American Treasure Blanche DeBris (“white trash” in French, but Always High-Class!) talks rapping, failed careers, Edelweiss and volunteering at The Burlesque Hall of Fame Museum.
Interview: Miss Violet O’Hara
Q: In 2012, you famously opened the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend with your original “Movers, Shakers and Innovators” rap and claimed your place among the emcees on that most coveted stage. Can we expect to see you perform more original raps in the near future? Are there any that you are currently developing?
A: First off, can you believe I got to be on that stage?? That whole weekend was an absolute surreal dream. I was so overwhelmed after they invited me to host I was nauseous for two months! I was so terrified of being entrusted with this honor and then messing things up. So I was in the shower, where I get all my ideas, I was thinking how ridiculous it was that I would be hosting the pinnacle event of Burlesque, and thought “What else is something that is so ridiculous there’s no way I should be doing it?” And that’s how I got the idea for doing a rap song! I’ve since done another rap, a much shorter one, that I wrote for the Minneapolis Burlesque Festival, and it was a mashup of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” and Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song.” Prince, well because he’s a Minneapolis boy, and Immigrant Song because it’s a song about Vikings!
I have to give a huge, ground-shaking shout out to my dear Eric “Travis” Wilson, the Mashup Cowboy himself, who did all the music and recording for the Movers, Shakers, Innovators rap. He does all my tracks. I’m so ridiculously lucky to know him. He also did the voiceover intros for me and Mat Fraser for BHOF. Eric is such a genius; he’s like a secret ninja weapon. He plays every instrument, records and edits it all, and he comes up with ideas for me, and writes with me. And I get to pay him by doing things to him he likes and that I would do anyway!
I do love the challenge of coming up with a specific song/rap for a special occasion! I torture myself with it really, it takes me a looong time to write something that I’m happy with. And rapping is hard, all those words have to come out of my mouth so fast! But I have to say, I really like it, and yes, I think there might be a few more original raps in the future, but I’ll probably have to find another music style before people get tired of me. I can just hear it, “oh jeez….not aNOTHER rap song from Blanche….”
Q: Recently you were in Dallas on the grand stage of Viva Dallas Burlesque for their Bedtime Stories show. One of your signature acts, “The Sound of Music in Six Minutes”, had the entire audience singing along to “Do-Re-Mi”, “My Favorite Things” and “Edelweiss”. At the end of your routine they were up on their feet as avid new Blanche DeBris fans. How does it feel to be embraced with such uninhibited enthusiasm by Texas? When will you be moving here?
A: Really? You’d like to keep me? Let me pack my eyelashes and I’ll be right over! You know, I still can’t believe that I’m being asked to come to cities like Dallas, I’m so used to being asked to LEAVE cities like Dallas. Most often with a law enforcement escort.
But oh my gosh the audience at Viva Dallas Burlesque! First off, are they some of the good-lookingest people or what? Everyone was dressed up for the theme of the show, Bedtime Stories! Lingerie and silk and satin robes and funny pjs with feet and trap doors in ‘em, oh it was terrific. THAT’s the way to turn out for a show!
I had so many people come up to me after the show to tell me how much Sound of Music meant to them, and how they loved the movie as a kid. Watch it again as an adult and you discover a lot more! I tell ya it’s like finding all these secret members of a club you had no idea you belonged to! I’m so surprised and relieved that other people enjoy my little obsession with the Von Trapp story (as told by Rodgers & Hammerstein). And to have that HUGE crowd singing along…all of us singing together, it’s pure joy. You know, I really do get choked up every time I sing Edelweiss, thinking of the Von Trapp family saying goodbye to everything they every knew and loved, a whole country, a lifetime of memories, leaving it all behind. And singing Edelweiss I just look at everyone in the audience and I feel so humbled, and so grateful to be there in that moment, all of us together. It’s really pure magic, you know, all these strangers happening to be in this theatre at the same time, yet everyone knows these songs. Even if they don’t *know* they know them, there they are singing along! All of us, making music together in the dark. That’s what the magic is. That’s the art.
