This summer Bazuka Joe, Jett Adore and Ray Gunn, the trio that makes up Chicago's one-of-a-kind, all-male burlesque group the Stage Door Johnnies, will be sharing the stage at the Ice Palace Hotel on Fire Island with LGBT icons and legendary cabaret performers Liza Minelli and Alan Cumming.
"In the whole world of cabaret arts, obviously both of them are hugely known for their singing and their storytelling and their star power, but that's where they both got their start -- on the smaller stage," Bazuka Joe told ChicagoPride.com. "Which is exactly the same realm that we're operating in, just at a different scale."
Before they became the Stage Door Johnnies, Bazuka, Jett and Ray, who each come from performing backgrounds, were working independently around Chicago. The three knew one another from film and dance projects as well as working Boystown events like Sidetrack
s' Mardis Gras fundraiser and the Night of 1000 Drag Queens. The trio was first brought together three years ago as back up dancers for Todd Kiech, aka "Hot Toddy," the co creator of Chicago Takes Off and 2009 winner of Mr. Exotic World.
At the time the Johnnies had no characters, no defined act and no intention of becoming burlesque personalities, but after their performance with Hot Toddy things began to snowball. The trio started performing semi-regularly at Spin and began getting gigs with other Chicago burlesque groups. What had started out as a back-up act was suddenly turning into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"We realized that what we were doing and the aesthetic of what we were imagining didn't really exist anywhere else that we could find," Jett Adore said. "I feel like it was almost like the burlesque world was so ready and waiting for some male burlesque that really complimented what they were trying to do rather than mock it, rather than spoof it."
"Boylesque," as it's sometimes referred to, conjures up images of Thunder Down Under or the Chippendales, but the Johnnies insist that the only thing their show shares with male strippers is the utilitarian benefit of what is being accomplished: taking off their clothes. What sets them apart is their intention and the theatricality of their performances, which draw on a long tradition of burlesque in the United States. Initially an element of vaudeville theatre, burlesque began evolving into the art of highly stylized striptease that we now recognize during Prohibition. Burlesque, and especially striptease, remained a popular form of entertainment even during the 30s, keeping theatres open despite a national economic crisis.
"Certainly people didn't have money to go to vaudeville shows, but they would spend money on seeing striptease," Bazuka said. "It was an adult pleasure that they would afford themselves to forget about the Depression."
"The biggest theatres in the world were burlesque houses," Jett added. "Nowadays there's this sort of shame attached to watching an entertainer get naked and I think it's because we've lost some of the theatre that it's associated with, but it's coming back."
By the 60s and 70s, thanks largely to film and television, burlesque went by the wayside, but it has enjoyed a revival in the past decade or so. Like their predecessors some 80 years ago, audiences are returning to striptease as a means of escape. The Stage Door Johnnies are part of burlesque's second coming, carving out a place for men in what is historically a female-only performance style. Unlike go-go boys, who merely add to the sexual ambiance in a club, male burlesque as imagined by the Johnnies is about telling a story.
"We're gonna take you on a journey and we may or may not show you some skin along the way, but it's really more about the suspense and the creativity, the cleverness of how you do it," Jett said. "It's working on the same basic principal that makes any good piece of theatre work, which is about stringing [the audience] along to keep them on the edge of their seats. One of the tactics that burlesque performers use is the element of striptease, but it's not a sort of revolutionary concept."
Drawing on the theatre and following the path of burlesque legends like Gypsy Rose Lee and Satan's Angel, each Johnny embodies a distinct persona. These characters are, as Bazuka Joe told ChicagoPride.com, an exaggerated version of the performers themselves, or at least an aspect of themselves. The personas help determine the myriad of ways in which each performer approaches burlesque, evolving over time from an aesthetic each Johnny was initially drawn to bringing to the group.
The first third of the act, Bazuka Joe, is described on the group's website as "the sweet and bubbly" one, a sort of boy-next-door type who seduces audiences with a killer smile and a playful wink. Ray Gunn is a self-confessed "huge nerd" whose name itself comes from his love of science fiction, but his background is largely acrobatic, which results in a highly physical act. Combining the steampunk imagery of metal, cogs and gears with truly acrobatic feats, Ray is described by his fellow Johnnies as "gritty," "avant-garde" and "rough and tumble." On the other end, Jett Adore was drawn to creating a character that exaggerated an idea of male glamour and elegance.
"I thought it would be a challenge to try to play with artistically because the image that I think of for male glamor is any man in any tuxedo and that's about it," Jett said. "Trying to expand on that is the challenge -- keeping it masculine, but trying to see how far I can push it to the extreme."
For these pioneers of male burlesque, navigating a balance between masculine and feminine is one of the biggest challenges. The other, and this is a more general challenge shared by all burlesque performers, is evolving the act and keeping it new and exciting. The contemporary burlesque scene is filled with, as Jett putt it, "brilliant, crazy, moronic geniuses" whose creativity knows no bounds, so finding something that hasn't been done yet requires a lot of imagination. How many ways are there to take off your clothes?
In burlesque innovation is rewarded and the Johnnies are constantly pushing the envelope and looking for something bigger and better. Jett recently fashioned a cape that folds out into a pair of 12-foot wings and is currently toying with the idea of learning aerial silks. Ray developed an act for an upcoming performance in Las Vegas that consists of him dancing with and appearing to be stripped by a hologram version of himself. Though the dance company he started and ran was put on hiatus when the Johnnies took off, Ray now has hard time seeing himself doing anything other than burlesque.
"Burlesque audiences are encouraged to be loud and scream during the performances and nothing really compares to receiving that instant unfiltered reaction," Ray Gunn told ChicagoPride.com. "It's pretty sweet that my job consists of walking into a room full of strangers, dropping trow with only a few rhinestones on my nipples and a cleverly place fedora and no one thinks its weird. Who wouldn't love that?"
The trio has come a long way since their first performance three years at the Watershed in Roscoe Village, where Bazuka says their audience consisted of mostly straight women and their reluctant boyfriends. The Johnnies are proud to accredit many of their accomplishments to their start in the Chicago gay scene, where they have performed at various bars and clubs, including a weekly show in Boystown with Cyon Flare. After appearing on stages throughout Chicago, the group began taking their unique act across the country and beyond.
The Johnnies have performed, both separately and together, in cities across North America including Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver in Canada as well as Las Vegas, New York City, Denver, San Francisco, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Los Angeles and New Orleans, among others, in the United States. Their act has been recognized and rewarded by several burlesque organizations, with the Burlesque Innovation Guild naming them "Artists of the Year 2010." The Johnnies were inducted into the Las Vegas Burlesque Hall of Fame last year and currently hold the title of "World's Best Burlesque Group," which Jett calls the highlight of their career.
In addition to their triple billing with stage and screen legends Liza Minelli and Alan Cumming on August 4, the Johnnies are also embarking on a six week tour of Australia this fall. They will be traveling throughout summer, appearing in cities across the country, but Chicagoans who want to sneak a peek at these hometown boys turned international stripping sensations can check them out at the Windy City Burlesque festival in July.
For more information about (and more pictures of) the Stage Door Johnnies, please visit their website at thestagedoorjohnnies.com