nears its end, the women stand up and toss their love kitties to each other across the stage, catching them simultaneously in midair.

By this point, the audience is so riled up that people applaud and holler just for the good catch.

No more clothes come off. No one gets to see whether Brinkerhoff and Vandenberg do, in fact, have tigers in their pants. By this time, nobody needs much convincing.

It's midnight. People are drunk on free beer -- good free beer.

A row of ladies in elaborate outfits traipses out of the dressing room. Brinkerhoff's skirt is essentially a set of purple curtains pulled back to reveal plenty of leg, and she wears a purple, sequined tube top stretching just up to her breasts, which are covered only by pasties and a black boa. Vandenberg has on a tutulike pink net skirt over black fringed hiphugger panties and a black fringed bra; she, too, is draped in a boa. Bettie Page look-alike Lacy Cornish wears a white bustier with a smart brown leather jacket, old-fashioned black panties and garters holding her thigh-high hose in place.

Cornish's dancing is pouty and schoolgirlish, as if a paper doll has come to life and had some basic instruction in rhythm, movement and general sexiness. Brodie Rush, the lone male, wears a '70s disco outfit. His wife, Laurel, wears a black shirt with long slits, a boa and a sequined tank top; dancing a tango, she steps seductively across the stage. A heavy girl with short, stylishly set hair wears an old-fashioned bustier pulled tight, and she dances glamorously, seemingly oblivious to the audience.

Camille, of the Stretchmarxxx, spanks her bandmate Venus. She is pigtailed, wearing a G-stringed latex bodice and latex mask, which she calls her "futuristic Batgirl" costume. Venus sports a pair of fancy high-heeled shoes with feathers fanning from them in all directions.

The combination of aesthetic sensibilities is dizzying. By the end of the first song, the eight performers are down to pasties and panties. After the second song, the girls and Brodie Rush run off the stage, picking up discarded pieces of clothing from the floor as they go. "We want more!" someone shouts from the crowd.

And that was the whole point. It was, after all, only a tease.

Everything had gone almost exactly as planned.

In her pasties, Rita Brinkerhoff is known as Foxy Brinkerhoff. By day, she works at a library.

In her downtown art studio, beside a sturdy work desk, a My-Size Barbie stands naked with star stickers over her plastic boobs. Brinkerhoff's dioramas line the studio. One holds two shirtless dolls in black skirts and black pasties standing on a cardboard stage, with letters spelling out YES YES YES NO NO NO. Her artwork is a kitschy mishmash of crafty materials -- pipe cleaners and stickers, cutouts from old children's books, game pieces, dolls and text. It's multimedia, sure, but she'd rather call it exactly what it is, item by item. Pipe cleaners. Felt. Stickers. Cardboard. Glue.

Brinkerhoff is fighting some art gallery operators who want her to call these creations multimedia installations instead of dioramas. She doesn't like art-world gibberish. She doesn't do artist's statements. She's tired of everybody wanting the art she makes to be about something.

She has the same issue with burlesque. Since that first show, people have approached Brinkerhoff, unsure whether they were supposed to be turned on or whether it was a joke and they were simply meant to laugh. They want her to explain it to them, but she'd rather not. "I'm not going to tell you what you're going to feel," she says. "I think people just watch too much TV."

The problem, however, predates the boob tube. Burlesque is confusing for viewers. It's a striptease, and at the same time it's a send-up of a striptease. The people in the audience can't help but feel that, if they're turned on, they're also the butt of a joke. What's a fella to do when the Ladies Ladies Ladies are both ridiculous and darn near naked?

Kansas City's most famous burlesque dancer was Gypsy Rose Lee, whose vaudeville act was all tease and no strip. She built her reputation on the intelligent humor of her routines. In a story she wrote for Harper's magazine in 1957, titled "Stranded in Kansas City: A Fate Worse Than Vaudeville," she recalled the first time she performed her signature act.

The song was "Powder My Back." The routine called for her to go out into the audience and find a balding man, hand him a powder puff and dance in front of him, demanding that he powder her back. When the powdering was done, she would turn around, grab one strand of hair combed over the shiny spot on his crown and tie a red ribbon around it.

"Now stand up and show them how pretty you look!" she hollered as she finished the routine in Kansas City. She tugged the stunned man's lapels. He objected and tried to hide behind his coat. "But darling," she urged, "I want them to see how pretty you look!" She planted a red-lipstick kiss on his head before scampering off, fully clothed, as laughter and applause reverberated through the Missouri Theater on 12th and Central.

