The neo-vaudeville experiment

In the few years surrounding the turn of the last millennium, there was an explosion of performance troupes across the country digging up the bones (or at least mending the wounds on the badly battered body) of old-time vaudeville and burlesque entertainment. Like any cultural explosion, though, most of these scrappy, by-the-seat-of-their-pants troupes burned out as quickly as they started. When the smoke cleared, there were only a few left standing ready to take their visions to the next level.

One of those was the San Francisco-based Yard Dogs Road Show. The Yard Dogs have been rolling along in one incarnation or another for the past eight years, delighting audiences with their fresh renditions of classic vaudeville acts and their always present, rollicking rock ‘n’ roll accompaniment. Xpress spoke with Yard Dogs founder Eddy Joe Cotton about the long and often difficult road the Yard Dogs have roamed.

“We’ve just kept going with it,” says Cotton in an East Coast-via-everywhere voice that is at once both soft-spoken and tough as trailer tire. “What happened with a lot of these acts is that you get to a certain point and realize that it’s work.”

Those may seem like strange words coming from Cotton, a man who has made a living for most of the past decade presenting himself as a wandering “hobo poet.” He is also the author of Hobo: A Young Man’s Thoughts on Trains and Tramping in America (Harmony Books, 2002), a memoir of the year he spent riding the rails. But, as Cotton explains, there’s more to being a successful neo-vaudeville act than having a good act.

“You know, it’s real fun to play dress up and run around in circles, but when it comes to making an actual show, it’s work, and it’s not easy,” he says. “You have to understand the basics of people management and show management and show production. Then once you get to that threshold, you realize, you know, wait a minute, I can’t just put this show on the road. I can’t just go do a show—there’s a lot to it. I think that’s where a lot of people stopped and backed off. Maybe a lot of people didn’t know what they wanted out of it.”

It’s worth noting that many successful performance groups, such as the Asheville-based Rebelles Burlesque, mix their clowning and performance-art antics with politics. While Cotton agrees with some of the left-leaning stances of his fellow neo-vaudevillians, he says that he didn’t want the Road Show to be quite so polarizing, noting that “as a performer, you have to decide at a certain point if you’re going to be an entertainer, or an activist, or both.”

So, are there deeper messages behind the Yard Dogs’ performances? Or are they really keeping their social and political views at arm’s length?

“We’re surrounded by social commentary,” declares Cotton. “But, what’s always inspired me is people telling their individual stories. For us, that we’re living this life—this nomadic, performing life—which is in itself anti-establishment, that’s our commentary.”

Cotton says that part of the reason the Yard Dogs have veered from the grassroots style of some other modern burlesque groups is practical, noting that if “you want your show to look good and sound good, then that’s when the ticket price goes up.” But he’s quick to point out it’s not just about bringing in more money; it’s also about making better art.

“Say you’re a painter,” says Cotton, by way of example. “You start painting and start with stick figures, but eventually you become a better painter and you need better paint. You need better tools, you know. Do you stop with stick figures?”

The Yard Dogs didn’t stop, and if the change-begging hippie on the corner is “drawing stick figures” with his made-from-garbage puppet shows, then the Yard Dogs are painting murals. And not just any murals, but ones with an outstanding eye for detail and depth of style.

When they perform, you can almost smell the phantom remnants of sawdust spread across the floor. Their performances are beyond classic.

For instance, there is the raucous, stocking-ripping, high-heel stomping revelry of the Black and Blue Burlesque dance troupe. There’s mysticism-inspired magic and sword swallowing by Tobias the Mystic Man, and the captivating fire eating of Hellvis. There’s also the renowned shimmying of tribal belly dancer Zoe Jakes, and a plethora of other performers specializing in everything from accordion ditties to doll dances.

“Those are our anchors,” notes Cotton. “Those are the performers we can go back to in the show and people will say, ‘I like that, that’s the carnival. That’s something I know.’ Because [the show] might get a little goofy, a little surreal, then we go back to that and people say, ‘Fire eating? That’s cool.’ I like that.”

But some might say the surreal and goofy parts are the little touches that make the act something more than just a new burlesque routine, giving it a hip and modern edge.

“It’s definitely not classic burlesque by any stretch,” Cotton admits. “It’s more of an experiment. We have no ambition to maintain any classical standards or cabaret, or vaudeville or burlesque. We want to maintain the integrity and dedication and the idea, but we’re all too eccentric to try to be traditional.”

[Ethan Clark is a freelance writer and cartoonist based in Asheville and New Orleans.]

who: Yard Dogs Road Show
what: Modern day vaudeville
where: Orange Peel
when: Friday, Oct. 5, 9 p.m. ($17. or 225-5851)


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One thought on “The neo-vaudeville experiment

  1. I have seen these folks before, many years back out west. Although the venue may temper some of the risque coolness of thier ‘show’, it would still be worth checking out!!

    Nice article, Ethan!!


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