I saw this one-woman show Lily Tomlin did, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe – Gosh is Lily Tomlin stupendously terrific. Really, if it’s on DVD you should watch it. Anyways… she plays one character, a homeless lady named Trudy, who meets a space alien and tries to explain what “art” is to him. She shows the alien a can of tomato soup, and then she shows the alien Andy Warhol’s painting of a can of tomato soup. “This is soup! This is art!” she tells him. But the alien isn’t convinced. So she takes the alien to see a Broadway play, but the alien watches the audience the whole time. And afterwards she asks the alien why the heck was he watching the audience? And the alien says “The play was soup. The audience, art.” That’s what I feel about the audiences everywhere I go. What ever I’m doing is just soup. The audience’s participation, that’s what makes the magic.
Q: Your bawdy humor has been heard on festival circuit stages across the country including The Minneapolis Burlesque Festival, The Moisture Festival, The New Orleans Burlesque Festival and The Windy City Burlesque Festival. Any backstage antics, travel nightmares or serendipitous coincidences you’d like to share regarding your festival experiences?
A: You know, a year ago, the only other place besides Las Vegas that I’d done Burlesque was Seattle, my burlesque birthplace. Not even a year ago, 10 months ago! I’ve never felt so welcomed and accepted unconditionally and fiercely as I do in the world of Burlesque. Finally I found my Tribe, or the Tribe found me!
I’ve not had any travel nightmares, other than the usual panic of worrying if my suitcases will make it. But I could tell a tale on myself! So, I’m at SEA-TAC airport, and I’m headed back to Vegas after spending two weeks in Seattle where I had been just soaked in burlesque and variety and the carnival community of Moisture Festival. And I get to security. So, I take off my shoes and put them in the X-ray bin. And I take off my jacket, and my scarf, and put it in the X-ray bin. And then I take off my pants. Um, yeah. I don’t need to take off my pants to go through security. But after two weeks of burlesque shows, it’s become such a habit to take off my clothes, that I just instinctually de-pants’d myself. For once my brain did start back up again and I pulled my pants back on before I got kicked out of yet ANOTHER city…
I’m still in the afterglow of the Minneapolis Burlesque Festival this January. The camaraderie and raucous, riotous, joyous love and support and excitement that everyone had for each other. Oh it was just splendid. You’d be trying to get ready for your own act, and you’d hear this cheering coming from the viewing lounge/green room that was backstage, and so you’d run in to watch what was happening on the monitors because you just didn’t want to miss a moment. And we’d be screaming our heads off backstage, watching the TV, and as soon as the performer exited the stage we’d be screaming for them again as they ran back to the dressing rooms!
At the New Orleans Burlesque Festival, I traveled & roomed with Legend Bambi Jones, who lives in Vegas. Lordy that woman is an unstoppable force. She’ll be in the bar ‘til 5am and want to keep going! Well, Bambi worked a lot in the clubs in NOLA in the 50’s; you should read her book because she talks all about it. So, she wanted to take a walk down Bourbon Street and see some of the places she used to headline. Now they’ve all been turned into pizza joints and frozen drink places. But with her book in hand, which had pictures of the clubs she was in, we walked through the Quarter and she gave me her personal walking tour of burlesque in New Orleans. How lucky am I that I got to do that?? When we were walking back to the hotel, a young man across the street starting playing the trumpet, a slow, warm, sexy rendition of ‘The Nearness of You.’ And Bambi stopped still and said “My husband used to sing that, in the shows we did together here.” So we stood, listening to that lone trumpet. I could only imagine the seas of memory that Bambi was sailing as we were transfixed in that voodoo magic New Orleans has, of a stranger playing a trumpet in the street and creating a stop in time. That’s a moment that burlesque has bestowed on me. How can a girl not feel humbled and overwhelmed?
Q: In your broad repertoire of spunky and offbeat acts; which is your absolute favorite to perform on your home turf as the “forever hostess” of Live Burlesque in Las Vegas? Do you have any routines that you only perform in Vegas?
