March 30th, 2011, 3:20 am · posted by KELLI SKYE FADROSKI, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
The lights dim, the music slows down a beat and a spotlight beams brightly on the night’s hostess, Dizzy Von Damn, dolled up this particular evening in tribute to one of her favorite Hollywood sex symbols, Mae West. A commanding presence, Von Damn is quick-witted and above all confident as she and her entourage of seasoned performers fearlessly takes to the small stage at the Commonwealth Lounge in downtown Fullerton, entertaining with skits as humorous as they are saucy.
This is Uncommon Burlesque, a traveling production from Von Damn that appears the first Wednesday of every month in Fullerton and the last Wednesday of each month at the newer Commonwealth Lounge in Newport Beach. Working with a rotating group of ladies at each location, Von Damn has built up a strong network of budding burlesque stars from as nearby as Los Angeles to as far away as New Zealand.
“It’s really a great bunch of girls,” she shared while preparing for another performance in Fullerton, adding that she’s also involved gentlemen in her shows, some local, others international.
Yet Von Damn only started in burlesque four years ago. Now 30, the Boston native says she’s always been a loudmouth who can’t live without glitter, fishnets, lipstick, safety panties, wigs and false eyelashes. Newly single and living in L.A. on New Year’s Eve 2007, she vowed to face her fear of appearing on stage and joined in at a burlesque showcase.
From there she met a professional, who introduced her to the scene and got her involved in classes, just three days after declaring to her knitting group (she lovingly calls them her “stitch n’ bitch” buddies) that she wanted to perform regularly.
A year later, Von Damn became a title-holder when she was crowned Miss Viva Las Vegas. These days she moves effortlessly on stage, but she says that wasn’t always the case.
Back when she began, having just gotten out of a relationship, “I felt freshly good and new about myself, and that seemed to carry me to get up on stage and say, ‘Hello, world, here I am and this is what I look like.’”
That’s a gutsy move in Southern California, where the ideal is blond, tan and drop-dead gorgeous. “I am far from those descriptors, but I got up there anyway,” she recalls, “and I was terrified. I was so nervous and uncomfortable that my face literally started twitching and my lip was curling up like Elvis’. Apparently no one else could tell except for me because it got good reviews.”
Now, however, “I find myself thinking about how much more comfortable I feel on stage and how much easier it is for me to handle mistakes, costume malfunctions, mishaps — the strange things that go with performing in new venues.”
Von Damn says she loves the glamour of old Hollywood, modeling herself after Jane Russell, sexpot star of The Outlaw and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes who passed away last month. “I’ve always adored her spark, her sparkle and her wise-ass comments. That’s one of the things I’m known for as the hostess, that sort of commentary — like my one-liners.”
All the performers create their own skits in which they assume various characters while sporting easy-to-tear-away costumes: dresses, corsets and various forms of lingerie, which they typically design themselves, but always with those all-important pasties in place underneath.
“Costuming is an integral part of burlesque,” Von Damn says. “It’s like drag but for biological women. It’s exaggerated femininity or exaggerated masculinity. It’s important that you have the correct hair and correct make-up and look for the storyline you’re trying to get across. Whether it’s simple glamor or some sort of comedy piece or a political parody, there’s always something that can be added with a costume element.”
But she contends it takes more than just a pretty face and a few alluring dance moves to truly be considered a burlesque performer.
“You need to want to do it really badly, because if you only want to do it a little bit, that’s going to show. It’s more than just wearing fishnets. It’s more than just being beautiful. It’s a performance. It really is art and you have to throw yourself – heart, soul, body, everything — into it and really work hard to prove to the audience that you’re worth it.”
Von Damn says that February is the busiest month for burlesque; she spent a third of those 28 days performing. Her schedule for March is also full, with replays throughout Southern California at various venues, but she particularly enjoys her self-produced programs in Orange County.
“It’s a really nice place to have a show,” she says of the Commonwealth Lounge, “because it’s a nice lounge-y bar kind of feel, but a little bit more relaxed and a little bit classier than some of the band venues that a lot of the burlesque shows tend to be in.”
Though she could easily slip into the world of full-time modeling or even acting, Von Damn says she has no such aspirations. Those endeavors require different skills, “and I fancy myself much more of a performer. Occasionally I can take a good picture, but I’m much more likely to make a good performance. And I’d be a terrible actress because I don’t like to lie.
“I’d like to be some sort of combination Oprah-type character, where I get to have an empire — maybe like Martha Stewart, only with less jail time and more glitter and fun. I feel like there’s a serious lack of fun out there.”
Uncommon Burlesque takes place every first Wednesday of the month at 9:30 p.m. at the Commonwealth Lounge in Fullerton, 112 E. Commonwealth Ave., and every last Wednesday of the month from 8-11 p.m. at the Commonwealth Lounge in Newport Beach, 2406 Newport Blvd. Admission is free.
Photo by Kevin Sullivan, The Orange County Register.