Hubba Hubba Revue presents "Crime and Punishment" (photo: Patric Carver)
When I was a kid, I loved the television show Cheers. The idea of a bar where everyone knew my name, where everyone belonged, just seemed so appealing. Then I grew up and was shocked and dismayed to find out that none such place existed. In real life, interactions with bartenders were fleeting and impersonal, and interactions with other patrons teetered between, at best, idle chit chat to, at worst, hostility.
Where were the smiles? The laughter? The witty remarks? Where was the fun?
I’ve yet to find this cozy gin-soaked comfort zone in any one particular place, but there is a gathering that comes close to filling the void in this girl’s heart: Hubba Hubba Revue. Hubba, billed as the Bay Area’s world-famous burlesque and variety show, is one of the anchoring acts at DNA Lounge. It’s different from other acts in the area in a way that is hard to define. Let me put it this way: If you stand around at a Hubba show long enough, you’re probably going to make a friend or get a hug. Or both. These are the life-livers that I always dreamed of toasting with since Sam first met Diane.
Last Friday, Hubba brought to the stage the latest in its series of grand monthly themed shows: Crime and Punishment, a kink-centered cabaret. Eternally avuncular Jim Sweeney and Alexa Von Kickinface, co-MCs for the evening, took to the stage with Arcadia Kane, the “tour guide” for the evening. All were dressed in striped prison uniforms that looked more Looney Tunes than Alcatraz, Kane’s sporting prison number 80085 across her chest.
“The idea for this show came from Alexa three years ago,” said Sweeney. “She said, ‘Let’s do a kink show!’ I said, 'That’s not very Hubba, is it?' Well, it turns out, it is.”
Von Kickinface beamed as her brainchild was recognized — while adjusting her faux prison garb, never pausing from her interaction with the audience, despite the persistence of a stuck zipper that kept her from disrobing for the moment — a real professional.
Thus, a nearly four-hour show began. That’s right, four hours.
Normally, anything that is four hours long feels like a prison sentence to me. My poor little ADHD heart can’t handle concentrating on anything for that long. However, Hubba has such a lively pace and variety that the moments flew by. I wasn’t bored for a moment.
It is hard to pick out any highlights from the evening because every performance was outstanding in its own way. Jesi Ringofire and Shauni Fatale’s take on an Ozzie-and-Harriet-esque couple with a closeted kinky side was the perfect cocktail of silliness and seduction. The chemistry between the performers was remarkable, as if they’d been performing this act for years. The same can be said for kinky-meets-wacky Vala Marv’elle and Sass Herass who played a chef dominatrix and her submissive slice of pizza. I can only image how this act came to be — I’m guessing a pizza peel had something to do with the inspiration. Talent from across the pond, Major Suttle-Tease, portrayed a perfect English bobby, complete with handcuffs attached to this nipple piercings. Bella Dukessa was a charming Victorian woman treated for hysteria, and Ada Lavender was a defiant Hester Pryenne, complete with scarlet letter. Each act was unique and vibrant, each performer had a voice.
The evening also featured two aerialists. Anna Yanushkevich was a surprisingly delightful Hannibal Lecter as the twirled and contorted from the ceiling on an apparatus reminiscent of Hannibal’s cage right before his jailbreak in Silence of the Lambs. JonBenet Butterbuns went in a different direction with a skin-tight Catwoman suit. I don’t know if I’ve even seen someone fall into a split so naturally and quickly as Ms. Butterbuns. Watching her do that made my own thighs hurt.
It wasn’t all fun and games, though. Some of the acts had a serious message. Honey Lawless and Gigi d’Flower brought a political element by portraying sexy scientists. Their act was topical and powerful but not so serious that it was unenjoyable as they railed against the current administration’s actions to defund the EPA and Planned Parenthood. The same can be said for Mary Vice’s Lady Justice routine that highlighted the treatment of the Black community by law enforcement.
I wish I could single out every performer because each act was so darn good. At any moment, I could look around and see a theatre full of cynical city-dwellers captivated by this good, old-fashioned entertainment — including the MCs and fellow performers whose smiles matched those of the crowd. In fact, the biggest smile potentially sat on the face of emcee Jim Sweeney. Sweeney is a man who clearly genuinely enjoys his work.
After the show, I chatted with Sweeney, aka Kingfish as he is sometimes called, founder and emcee of Hubba Hubba Revue. My interview with him is below.
The Bay Bridged: How did you get into burlesque?
Jim Sweeney: I got into burlesque through a combination of forces. On one hand, I’d worked in and attended nightclubs from the late '80s through the '90s, and gradually I started announcing things on stage (costume contests, fashion shows, bands, etc.). Simultaneously, I belonged to a group of friends who started throwing big, themed parties at a warehouse space where two of that group lived, and, little by little, those parties started to include entertainment. Another member of that group, my friend Monique Motil, started throwing zombie-themed cabaret shows, and she brought me on as her emcee. Eventually, in 2003, we all combined forces and started a big show together called, Spectacular! Spectacular! After a few years of that, and some other shows, Hubba Hubba Revue was launched as a “one-off” in September of 2006… and then it just kept going.
TBB: What’s been your favorite Hubba moment over the years?