A: Well, at Live Burlesque in Las Vegas I usually try to come up with something to fit the theme of the show, so that means it’s a one-time only performance. I’ve been keeping my clothes on though, since it’s hard for me to concentrate when I know I gotta keep pasties on. So mostly I do songs. Like at our sci-fi show I sang the theme from Star Trek. It has words, look ‘em up! But thinking about it, we did a 60’s/Psychadelic theme show and I rewrote the lyrics to the Petula Clark song “Downtown,” and I’ve since done that in New Orleans and at a private show in Vegas, so that’s now something in my repertoire. Heh, repertoire. Sounds so French!
Honestly though, I don’t really have that many “acts” per se. It takes me a long, long time to pull stuff together. Probably because I just want to do so much in one act that I spend months and months and months trying to figure out how to make things happen. All my ideas come to me in the shower! I’m lucky that I know so many people who make props or build sets or who do magic or that I have my awesome sound and music ninja Eric who I can turn to for help & advice. It takes a village to make a Blanche DeBris act! I’ve got three acts I am working on in my mind right now. And they all involve elaborate construction and props, even though I know that means traveling with any one act will mean a lot of fees in excess luggage. But maybe by announcing them here it’ll force me to start getting things outta the shower, and onto the worktable!
Q: Congratulations on your teaching debut! This February your first class, “Act Like You Mean It,” focused on helping performers connect to their burlesque persona and character. Do you have plans to expand this class and/or teach more often?
A: Thank you! I guess I learned something after so many failed careers, enough to teach about it. It was a learning experience for me, and now I have a better idea of what the class really is. Ooh, that’s spooky…a good chunk of the class is about finding out who you are onstage, and teaching the class has taught ME how to connect to how to teach the class! I would like it to be a four or six week class, because it’s long, hard work, but oh so delicious and rewarding and fun to do. Discovering & nourishing who you are onstage, and then how to bring the best ‘Onstage You’ to the audience. How to be present in every moment, with sincerity, owning it, never leaving the audience bored or wondering what you’re doing. My teaching mission is “no more ‘step-touch’ choreography!” Because I think I’ve figured out that the common thread to all the performers and acts I’ve seen that have made me warm in the pink bits, is that they fill every moment. There’s no hesitation, no ‘I’ll fill in the blank with a few arm gestures until I get to this next really cool bit in the music.’ And I think a lot of that has to do with not feeling relaxed or prepared enough and not trusting the “beats” of the story you are telling, not being afraid to take your time with each morsel. I love, LOVE slowness! Sloooow and pregnant with intention and action and a promise of things to come! Oh my goodness, I don’t know what just happened there, I sounded like I know what I’m talking about. That probably won’t happen again!
Q: As an accomplished emcee, what advice would you give to other hosts making their way in our community? Are there any classes, workshops, books or other references that you consider to be crucial for a talented emcee to devour?
A: *thud* Oh sorry, I had to pick myself off the floor because you called me “accomplished.” You slay me, Violet! I can’t believe I get left alone with a microphone allowed to wander around onstage! I was first given a chance to co-host by the wonderful people at The Moisture Festival, and that helped ease me into it. That’s some advice I can give, if you wanna try emceeing. Ask an established emcee to be their co-host! Cha Cha Velour in Las Vegas was the first person to let me do it by myself, I have her to thank for the chance to have a place to play every month, so I could get better. Cause honestly the only way to get better is to do it. And boy am I still learning. I never took any classes or read any books on hosting. If I learned anything it was by watching a lot of shows…A LOT of shows. And I just tried to be like these great emcees I’ve seen (not just in burlesque shows, variety shows, talent shows and even awards ceremonies). So then I tried to figure out how to be like them, but in my own style. That’s important, figuring out what kind of emcee you are. It also helps when you see a show/host that’s not so good and to learn what NOT to do, by the way!
Kate Valentine, (Miss Astrid, what an idol of mine!!) said something like, an emcee is not the frosting on the cake, they are the eggs. And to me I think that means you gotta hold the show together, and not let what you do be an afterthought. And don’t let the batter stand there too long. Move it along! Lola Van Ella paid me the most wonderful complement, backstage after I emceed at the New Orleans Festival, that she liked that I made it a show. That stupendous woman, telling me that! Whee! I was so happy to hear that, because that’s what I strive for.
