Brian Newman, Angie Pontani, Kitten LaRue, The Maine Attraction, Helen Pontani and Steve Francis (Erik Hoffman)
When novelist Margo Christie sat down to write her award-winning book – These Days: A Tale of Nostalgia on Baltimore’s Block – she drew primarily on aspects of her own troubled life growing up in Baltimore, and on a wealth of experience gleaned from her days as a stripper on The Block. But in one area Christie readily admits she relied on the memories of others: the “old-timers” she met on The Block who recalled the glory days of burlesque.
“Many of the old-timers had never done anything else,” Christie said. “Their stories always filled me with nostalgia for the burlesque shows of the 1940s and 50s; shows with big name stars and live jazz bands. I never dreamed we’d ever see those kind of shows again.”
It would take someone with a passion for that storied past to bring Christie’s nostalgia to life; someone with the stature of burlesque sensation Angie Pontani. Last weekend, area audiences saw that kind of a show – with Margo Christie on the stage – as Pontani and her husband, bandleader Brian Newman, brought a sizzling, snare-infused edition of Burlesque-A-Pades to town. The troop played Station North’s Metro Gallery on Sunday night and a sold out show on Valentine’s Day at the State Theatre in Falls Church, Va.
Pontani has been touring the Mid-Atlantic regularly for a number of years now; bringing a host of New York talent along, while also adding area stand-outs for guest appearances. But it’s rare that Newman can join her. The intrepid trumpeter seems perpetually booked.
“Brian stays so busy with his hotel ballroom gigs; it is hard for him to get away,” Pontani said.
We might add that Newman stays busy in the studio as well – a new CD is set to be released sometime later this year – and performing on stage with the likes of Lady Gaga.
Live bands were once the staple of burlesque shows. At least one recording – David Rose’s The Stripper – paid homage to the blend of jazz music with the saucy art form. But with the turning of tastes in the 1960’s came an end to the smokey musical marriage, as well as the baggy-pants humor and fan-dances of burlesque itself. By the time Margo Christie started stripping at age 16, the live music was gone. The striking redhead had to be content with whatever pop hits a jukebox offered. Now 52, Christie has returned to the stage – using burlesque as a platform for promoting her book. Invited by Pontani to perform with Burlesque-A-Pades, Christie seemed enraptured when the curtain came down on Sunday night.
“I loved working with Brian and his band,” Christie said. “It was so much fun doing my ‘bumps’ to a live base drum.”
Reflecting on her experience, Christie added, “I think it is worth noting how the interaction between professional bandleader and burlesque dancer facilitates flow of performance. Metro Gallery has an unusual setup for burlesque in that dancers have to make their entrance through the crowd. Angie asked Brian to give us a little musical padding at the top so that we might have time to make it to the stage before our songs started. I realized I’d gotten there sooner than expected when Brian crooned into the microphone, ‘Ah, work it baby.’ This gave me the cue to not step into my number right away but rather to wait for the band to catch up. I immediately felt at ease and could appreciate the parallels between my love of old burlesque, my narrative description of that art form and performing today’s neo style with a live jazz band. Working with Brian will also help with my next book, which is about a 1940’s era band leader who mysteriously disappears.”
Christie wasn’t the only performer who reveled in the live band music. Angie’s stage sister, Helen Pontani (the Tapping Tornado), was flawless in two sizzling routines. The Maine Attraction and Kitten LaRue milked every move from Steve Kortyka’s sweltering sax. But from this reporter’s choice vantage point in the wings, no performer appeared more into the moment than stage kitten and feature artist Cherie Sweetbottom.
Sweetbottom – a fan favorite in the neo-burlesque scene – was all smiles whenever drummer Paul Francis snapped his cymbals and snare drum.
“These shows were my first experience working with a live band. Brian Newman, Steve Kortyka, Paul Francis, and pianist Alex Smith are incredible musicians. They made it very easy and fun for me to work with them. After stage kittening this show, in addition to performing, I kind of want someone to follow me around all the time and hit the cymbals every time I bend over!”
The curvacious cutie also offered her thoughts on working with Angie Pontani.
“She’s so generous with sharing the things she’s learned. Besides being a top-notch performer, producer, and businesswoman, she’s also an incredibly warm and genuine human being. I have a ton of respect and admiration for Angie. She works very hard and makes it all look so easy.”
Pontani also makes nostalgia part of her everyday life. She recently lit up land lines around the Big Apple making calls to her friends from a ’50’s era wall-mounted rotary-dial phone – a gift from her husband. And she incorporates a fashion sense which would make Audrey Hepburn feel right at home.
Sweetbottom told me she attended a panel discussion at the Great Burlesque Exposition, where Pontani drove home the importance of making your style a part of your everyday life. “Angie told us, ‘From the moment you step off the plane, you are representing your brand. Look like you have the value you’re being paid for.'” To that end, on Sunday, Sweetbottom sported a vintage 1950’s black circle skirt with cream lace appliques accented with rhinestones; a vintage cream angora sweater; and a leopard and faux fur fascinator made by Stevie Johnson. She did however make one allowance for the snowy weather: a pair of sturdy, black eight inch high Doc Marten boots.
“It’s kind of an I Love Lucy/steampunk look today,” Sweetbottom laughingly admitted.
The heart-stopping beauty heard no complaints from this reporter.
There’s something to be said about turning back the clock to a time where men wore sharp suits and embroidered silk ties; women dressed elegantly in long flowing skirts, soft sweaters and were put on a pedestal. And where stage shows featured live orchestras who kept time to a dancer’s every move.
Margo Christie’s book “These Day”s takes a nostalgic look at The Block. Thanks to Angie Pontani and Brian Newman, for at least one icy evening, those by-gone days returned to Baltimore.