Kansas Citians now know that space as the Folly Theatre. Although Kansas City had its share of vaudeville theaters -- the Mainstreet Theatre, the Orpheum Theatre, the Gillis Opera House and the Willis Wood Theater to name a few -- the venue at 12th and Central was the most famous. Opening in September 1900 as the Standard, the site was home to the most genteel of burlesque shows until about 1922. Dancers like Kansas City, Kansas' Jennie Lee (known variously as the Bazoom Girl, Miss 44 and Plenty More, and the Queen of the Educated Torso) enjoyed moments of great local and national renown.

As silent films gained popularity, though, the only way burlesque troupes could compete was by becoming more "dirty." Girlie shows of ill-repute were showing up along 12th Street when the Shuberts, a prominent New York family that ran a large theater conglomerate, signed a lease for the 12th and Central space. The family decided to reopen the theater as a legitimate house, making Shubert's Missouri (commonly known as "the Missouri") one of a kind on 12th Street.

By the Great Depression, most vaudeville and burlesque theaters finally shut down. Some reopened as movie theaters. The Missouri stood empty until 1941, except for a few Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey shows. When it reopened, men were getting ready to ship off to war, and the Folly Burlesque became a hot spot. Each girl had a gimmick -- just like Gypsy Rose Lee -- with the most talented mastering the art of suggestion, not outright seduction.

On the morning of December 28, 1969, The Kansas City Star ran a story announcing that art films would replace the women. "Old Grind Gets Bumped at Folly Theater Here," was the story's headline. The theater's new manager told the Star, "These girls they have around here all the time are vulgar, they're cheap. They have cheapened the name of burlesque." That night, authorities speculated, someone apparently outraged at the manager's comments stuffed the Folly's drainpipes with sticks of dynamite. The explosion and fire, however, didn't frighten the Folly's operators into changing their plans. Movies had finally run vaudeville out of town for good.

Brinkerhoff operates in the tradition of teasing the audience and playing with people's reactions. Her definition of burlesque:

1.Vaudeville with tits; the circus with tits; the Opry with tits; Ed Sullivan with tits; tits 'n' seltzer.

2. Tits 'n' jokes.

3. Funny tits.

According to this definition, Brinkerhoff's former band, Big Jeter, could have called itself burlesque.

As Big Jeter, Gary Huggins always wore suspenders, and he sang punk, country and mainstream-pop parodies in a goofy, old-timey voice. Brinkerhoff would stand nearby, striking dramatic poses, often wearing fishnets and bloomers and sequins, singing with absurd vibrato. During the band's farewell show this past April at the Beaumont Club, Huggins pulled raw hot dogs out of a bandmate's pants, then threw them at the crowd. Brinkerhoff pretended to drink from a jug of bleach, and even though audience members had surmised that it was fake, their laughter was mixed with gasps.

"If we had called it burlesque, I think it would have given people a framework to understand what we were doing," Huggins says. Brinkerhoff adds that, after seeing her burlesque show, people who once dismissed Big Jeter now approach her to say they wish they'd given the band a chance.

Big Jeter wasn't Brinkerhoff's first time confusing audiences. She's done that since she was in high school at Shawnee Mission East, when her performance art at the Westport Coffee House earned responses that ranged from laughter to tears to abrupt, huffy exits. But it was with Big Jeter that Brinkerhoff began stripping down to bloomers and fishnets as part of her introduction to screwball antics. "In high school," she says, "I didn't know how to have a sense of humor."

Brinkerhoff and Huggins wore costumes that came directly from Brinkerhoff's stash, which had been growing rapidly since she worked in a thrift store as a teen-ager. But with Big Jeter gone, what would its costume-collecting crooner do with all of her kitschy clothes?

Just as the stuff lying around Brinkerhoff's apartment eventually finds its way to a diorama, the costumes she picked up second-hand have propelled her onto the stage.

The Burly-Q Girly Crew was conceived back in July, when Brinkerhoff attended the annual Southern Girls Convention in Athens, Georgia. The Southern Girls Convention is a gathering of self-proclaimed radical young women who want to exchange ideas and build solidarity, helping each other stand tall in their debutante-dominated surroundings.

At her first conference three years ago, Brinkerhoff led a workshop on costumes and gender. She had fun, but her idea of letting people play with tutus and makeup in order to shake their self-perceptions was widely misinterpreted.

"People thought I was going to teach them how to dress up in camouflage for protests," she laments.