You can learn a lot too, from really messing up onstage. If you’re gonna mess up, mess up big, but remember to laugh and learn from it! I will say, though, you gotta do your homework when you emcee. Get your intros together, have ideas for things you can do, or stories you can tell, in case you gotta fill time onstage. Be as prepared as you can be. And then get onstage and be prepared for all of that to go out of the window! Because again, the audience makes it not be soup, all the spontaneous stuff that happens with them becomes the show too. I love being in on the experience. I’m always the biggest fan seeing the show that night, so I am the lucky gal to get to be an audience member and say what I’m thinking out loud…and I get to touch the performers to boot!
Q: The Burlesque Hall of Fame Museum is near and dear to your heart. As a volunteer you’ve met many Legends as well as strangers from all over the world who have personal connections to the world of burlesque. Will you share with us a few of your favorite moments from your time at the museum? Do you have a favorite exhibit, costume or other piece of memorabilia?
A: The Burlesque Hall of Fame Museum is beloved of everyone in burlesque! It’s our legacy! We’re making it happen! I’m just lucky I live in Vegas so I can volunteer there, though I’m sad this year I haven’t been able to as much because I’ve been traveling. Right now, the space is smaller than people expect, I think. Which means all the more reason to support the museum’s mission to one day have a big, wonderful building where they can properly display the boxes and boxes of historic costumes and photos and diaries and memorabilia that are in storage! The thing is, because of the delicate condition of so many pieces, they really have to be conserved and displayed very carefully. So what is on display in the museum right now is the tiniest fraction of the collection. There is a feather from Sally Rand’s fan, next to her picture. There is one of Blaze Starr’s dresses, a g-string from Tempest Storm. Oh, there is a costume from a Minsky chorus girl, that’s a favorite of mine! And there’s so many postcards and pictures to love on and cherish! And a Timeline of Burlesque which I’m trying my best to memorize.
I like that the Museum is sort of a natural hang out for the burly community in Vegas. Last year every week I’d meet (Burlesque Legend) Dusty Summers there for coffee and cupcakes, (the museum is in a big Arts Center that has a lovely coffee shop right inside). And ALWAYS someone else would drop by, other Legends like Tiffany Carter, and then another someone, and before you know it, it’s a regular party.
My favorite though, is that when I’d be volunteering at the Musuem, someone would always come in who had a very personal connection to burlesque. Their moms or aunts or grandmothers were performers, or dads or grandfathers were singers or comedians or emcees. And they’ll talk about all the people their relatives worked with, the cities and theatres they played, and sometimes it would be a picture on the wall of the museum that would start them telling their story. I had a lady come in with her husband, and her dad used to work in Ann Corio’s show, This Was Burlesque, as one of the comedians. And we had a DVD of Ann Corio’s show at the museum, so we put it in my crappy laptop that I had with me, and scanned the show to see if her dad was in it. I wanted so bad to find him!! But he wasn’t on the DVD, the show did run nearly 30 years so I knew there was a chance it wouldn’t be the run he was in. But we talked about some people she might be able to contact to find another recording. Oh jeez I really hope she did.
My heart aches when I think of all the stories and costumes and pictures that have been lost! Or that are still out there, but they haven’t found their way to the Museum yet. When burlesque family members come in and ask if they can bring pictures in, oh my gosh yes yes yes!! And someday the Museum will have a place to show all of them!
Q: Las Vegas Weekly said that your “stage presence marries Phyllis Diller with Miss Piggy, then somehow makes it funnier.” Who are your inspirations and idols? Have you met any of them in the real world?
A: It makes sense that I’d be compared to a Muppet. In my head I’m a bit like Pee Wee Herman too.
When I was a little girl at the Ranch, I spent a lot of time watching this old black and white TV with my headphones on because I had to keep quiet. And there weren’t many channels, but there were always these wonderful movies on. I didn’t know they were old timey, I thought that’s what the outside world was like. Movies about these beautiful girls in big shows, girls who wore these costumes and danced, and that had the most musical voices! I just wanted to be like them so much.
And then there is the Carol Burnett Show. It’s probably obvious that she is one of my biggest inspirations. Her cast and writers and the sketches on that show. Such genius. They should be required viewing! And Bob Mackie costumes to boot! Oh I could faint with joy thinking of it! There’s an homage to her in my Sound of Music act, if you notice!
