Sammich the Tramp, St. Louis’ punk rock hobo and director of the Beggar’s Carnivale, talks slapstick, touring, the Show Me Burlesque Festival, Buster Keaton, passionate performance, and f’ing magic.
Interview: Divertida Devotchka
You studied theater at Columbia College Chicago and you describe your style as “live action silent film and neo-vaudeville.” I’d like to know more about the development process of your style and the creation of Sammich, if you will.
All through my childhood I played sports, I was really active. Then, when I got into my teens I got really into theater and discovered how much I loved performing, I specifically enjoyed making people laugh. As soon as I started doing theater I knew then and there that that’s what I was going to do with the rest of my life. So, when it came time for college I moved to Chicago, which is a theater mecca, and studied performance at Columbia. When I was in my junior year I was approached by a company to be a part of a silent play set to music. That company turned into Silent Theatre Company. We were a group that specialized in the recreation of silent films adapted for the stage. We, essentially, created a performance style that we had never really seen before. We weren’t clowns, we weren’t mimes, we weren’t modern dancers. It was very confusing for people, but people also really identified and gravitated towards the style. It’s a universal language, body language, people innately understand it. Within that group an even smaller group of us formed who were really passionate about physical slapstick comedy. We turned into the Oona Tramps, we all played despicable dastardly tramps, we did short pieces that fit into variety shows, and from that we ended up in burlesque. It was right when burlesque was starting to blow up. Then, I moved to St. Louis and started performing solo. I needed a name and Lola van Ella jokingly came up with Sammich, and it stuck. When Sammich started the character was a much more vulgar mean character, the charm and sweetness developed over time. I’ve been doing the tramp gig for about 6 years.
You’re the artistic director and producer of the Beggar’s Carnivale, correct? How did this project get started and what have you learned so far over the course of production?
Yes. I’m the director and I’ve learned to treat it like a theatrical production. Every tiny detail has to fall into place, the music, the lights, the show order, the story. It’s a journey. This show is particularly unique because it’s done completely silently set to music, featuring both a live house band specifically put together for this show (The Royal We), and a DJ. This is one of the only variety/vaudeville shows I’ve ever seen done without an emcee. There’s a story line that holds the show together. Audiences really seem to identify with the physical comedians (The Knock-a-Bouts). They’re the common men. Everyone can see themselves in those characters. I’ve wanted to do a show like this for years, St. Louis made that possible.
Though the Beggar’s Carnivale is still in its first year of production, it’s been wildly successful, not only in St. Louis, but you’ve also begun touring as well. Tell us about your touring experiences thus far and your traveling plans for the near future.
Well, I love touring. I would generally rather be on tour. The most important thing when you’re touring with a large group of people is that everyone in the group has a positive attitude and that everyone carries their weight. Of course, everyone has their moments and you have to learn to deal with that. When you’re on tour you’re living with people every minute of every day. You see people at their best and at their worst. It can be an incredibly positive experience if the group works together, and so far all the Beggars have given selflessly to this show. I couldn’t be more excited about taking this show on the road with these people.
I first saw you perform at Burlesque Hall of Fame 2009 with the Oona Tramps and it was incredible! Do you ever perform with the Oona Tramps anymore?
I haven’t performed with the Oona Tramps in almost two years. There are no plans for any future projects. I live in St. Louis now and they are in Chicago. I love the Oonas, they’re family. I would definitely be open to getting back together at some point to do a performance. I think it would be a lot of fun. We’ll see…
You’re the production assistant for the Show Me Burlesque Festival. Tell us all about the preparation that goes into the event. Are plans already in the works for next year’s festival?
The Show-Me Burlesque Festival was the biggest thing I’ve ever taken on or been a part of. Let me just say, again, this festival would not have been possible without the St. Louis arts community. Seriously, it’s the most supportive, loving scene I’ve ever been a part of. All of our national performers marvel at the love in St. Louis. A St. Louis audience is the best audience you could ever perform in front of. We were able to do this festival because an entire community came together to make it happen. There were nearly 200 people involved in the production of the Show-Me festival. That ranges from performers, to stage managers, to tech crews, and to volunteers. The key to doing something that large is having a circle of people that you trust. Delegate duties to the people you trust. We have been talking about the next one. We have tricks up our sleeves. I promise it will be even bigger than the last.
Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are both big inspirations for you, right? With what do you identify the most with these two characters? Who or what else do you find particularly inspiring as a performer?
When I was really little my dad got me into Buster Keaton and as a kid I identified with the physical comedy. The stunts and gags that Buster Keaton came up with and executed are incredible. I don’t think anyone has come close to it since. As I got older I started identifying more and more with Chaplin. It’s his charm and his humanity and the way he was able to layer his tramp character so deeply. Such a fully realized beautifully executed character. His struggles speak to the common man; he’s a dreamer, a vagabond, a lover, a poet, and on top of all that he’s a brilliant physical comedian. He can make you genuinely laugh and cry all in the span of 90 minutes. His art is universal. Still to this day the themes he touched on in the teens, the twenties, and the thirties are still relevant. His work is universal. He truly achieved immortality. City Lights is the best movie ever made. It’s perfect. I could go on and on.
I think I’m a good performer because I’m such a huge fan, and my favorite performers are the ones who are the most passionate. I love live passionate performance, when you can tell that the performer really loves what they’re doing. They love it so much that they obsess over it, dream about it, study it, research it, and work at it all the time until they’re really f*ing good at it, and they’re confident and they know that they’re really f*ing good at it. A really great live show can feel like a spiritual experience….and music, I love music. It inspires almost everything I do creatively.
You were voted number 26 in 21st Century Burlesque’s Top 50 Burlesque Performers of 2010, which is incredible considering that it was your first time to make the list. It’s refreshing to see someone with your performance style receiving the recognition you deserve. Did you have any idea just how many fans you had prior to that?
I had no idea! I was completely surprised. I thought, “Hmm, it would be fun to make that list, a silly little tramp being on the top 50 burlesque performers list.” I never thought I would be voted that high. I was honored, I still am honored. Being in St. Louis helped that a lot.
In the last year, you’ve injured your nose, leg, foot and two ribs while performing. That’s quite a list! What’s the worst injury you’ve sustained while performing?
I think the worst one has been the most recent one. I’m currently all bruised up as I’m doing this interview. I get hurt more than most performers, I can deal with bumps and bruises, but this foot one has really been the meanest. The nose one is up there. That was awful. I was performing to Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance.
What’s next for Sammich the Tramp?
My goal right now is to really focus on The Beggar’s Carnivale. I want to take this show around the world. I’ve never believed in anything more. I want people to see it. I want Beggars to become a household name.
Anything you’d like to add?
I just want to entertain people. I want to keep them on their toes, keep them surprised, give them a spectacle, transport them to a totally different world. People NEED great live performance. It’s a uniting force, it’s spiritual. I’m really passionate about it, and when it’s done well it’s F*ing Magic!