When she began making plans for this summer's conference, she proposed a burlesque show. Conference organizers hesitated, though. People of all ages attend the conference, and planners worried that burlesque might not be appropriate for the underage crowd. But Brinkerhoff convinced them that there was no cause for concern -- after all, the show would be in a bar. "It was at the 40 Watt Club," she says. "There were no kids there, give me such a break. Anyway, there was tape on our nipples."

Workshop participants went through Brinkerhoff's clothes and accessories to put together the silliest costumes they could devise out of all the girly lingerie and several bizarre shower caps. But there wasn't time for elaborate choreography.

"Everyone was kind of scared," recalls Lauren McIntyre, a Kansas City native who went to Athens with Brinkerhoff and performed in that first show. "The description said we'd be putting on a show in a club, and some people wanted to get it all planned out, but we'd just met each other."

"I was basically just like, 'OK, just go out there and shake it,'" Brinkerhoff recalls. Girls of all shapes and sizes (and even a pair of flamey boys in girly outfits) ran out on stage. They didn't all fit on the stage, so about half of them went out into the crowd. "People were putting dollars in our underwear," Brinkerhoff recalls happily.

Overwhelmed, McIntyre had to go backstage for a minute to recover.

"We all looked stupid," she says now. "It was a release, and I had a good time, but I definitely didn't feel sexy or anything. I was in a green shower cap and a pink tutu. We had no idea what we were doing. We just did it, and it turned into this hilarious thing."

It was much different from the show at the Hobbs Building this fall. "I think Rita was trying to bring back that kind of fun, but the other people were trying to do a serious show," McIntyre says. "It was almost like they were stripping or something. It was more like girls dancing in a plastic box."

The show in Athens had been crazy. The show at the Hobbs Building was elaborately staged. Brinkerhoff hoped that a third show could be both. But there were a few matters to sort through.

First, she would have to find the right performers. Girls who wanted to have fun, with sexiness a secondary consideration. She didn't want to work with Camille of the Stretchmarxxx, for example, if Camille wanted to do a dominatrix act. "I don't think there is a next level to take burlesque to," Brinkerhoff would later explain. "Burlesque is its own thing."

It wasn't that there couldn't be a dominatrix number in a burlesque show. In Seattle, for example, the Gun Street Girls play with the lethal-and-lascivious-lady stereotype. One young woman chasing the other with a whip as she scampers away -- sort of a screwball, Tom-and-Jerry pursuit: That could work. But dressing and acting like a dominatrix is not a burlesque act; it's a dominatrix act. Even if Camille were to develop her futuristic Batgirl character, the aesthetic would clash with the retro feel of the rest of the show. It wouldn't be particularly comfortable for Camille, either.

"I felt like I stuck out because I wasn't dressed like I was in the '40s or '50s," Camille tells the Pitch of that night at the Hobbs Building. "I was kind of defending myself. I think burlesque is timeless."

Brinkerhoff decided not to ask the Stretchmarxxx to do future shows -- and the band hasn't approached her, either. In any event, Camille would not be taking burlesque "to the next level" with the Burly-Q Girly Crew.

Brinkerhoff's collaboration with Vandenberg had worked well, so Brinkerhoff would start there. Brinkerhoff's outlandishness and Vandenberg's detached style complemented each other. Though they had performed together in September, the routines had been Brinkerhoff's creations. For the upcoming shows, Vandenberg wanted to put a few ideas of her own into action. She even hoped to do a few solo numbers.

When Lacy Cornish said she wanted to be involved in future shows, suggesting that they wear sheriffs' stars for pasties while doing a Western dance, it started to look as if Brinkerhoff might have another performer whose enthusiasm and aesthetic matched her own. Cornish had been interested in pin-up art since she was a little girl, and she saw burlesque as a theatrical manifestation of the girl-next-door art that had graced Esquire's pages for years. "We take a little bit off," she says, "but we put a lot on. I like that."

"Hello, my new best friend!" Brinkerhoff replied.

Cornish was able to rope in her friend, Danielle Westcott. A server at Succotash who has worked at places like the Pub, the Tivoli, Broadway Café, Arizona Trading Company and Streetside Records, she was one of the city's most familiar friendly faces and the kind of person game for just about anything.

Another addition has been Amie Nelson, who moved back to Kansas City after she spent a couple of years writing music reviews and working in coffee shops in Seattle. Nelson had been thinking about joining a burlesque troupe in Seattle. Brinkerhoff and Nelson bounced ideas back and forth -- Nelson wanted to emerge from a giant teacup in vintage underwear. Brinkerhoff wanted to wear balloons that men would pop with cigars. It was meant to be.