The characters Carol created were so huge and full and FUNNY, but she could also be so poignant and real. Do you remember when Eunice went on the Gong Show, which was such a big deal and was gonna be her ticket out of town, but she got gonged? It went from being ridiculous and over the top, to being so honest and quiet and heartbreaking. Boy does that ever prove her talent, to be able to admit to an audience the flipside of being a fantastic comedian is that kind of vulnerability. And oh oh oh, the comedy! I never laughed so hard as when they would just crack each other up in the sketches, they would try to hold it together but the struggle was immense, which made it even funnier. And they kept it all in the show, they wouldn’t edit it out! Absolute spontaneous magic. And wouldn’t you know, that’s all burlesque tradition, that show, those sketches and characters and comedic interludes, with music and dance numbers. It’s pure vaudeville and burlesque. If I ever met Carol Burnett, I think I’d just lose my mind!!
As for my burlesque idols, tt was emceeing at BHOF Weekend that made it possible to meet so so many of them. I was never brave enough to go up and introduce myself. I am so star-stuck and tongue-tied around them! And then, when I floated offstage after the Movers, Shakers show, all of a sudden these luminaries were coming up to ME and HUGGING me and talking to me, and I was just trying to not burst into tears or faint, seriously! To have Ray Gunn engulf me in those gorgeous arms?? Or Minnie Tonka hold my hand and whisper love to me?? OR DIRTY MARTINI hug me and say hello?? When Dirty Martini hugged me, I just said out loud “Dirty Martini is hugging me right now!” because all brain filters just dissolved! There are still a LOT of performers I’ve been too shy to approach. Some are in Vancouver and I’ll have to cowboy up and just tell them finally how I feel!
Q: It’s rumored that one day we’ll all be able to learn from your well-meaning yet horribly misguided tips, tricks and pep talks via the magic of the internet and your “Guides to Life” webisodes. Are there any tidbits you’d like to share before those launch from your failed careers as a Life Coach and Spokesmodel?
A: Oh I hope those rumours are true!! You know, my mommies & grandma lady back at the Ranch always had a lot of advice for me. Like…they’d tell me to do something, and if I said “I’ll try” the grandma lady would say “There’s no such thing as ‘try,’ Blanche. There’s only ‘mess it up one more damn time and you’re getting locked back in the closet ‘til you get it right.’” It’s that kind of encouragement and positive, reinforcement that forces you to have a “can do” attitude, and that’s I want to pass on to as many people as can take it! I still don’t know why my Life Coaching didn’t work out. I guess not many people wanted to trust me with their lives.
Q: 2013 has already been a big year for Blanche DeBris! Your official Vancouver debut in the Taboo Revue and Kitty Nights is this Spring. What else can we expect from Blanche in 2013 and beyond?
A: This past year has been, well, I couldn’t have dreamed up something to match what has happened. Really the past 10 months, starting with getting to host BHOF, and it was like all these doors and windows and skylights opened up, and I’m still reeling, honestly, at the avalanche of friendships and invitations that have enveloped me!
So if they let me into Canadia, after that I go “home” to Seattle to the Moisture Festival, and have a big family reunion! Then I’m gonna be staying in Reno for three months, visiting some of my mommies. While I’m in Reno I’m gotta start working on my own ideas for a one woman-ish show, which so many people have said I should do, so I guess I better start listening to them and do it already. I’m envisioning a sort of Pee Wee’s Playhouse kind of show. Stay tuned!
I will be back in Vegas for BHOF time though, I wouldn’t miss it! After that, I’ll continue hosting Live Burlesque in Las Vegas for as long as they’ll have me, and Cha Cha Velour and I are working on a creating a Holiday Extravaganza, a production show we hope will become an annual Vegas tradition. I’m extremely excited about that. But otherwise my schedule is open if anyone wants me to visit! As for dreaming big…oh it would be wonderful if I could have a TV show like Carol Burnett did. I’d have all my friends on it! And then with Eric “Travis” Wilson maybe we’d build an Always High-Class entertainment empire, and have, like, inspirational books, and toys, and a line of snack foods & candy! And glitter! Glitter and candy!!