JS: Hubba has probably done over 800 shows since 2006, so it’s tough to pick just one favorite moment. That said, the finale of the 10th anniversary show last September, when the whole cast was onstage, and I was surrounded by so many people I love; so many people who have worked their asses off, and devoted so much of their lives to making Hubba happen for all these years — that was pretty epic. I was smiling from ear to ear, with tears gushing down my face.
TBB: You often say on stage that something either is or isn’t very “Hubba.” What makes something “Hubba?”
JS: The answer to what makes something, “Hubba” is kind of hard to define, but you could say that it has to lend itself well to comedy and a little loving mockery; it has to be broad enough to encompass a variety of acts and interpretations — from serious and artistic, to social commentary, pure spoof or satire — and that it reflects popular culture back at the audience. But without just being a direct rip-off of that popular culture. This is also why our themes are typically so broad, but also grounded in very familiar pop-culture territory. It’s not a Star Wars show, it’s Spacestation: 1977! It’s not a Lord of the Rings show, it’s Damsels & Dragons.
TBB: I was at the fundraiser show to raise money to send some legends to the Burlesque Hall of Fame. There seemed to be a familial feel amongst the performers and regular audience members. Is that just me reading emotion into the situation after seeing one too many John Hughes movies, or is there a real community?
JS: There is definitely a community to Hubba, and to burlesque locally, and burlesque across the country, and around the world. We are deeply connected to one another. The number of friendships, relationships, and bonds that have formed over 10 years as a result of just our one show is absolutely staggering. We are very much a part of each other’s lives. This community has hosted weddings and wakes; we are family.
TBB: I’ve always liked that Hubba Hubba has diverse representation in its performers. Is that something that you all were purposeful about or did it happen organically?
JS: The show’s diversity is also the result of a combination of factors. On one hand, yes, it is part of our overall process, because the show itself has a responsibility to the artform and to our community, but that process is much larger than just us. When it’s at it’s best, burlesque in the 21st century is a movement about diversity. That movement has shifted the power within the art of striptease into the hands of the performer. Every person with the chops to be on stage owns that power. Not only would a show lacking diversity do a disservice to burlesque itself and to our community, it would also cut itself off from vast resources of individual expression and artistry. Hubba is a big show, and we are determined to advance these ideals through what we put on stage, but we aren’t the source of this movement. Burlesque itself is that source.
TBB: You’re a pretty passionate showman, and you speak often about keeping our “safe spaces” in the Bay Area. What do you mean by that? What can people do to keep these safe spaces?
JS: We live in terribly challenging times, with all forms of ugliness, hate and oppression being encouraged everywhere from the Internet to the highest office in the land. At the same time, the lopsided economy of the Bay Area is crushing out public spaces where artistry, individual expression, and the safe gathering of like-minded people can occur. We have the power to choose to keep these spaces open; to keep them as part of our lives. and the lives of people yet to come. We can continue to have access to them, and to the events and communities within them, if we choose to support them.
There’s no secret to what the solution is: get up, get out of the house, and engage with art and performance where you live. Spend your money where it will support your local venues, artists, performers and the people where you live. If we don’t, we lose those things forever, and our soul goes with them.
TBB: Imagine you’re out on the town — not at a Hubba Hubba show. Where are you and what are you up to?
JS: I love the two venues where Hubba regularly performs, DNA Lounge in San Francisco (and its sister location, Codeword, also in San Francisco), and The Uptown Nightclub in Oakland. These venues are genuine safe spaces that encourage and support events, artists, performers and all kinds of communities within the Bay Area. They are welcoming, inclusive environments and I regularly attend non-Hubba events at both. I highly encourage folks to do the same.
TBB: How are themes selected for the shows? What can the audience expect with the up-coming Under the Sea show?
JS: It’s a pretty varied process. Some themes just drop into our lap like a bolt out of the blue (We should do a show where we spoof those movies where a bunch of people are trapped in a spooky old house, like House On Haunted Hill! Boom! Hubba Hubba Revue’s Murder Mansion!) Some start as one idea that doesn’t quite have “it,” and then transform over years of back-burner percolation into something that works. Warrior Women started as a an idea for a Vikings show, but Vikings didn’t seem like something that could generate 16-18 solid acts plus an opener and host segments. But after 4-5 years in semi-conscious development, it finally emerged as a broader, more workable theme. Some shows sit on the shelf for ages before we finally get the right handle on them. The all-time record is Space Station: 1966! which we first thought of before Hubba even existed, in the days of the old show, Spectacular! Spectacular! It took 10 years for us to figure that one out and put it on stage.
Overall, though, the process typically starts with identifying a pop-culture element that we’re excited about, then figuring out how to bend and shape that to something that feels like us, and then deciding if the idea is affordable, likely to engage an audience, and broad enough to allow for multiple interpretations by the performers.
As for what to expect from our upcoming Undersea Burlesque show on Friday, May 12th at DNA Lounge, well...you’ll just have to come see. (The words: very big squid.)
TBB: Anything else you want our readers to know?
JS: If you haven’t been to Hubba Hubba Revue before, or not in a long time, come check out our little weekly Monday night clubhouse and our big themed monthly shows at DNA Lounge, as well our East Bay show at The Uptown Nightclub in Oakland. You might be surprised.
Hubba Hubba Revue has weekly Monday night shows at DNA Lounge. Their next themed showcase will be May 12, 2017 at DNA Lounge. Tickets to both these events are available online.