Next they would require a venue. After the show at the Hobbs Building, Michael Morales had told Brinkerhoff he thought he might be able to get the Burly-Q Girly Crew some performance time at the Just Off Broadway Theatre.

Morales was hoping that the Voo Doo Carnival variety acts could make regular appearances with the Burly-Q Girly Crew. A broad-shouldered man with golden dreadlocks and a strong jaw, Morales had started out as a martial artist. "I was a typical type-A male," he says. "I wanted to kick ass and take names." Over time, his interests changed. After working as a bouncer at a topless bar near an Army base, Morales had seen enough violence. He was sick of it.

But he still wanted to experience the feeling of being in an extreme and dangerous situation, someplace where he wouldn't have time to think -- only to react. And he wanted to make an audience feel that excitement.

That's where the bullwhip came in. Now, he can whip a cork off a bottle of wine, held in a lovely assistant's hands, without even touching her.

Morales has done his bullwhip act not only in sideshows and festivals but also with groups like Late Night Theatre, the all-male company that typically performs in drag. When Late Night moved into the Old Chelsea Theater -- a seedy spot with a seedy past -- Morales performed in the company's benefit show. The variety acts -- including a master of ceremonies who acted like Truman Capote all night -- made the drag show something more than a drag show: burlesque. Morales had enjoyed the experience, and he was eager to keep reviving this lost art.

But he had begun to feel as though taking his bullwhip to the Renaissance Festival was preventing his act from being taken seriously. He thought the arts community would appreciate what he did only if he did it in their context, in trendy places where they wouldn't be embarrassed to be seen. This he found annoying.

Morales and Brinkerhoff began talking about future shows, but when things didn't work out with the Just Off Broadway Theatre -- it was booked for at least the next year, except for off nights and off times -- trouble set in.

One November evening, the two discussed their options.

"I don't want to do the bar scene," Morales explained, recalling one show at which a bouncer had let in a few stragglers during a crucial moment in the performance. "I want the audience to come for the show, not to talk and drink."

His idea was to take the show on the road until something opened up in an actual theater.

But Brinkerhoff was skeptical about touring with the Burly-Q Girly Crew. "These people have never even done this before," she told him. "I just think I need to get things started first."

Morales suggested El Torreon, an all-ages club at 31st and Gillham. But the last thing Brinkerhoff needed was parents finding out their kids were going to see a burlesque show.

Besides that, Brinkerhoff wasn't opposed to doing a show in a bar. After all, she reasoned, the audience for burlesque shows is predominantly a bargoing crowd, whereas people who want to see jugglers and fire-eaters and bullwhip performers are more likely to head to a theater. Plus, it was practical.

"I think the audience for this is kind of limited," Brinkerhoff admits. "And kind of broke. I can only charge maybe a little bit more than what most bands charge at the door in a bar. Most of the people I know won't come if it costs $15."

Brinkerhoff proposed trying to set up a regular gig at the new Pyro Room downstairs at Balanca's (primarily a gay bar near 18th and Grand).

Morales' response was diplomatic. "Burlesque is a girly show, and I feel that what is happening now -- you need to not water it down too much. Maybe I could teach you guys how to do some fire-eating and sword swallowing. I think that maybe the best way I can benefit your performance is not by performing with you guys, but giving you guys some more tools."

Morales came away feeling unsure of his future with the Girly Crew. "I'll still do something with them if they want me to," he would say later. "But it's not my show any more."

"When we did the Review thing," Brinkerhoff recalls, "Mike was planning everything, and he approached me about participating. Since I was participating in something he was putting together, I went along with everything he set up. This is different, though.

"I feel bad," she adds. "I just don't know if we're looking for the same things."

Although Morales has agreed to join the next show, to be called Oh My Stars and Garters!, Brinkerhoff and her fellow dancers are now arranging everything themselves, and they wonder what they can toss into the mix to save their performances from becoming a monotonous series of women taking off costumes. After all, how many different ways can they take off their clothes?

They are discussing getting an entertaining host, but they have to be careful who they pick.

Many of the new burlesque troupes around the country make a point of using female masters of ceremonies, so that their routines aren't presented in a way that makes them uncomfortable or caters too specifically to a male audience. Brinkerhoff has already turned down several offers to be "managed" by men for that very reason. This is where modern burlesque departs from its early-twentieth-century role model. The women onstage now have determined what they will take off, how they will do it and what words they will use to introduce it to the audience.

