Words by PJ Rey, Photos by PJ Rey and Devon Rowland (Silly Human Tricks Photography)
Fans of burlesque, sideshow, and the broader vaudeville revival that has been burgeoning in DC over the last decade experienced a jolt of collective shock when, last month, Red Palace issued a brief press release that began:
“After almost seven years the Red Palace will sadly close its doors at the end of the year. The current ownership is changing, and with that change comes new ideas for the future.”
Local journalists and cultural commentators have had their say in eulogizing this DC institution, but we have yet to hear from the people most affected by the closure: namely, the performers who have to devoted so much of their time and energy to building the variety scene that gave life to this venue. I wanted to give these folks a chance to share their memories, and to talk about the future of variety performance in DC.
Red Palace was a place where visitors were bound to find the shocking and the sexy side-by-side: the seductive motions of a strip tease or fan dance, followed by the cringe-inducing self-destruction of pain-proof performers walking on glass or lying on beds of nails; a bawdy poet’s frenzied cursing, after a dimly lit crooner sings a sad melody; an acrobat who twists and contorts his body, while an accordionist applies similar motions to her instrument. Red Palace has become well known throughout the city and is, perhaps, the H Street corridor’s most prominent landmark. “Red Palace was THE place to see DC performers and variety,” says Maki Rolle, who recently started performing burlesque in the DC area. It was also home to the Shocked and Amazed sideshow collection, a vast array of strange circus oddities and other curiosities (curated by James Taylor) that adorned Red Palace’s walls.
But Red Palace was more than just a “quirky” bar and venue. (“Quirky” being the term de jure for things that appeal to us because they seem exotic while still feeling safe.) The space had become a living museum for the kinds of “low brow” performance arts that disappeared from our earlier cultural landscape in the wake of film, television, and other media. It was also a place for performers both to experiment with and to put a new spin on these old art forms.
For many people who found themselves mesmerized by these classic styles of stage performance, Red Palace was an entry point to participation in the variety scene. Sideshow performer Charlie Artful describes Red Palace as, “a safe place where new performers could be welcomed and encouraged to make their own contribution to the local burlesque/variety community.”
The venue was used for classes and open stage nights, at which new performers could get acclimated to the spotlight and experienced performers could test new material. Swami YoMahmi explains that, with such offerings, “acts originated and developed at the Palace, [and] spread from there. It was like pollination.”
Cherie Sweetbottom is one performer who took advantage of these opportunities at what she calls her “burlesque birthplace.” Sweetbottom remembers: “My first burlesque class was at the Red Palace, taught by Dutch and Rev [Reverend Valentine]. They started me on this creative journey. The Red Palace has allowed performers like me to find this community.”
Ruby Rockafella shared a similar experience of being drawn into the burlesque and variety scene. “One of the first times I ever saw a burlesque and variety show was Tilted Torch at the Red Palace,” she recalled. “I fell in love with the energy of both the performers and the crowd, and quickly made friends with the ladies of Tilted Torch. I made my stage debut… at the Palace in February of 2012, with the same troupe.”
Mab Just Mab, a twenty-year veteran variety performer, believes that Red Palace helped to transform the DC’s variety arts from a niche interest to something that brought in a mainstream audience. “The Palace kept at least half the programing for non-band acts,” she said. “They introduced DC to burlesque again. While burlesque, sideshow and the rest of the variety arts have always been around in DC (Cheeky Monkey Sideshow, Lobsterboy Revue, etc.), the Palace made it more publicly visible, as opposed to the hip underground counter culture.”
Similarly, Miss Joule explained, “The Red Palace offers a great stage, 200-person capacity, three bars, and is located in a happening part of town. And the public knows that if they are looking for live entertainment, the Red Palace is a good place to look any night of the week.”
