Big Mamma’s House of Burlesque has given the Charlotte entertainment scene a spice of sex and variety for over a decade. Now in the beginning of its 11th season, the troupe is made up of acts much more unique than a simple striptease show. Upcoming for the group are shows at the Visulite Theatre, 1615 Elizabeth Ave., on April 8 and June 10, and at Petra’s, 1919 Commonwealth Ave., on May 11.
Walking into the Visulite for the troupe’s Feb. 11 Valentease performance, I was blown away by the sheer volume of gorgeous people in titillating attire. My guide, Devin “Rebel” Adams, introduced me to everyone; from MC Johnny Anonymous in a striped suit reminiscent of Jack Skellington, to divas in sparkly gowns and tight corsets, the many characters promised a viewing experience like nothing else.
“I knew that there had to be a foundation of both variety and sexy in the show,” says Deana Pendragon, aka Big Mamma Dixie Crystal. “I make sure that we keep the comedy in, and we have things that keep the audience involved other than just tatas.”
As the show began to the tune of “Sweet Caroline,” (a tradition, according to Rebel), and throughout the evening, I never experienced a dull moment. There were hula hoops, singing, even a ukulele player called Phoebe Nyx, whose sweet, charismatic singing voice is a new addition to the group.
“Phoebe doesn’t remove a single stitch of clothing,” Pendragon said. “[She’s] really super talented, finding her confidence and being validated at every turn, because she is so sparkly and shiny when she smiles. You have to have that excitement and that sparkle.”
One thing that every performer in the House shared was that sparkle. Rebel, this year’s Prince of the The Great Southern Exposure Burlesque and Variety Arts Weekend’s pageant, was previously the subject of qnotes’ Our People feature (see goqnotes.com/49619) and is one of the group’s most compelling personalities. His second act featured a brilliant gold cape that he spread out like angel wings.
“I like to flirt with the crowd,” Rebel confided to qnotes. “As soon as I get on stage, I’m instantly happy, doesn’t matter what song I’m performing to.”
Rebel is one of two male burlesque performers with Big Mamma’s House. “Boylesque,” or gender inclusive burlesque, has gained in popularity in recent years.
“[Burlesque] is experiencing an exploration of the non-binary,” Pendragon said. “When I first started, it was all glove and gown, and now it’s a kaleidoscope of sexuality, of political commentary, of pop culture.”
Looking back at the history of the troupe, and of burlesque in general, the art form has undergone an undeniable evolution. Before Big Mama’s House, there had only been one other burlesque show in the state of North Carolina, and it had shut down.
Pendragon says she faced reticence and even hostility when planning her first shows. Once, when trying to reserve hotel rooms for visiting performers, the hotel representative was friendly until Pendragon mentioned the word “burlesque.”
“She slammed the phone down,” Pendragon said. “It went like that, so much so that I was very timid about promoting it in the beginning. I would tell people ‘I work with show girls’.”
Despite the initial reactions, burlesque has skyrocketed in popularity, as the cheering crowd at the Valentease show illustrated.
“I think it surged because people want to feel pretty, you know?” Pendragon said. “They’re at home with the hairbrush in the mirror, singing and dancing and doing things that they wish they could do in public and they just don’t have the courage to do. One of my greatest accomplishments, if I’ve done anything with this art, is that I’ve helped people feel beautiful.”
This personal factor is the real reason that burlesque is Pendragon’s passion. She says that discovering burlesque “was like my compass stopped spinning and slammed into true north.” Her time mentoring beginners is the most rewarding aspect of her work.
“The most fulfilling part is working with new performers, who have never done or experienced this,” she said. “They don’t know how to do this, but they have a heart full of art.”
Her troupe is her family — in some cases, literally. She and her husband of 15 years, David aka Johnny Anonymous, are expecting a baby boy this month.
“We had been hoping for this for a long time,” she smiles. “I’m hoping, by the way, [the baby] wakes up early every morning that I’m getting a drag queen.”
The couple made the formal announcement at the Valentease show, holding up a child’s onesie to roaring applause. It was the culmination of a series of witty exchanges between the MC and his diva wife that went on throughout the show and led up to the finale.
“We’ve gone back to doing our plot, where there’s an ongoing storyline on top of all the stripping and performances,” Pendragon said. “We have a couple of performers who float in and out when they’re available. That’s really nice because it allows you to round out your performance and have more variety.”
The regular performers already offer remarkable variety. No two have the same style. Of the burlesque dancers, Veronica Broadchest has a bold, confident energy, and Ophelia Poptart teases with the slender curves of a pin-up model. Rebel’s fearless and fabulous moves set him apart, and all use their sexuality to connect with the crowd.
“I can connect with male, I can connect with female,” Rebel said. “I’m a Libra, and we’re natural flirts.”
“Every human is attracted to both sexes in some form or another,” Pendragon believes. “We all want to see a beautiful woman and we all want to see a beautiful man…Finding what ties us together as humans and putting that in a performance makes all the difference.”
Other burlesque performers with Big Mamma’s House are DeeDee Perks (described by Pendragon as “tremendous”), Meredith Sparkles (“prolific”), Anita Tool (“creative” and “adorable”), and cross-dressing “delicious” Jackson Heels. The variety performers range from hula hooper Kitten Wink to Phoebe Nyx and new MC Oliver Moxie. Pendragon, however, is always looking for new talent.
“Come explore what we have, and if you don’t see something you want, come make it,” she said. “Bring me art. I will put it on stage.”