Brinkerhoff and the others decide that Brodie Rush is their man. Rush emcees the karaoke night at the Brick -- known as Brodioke -- and he manages to keep a bar crowd right there with him. After one particularly grating karaoke act, he once told an audience that he'd never seen a novelty wear off so quickly. That's just the kind of attitude the Burly-Q Girly Crew needs.

And anyway, he knows what it is to wear pasties.

It's the night before Thanksgiving, and Brinkerhoff is sitting in the City Market's Succotash with a few other members of her whittled-down crew: Danielle "Bunny" Westcott, Lacy "Felina" Cornish and Vandenberg, who has yet to settle on her burlesque name, though she is considering the last name Vesuvius, as in the volcano.

Nobody else is in the restaurant, and the other City Market shops closed hours ago. Foxy, Bunny, Felina and Vandenberg are talking about how they want to take off their shirts.

They'll be alligators in green-sequined costumes tearing off Brinkerhoff's paper-thin clothes. They'll wear Scrabble tiles for pasties, which will be revealed only after they get in a fight playing Scrabble. They'll emerge, wearing vintage lingerie, from giant teacups. They'll be specula-wielding bad nurses. They'll roller-skate on stage. Brinkerhoff and Westcott will belch loudly at one another (burplesque, as Westcott puts it) while Vandenberg and Cornish judge them, demurely holding up scorecards. It will be great.

Everybody laughs when Brinkerhoff imitates the nasal, schoolmarmish voice of a woman who narrates an audio tape she has at home. It's called How to Talk Sexy to the One You Love. In a future show, Brinkerhoff envisions troupe members looking awkwardly at one another as the tape plays in the background. She considers this her best idea ever.

"Vagina is not a sexy word," Brinkerhoff begins, quoting the tape. "No matter how you say it, shout it or even whisper it, it doesn't get anybody hot. Think of some other names you've heard that you've liked. Can't think of any? Try these on for size: My husband calls my vagina the den of iniquity. How about gash, hole, pit of passion?" The laughter builds with each euphemism.

"[The tape] has all this stuff, like this list of things you're supposed to do to make a sexy story for your partner, like I want you to slowly feel my adjective, adjective noun. I want you to verb my adjective noun. We could totally make a montage of that and have people in, like, shower caps and towels and make some kind of suds and be all like, I want to verb your adjective noun, and the other person will be like, I want to verb your adjective adjective noun."

The other three members of the Burly-Q Girly Crew seem to be in favor of this idea. In fact, they're giddy about most of tonight's ideas.

Still, there are questions that need to be answered. Where will the next show be? How often will the troupe perform? How will they advertise themselves? If they use the word burlesque, will it automatically rouse police suspicions? Will Vandenberg settle on a burlesque name?

It's Wednesday, December 4, and Brinkerhoff, who has come to the Pyro Room to hear a punk band, turns 22 in just a few hours. She's talking to bartender Tex (a rockabilly gal who cohosts a Friday afternoon radio show on KKFI 90.1), who has agreed to put on future burlesque shows in that downstairs room of Balanca's. It's what Tex envisioned doing with the space, but all the girls who ever showed interest got cold feet and backed out before anything had a chance to happen.

Jason Beers, a friend of Brinkerhoff's who plays a host of unusual instruments, happens to be at the bar, and the two discuss plans for an act in which the girls will come out dressed like astronauts while he plays eerie, alienlike sounds with his Theremin.

Brinkerhoff has gotten good at detecting potential disasters. But tonight she looks hard but doesn't see any. Tex has already booked an opening act for the next Burly-Q Girly Crew performance -- a surf band Brinkerhoff likes. There is a changing area behind the stage so that the women won't have to squeeze into unsavory bar-bathroom stalls. Tex isn't nervous about having burlesque shows in her bar. "As long as they wear pasties, it shouldn't matter," she says. "As long as the nipples are covered, you could walk into a bar in pasties and expect to be served." Tex has even offered to make a runway and put out low tables so that everyone can see the stage.

The women who have agreed to be in future shows are serious and share Brinkerhoff's aesthetic sensibilities. They want to have fun. They're willing to hold specula. All is right in the world.

And finally, everyone -- including Vandenberg -- has a burlesque name, to be displayed on old-fashioned pin-up cards at the Pyro Room on January 17.

Until then, we wait.

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