The Red Palace closed on New Year’s Day, but the burlesque dancers, sideshow performers and vaudeville acts that populated the H Street NE stage are as busy as ever. Much of this is because of Melina Afzal, who booked the performers at Red Palace and now promotes shows at the Black Cat, the Bier Baron, the Howard Theatre and the State Theatre as Palace Productions.
We spoke with Afzal about the proliferation of D.C. burlesque and sideshow venues and where the community goes from here.
How did you get involved in the burlesque scene?
Melina Afzal: I went to shows as an audience member and fan. I was the sound engineer at Palace of Wonders, and then I became a co-booker with [burlesque performer] Lil Dutch. After she left, I became the full-time talent buyer.
Red Palace, and before that, the Palace of Wonders, were really the epicenters of the area’s burlesque scene. What effect did its closing have on performers?
The unfortunate part of the Palace closing is that the community was dispersed. It was a central location that belonged to these performers. It was their home: You could walk in and see your friends all the time, even if you weren’t working.
Does having burlesque performances spread all over the city help or hurt the scene? Conversely, did having everything so focused on the Red Palace help or hurt the scene’s growth?
People knew Red Palace and the Palace of Wonders was the place to go; they knew where their favorite performers were. The Palace really had territory over [the scene]. Now we have to be out there more.
[The closing] has allowed performers to step out of the familiar and bring the shows to other parts of the city, and spread out into neighborhoods.
We know people don’t like to leave their neighborhoods, and they might have thought H Street was a trek.
The Red Palace allowed us to nurture the scene and develop the scene, but then it was time to let it go. I like to say that my golden handcuffs are off: I can do things I’ve wanted to do for a few years.
You put on your first show at the Black Cat less than a week after the Red Palace closed. How did you wind up partnering with them, and when did you decide to launch Palace Productions?
I’ve been going to the Black Cat since it opened, and I used to DJ there. I knew they were open to it. They’ve had other shows that involved burlesque, just not burlesque shows. I reached out to [Black Cat owner] Dante [Ferrando] about putting on events on the backstage. The dance nights were petering out, and this was a new idea for live entertainment.
I had planned to do something like [Palace Productions] when the Red and the Black and the Palace of Wonders merged [in 2010]. I started looking at other venues then, but things [at Red Palace] didn’t seem that bad, so I stayed on. In December, I made the decision that we needed to keep having these shows in D.C. I wasn’t going to go down that easily.
In taking burlesque to non-traditional burlesque venues, such as the Howard Theatre or State Theatre, have you had to explain to people that it’s not, you know, stripping?
I’m finding out that with the new audience, we have to do a lot more education. They’re shy, they’re not as loud, it’s like, “We don’t really know what this is.” So we’re teaching them that this is live entertainment, this is not like going to a strip club.
The most interesting venue has been the State Theatre. This is a 1,000-person venue, so the owner needed a little convincing. The suburbs are craving any kind of entertainment on weekends. It’s also an older crowd. You have parents in their 40s and 50s, which is different than crowds at Red Palace. These are people who are open to paying a cover and buying drinks. And they know what burlesque originally was. Maybe they heard about it from their grandparents or their parents. They’re very receptive.
So what’s next? How will the scene evolve?
In May, we’re going to start doing classes at Bier Baron. The instructors will be the performers that night. It won’t just be burlesque — Cheeky Monkey [from Baltimore] will do a sideshow school. We’re probably going to start packaging the classes: $20 for a class, the show itself and a beer or a cocktail.
I really want to make an avenue for new people to come in, and be participants [in future shows] if they want. It’s a chance to get the word out and show people what it’s really all about.
Tilted Torch’s Lion Den at the Black Cat (main stage), $15.
The Evil League of Ecdysiasts Presents: Nerdlesque Gone Wild at Bier Baron, $10 in advance, $12 at the door.
The Evil League of Ecdysiasts Presents: Whedonism2013, a Burlesque Tribute to Joss Whedon at the Black Cat (backstage), $10 in advance, $15 at the door.
Sunday Soiree’s Cinco de Mayo Burlesque with GiGi Holliday at the Howard Theatre, $15 in advance, $20 at the door.
Celebritease Fundraiser for the Burlesque Hall of Fame at Bier Baron, $10 in advance, $12 at the door.