According to variety show emcee Todd Gardner (aka “Hot Todd Lincoln”), Red Palace’s importance to the variety scene extended far beyond the confines of DC. He explains that, “by being the default venue for DC area performers, [Red Palace] became THE go to destination for out of town performers all along I-95’s ‘Tassel Trail’ (including performers from Richmond, Baltimore, and NYC). This co-mingling has been invaluable to the burgeoning scene, and to the establishing of a larger regional community.”
Though Red Palace was primarily a home for variety performer and neo-vaudevillians, its community reached out to geeks of all stripes. Red Palace recently hosted an entire night devoted to Lord of the Rings burlesque, where the audience was also expected to come in costume. And, earlier this year, Sweetbottom and fellow producer Gigi Holliday put on a Joss Whedon themed event. Sweetbottom recalled, “We wanted to do a Joss Whedon tribute show on or near Joss’s birthday, and we made it happen this past June. On a blisteringly hot Wednesday night, we performed acts inspired by Buffy, Firefly, Dr. Horrible, etc. for an incredibly enthusiastic and nerdy packed house. It was pure geek magic—despite everyone dripping with sweat!”
This is not the first time that DC’s variety community has experienced a major upheaval. Before Red Palace there was a venue called Palace of Wonders, which featured a balcony and a second-floor museum. Palace of Wonders was uniquely significant to performers on the East Coast because it was the only venue with consistent bookings and normal hours that was also devoted solely to variety arts. It eventually combined with a divey little bar next door called The Red and The Black, and together the two reinvented themselves as Red Palace—a more substantial venue, with a full stage on the second floor. But with this change also came a change in character: half of the bookings at Red Palace were devoted to live music. For this reason, many performers have felt ambivalence about the Palace’s second incarnation, still referring to in reminiscently as “the Palace of Wonders.” At his final show this last week, Gardner said “we’re sad to lose the Palace—hell, let’s just say it how we’ll remember it, ‘the Palace of Wonders.’”
Mab remembers the merger of Palace of Wonders and The Red and The Black as a tense time. “When the Palace and the Red and Black merged, we, the performers, were nervous about losing out to bands. Nearly every other bar stage in town was dedicated to music, with a few exceptions for comedy,” she said. Fire performance was no longer allowed inside the venue after the merger, which changed the character of many of the regular acts.
When the Red Palace closes, there will no longer be any dedicated variety performance spaces in DC. This has created a great deal of uncertainty for performers. “We will be looking for new venues to host Tilted Torch shows, but it will be challenging,” Joule explains. “We need 100+ capacity for our shows, preferably with the ability to incorporate fire and aerial acts. We may have to scale back our shows until we can test run new venues… It’ll be much harder now to capture that curious, new audience if they don’t know where to look. It also means that, at least for a while, there will be fewer shows and fewer opportunities to perform. Perhaps new venues will fill the gap, but that’s not certain. And with that change, it’s likely that some local artists will stop performing altogether and that’s a real loss for everyone.”
The performers hope that this setback will only be temporary. “I have already been contacted by a group of people who were already working on a new art space,” says Mab. “There is talk of crowd-funding the construction of a stage. And, I had already started looking at spaces in Richmond, VA.”
Holliday sounds a note of defiance, saying “I plan to fight… And by that, I mean fight for the burlesque and variety art to have a home in D.C. I would hate to hear that the scene faded out because a venue closed.”
Despite a general spirit of resilience and optimism, the performers are quick to express their sadness. Rolle says, “I feel as though I’ve had the rug snatched from under my feet before I’ve even began to crawl.”
“Red Palace has a vibe, a feel, something you can’t really bottle or package,” Candy del Rio explains. “It is very sad to lose this gem of a venue.”
Holliday sees the closure of Red Palace as a loss not just for the performers, but also for the whole H Street corridor. She explains, “I grew up in Southeast and Northeast DC—actually, down the street from The Red Palace. I took my Mom and my sister there. They hated the gentrification of our once home, but were happy to see that I grew up again in that area. I grew up as a child there, and I grew up as a performer there. The whole community did there.”
Now, with the transformation of one of its flagship venues, H Street may once again grow into something unrecognizable to past inhabitants.