There’s No Telling What You’ll Find at the JewelBox

Burlesque, Bad Actors, and ... Chaplin?

Man, I'm so nervous I feel a little sick right now!" That was the text sent by 22-year-old UW student and burlesque dancer Sara Robinson—stage name: Lolita "Ta-Ta's" Valentino—to a friend as she made her way to the Rendezvous' JewelBox Theater on a recent Saturday night. (The friend was me.) Robinson was about to make a public tryout for the Glitzkrieg Burlesque Bombshells, a loose troupe of dancers who come together quarterly for special revues. Their style touchstones are described as "the smoky noir of Weimar, Berlin; the back-alley glam rock of the Lower East Side; and the macabre allure of Carnival." Once onstage, Robinson did her "Disco" act, in which she rolls a mirror ball up and down her body to the Italo-disco of Portland band Glass Candy, and her "Prom Queen" act, in which she starts off wearing a crown, and ends by drunkenly humping a pink guitar. Other hopefuls included a saucy cowgirl, a clumsy hula-hooper, a witch, and a pair of actual twins in Catholic schoolgirl uniforms, singing Fiona Apple's "Criminal." Among the audience members that night was Brian Danford, who arrived at 5:30 p.m. to check on the projector he was using for an event three days later. The first Tuesday of the month at JewelBox belongs to Essentially, Danford and a buddy screen awful films for their friends to get drunk to. The next feature is The Mask, a 1961 3-D movie that will shoot snakes and fireballs at the glasses-equipped audience. Danford has also screened Barbarella, Cold as Ice (the Vanilla Ice movie), and Hobgoblins, a D-grade Gremlins rip-off which he calls "our worst film." Even so, 12 people showed up. That Glitzkrieg, Danford, and anyone with $75–$85 (the weekday and weekend rates) and an idea are able to showcase them at the JewelBox is only one part of the venue's beauty. Originally a model theater (meaning larger ones were based on its design) for West Coast developer B.F. Shearer, and later a screening room, the JewelBox retains a look of ruined grandeur owing to the original 1928 wallpaper and light fixtures that remain. The stage, while tiny, can fit more than you'd think, and looking out from it, the house appears packed even with only 30 people. (Capacity is 75.) Tucked inside Belltown institution the Rendezvous, the shabby-chic space has become known in the past five years for its twice-nightly offerings of music, theater, and film, and as a testing ground for the local burlesque community (of which I am an occasional member). In a town brimming with performance spaces, only Capitol Hill Arts Center seems to rival the JewelBox in consistently adventurous bookings—which recently ranged from a "What the Hell Did I Just Watch?" comedy video festival to a tattooed psychic to eardrum-assaulting electronic music from a crew called Harsh! If you enjoy live performance and call Seattle home, chances are you'll find yourself on at least one side of the JewelBox's red velvet curtain. The history of the Rendezvous is well known among longtime Seattleites. Before being purchased by two married couples in 2000, the venue was a dive, "essentially the same since the '60s—a bar that welcomed the day, and its regular clientele, at precisely six o'clock every morning, 365 days a year," wrote Rex Lameray in a 2005 issue of the Belltown Messenger. During that time, the JewelBox theater within wasn't used for much, though co-owner Jane Kaplan recalls taking acting classes there in the '80s. "Maybe in the '80s and '90s there were some late-night bands occasionally," she adds. "But prior to when we took it, there were no regularly scheduled events in here. Except...AA meetings, which is a little ironic if you knew what the Vous was like back then. I always sat here and thought, 'This room should be filled with life,'" she says. Now it is. "In the beginning, we thought it would be all film," Kaplan says, noting that Shearer's grandchildren have confirmed the venue was used to wine and dine Old Hollywood stars (though rumors of appearances by Charlie Chaplin, Jack Benny, and Bela Lugosi remain unconfirmed). "It became quickly clear that theater works well in here, and once we realized that, my intention was to make this place available for the community. Some of my most exciting phone calls come from people who are taking a first class at a theater school and they want to try to get together their first event. They'll have a seed of an idea and we're like, 'This is the place to try it.'" That approach creates space for successful long runs, from companies like Bad Actor Productions, Annex, and Open Circle sharing the calendar with one-offs and short runs from performance artists like Anita Goodman and Jeppa Hall, who frequently performs as the "transcendental burlesque clown" Queen Shmooquan. Hall describes her character as "a self-made diva...she's kind of like a fifth-grader with tits who was raised in a cave and now has discovered the world." Queen Shmooquan will, for instance, eat a Twinkie, and "it will either calm her down out of a traumatic experience or allow her to transcend that event into some other experience." And people get this? "Sometimes there's nothing to get," says Hall, whose audience has been all over the map. "I like being in that small, intimate venue," says Hall, "because you can have 50–60 people in there and it's really exciting. You see these heads poking out and they look like a bunch of excited sardines. And you can have 15 people in there and still feel like you're performing for somebody." On a typical night, a show like Hall's will go on in the early time slot (6 p.m.–10 p.m.), followed by music booked by Ariel Basom in the 10:30–close slot. Performers decide whether they want to have a "showcase" or charge a cover. Organizers keep any door profits they make. "Our model works so well because we're a bar and a restaurant," notes Kaplan. A team of house managers hustles to get performers loaded in and out on busy weekend nights, where hopefully there might be some audience crossover. Music is perhaps the most mixed bag of all. In the last few years, I've seen a band of Clevelanders play to a packed room of fellow transplants, and I've seen criminally underrated ambient composer Rafael Anton Irisarri play to five people on a Sunday afternoon. See Me River and the Dead Horse Creek, a folk-rock project of musician Kerry Zettel, is one show that sticks out in my mind. "I gotta say that Americana/roots/bluegrass actually sounds the best in there. When you have quieter acoustic things, there's a really great resonance," says Basom. Whether or not anyone shows up to notice, however, is pretty much the performer's business. Excepting a mention on the Rendezvous' events calendar, promotion is up to the act. Monthly events such as Match Game (a dating game started by Vous bartender Babe), The This American Life–styled A Guide to Visitors, and Cineoke (what it sounds like) anchor the risky music and wacky performance programming. Cineoke is in its fifth year of catering to Sound of Music and Hedwig fans, although organizer Jason Plourde gets perhaps the biggest rise when someone tackles Evita's "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina." Younger monthlies, like the Seattle outpost of NYC's Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School, are growing fast—in their case, with comic artists, stay-at-home moms, and retirees eager to sketch the salacious curves of burlesque dancers (in costume). Here, anyone can do anything. "Within the law!" says Kaplan. So as long as ideas come forth, and as long as the pasties stay firmly attached, the JewelBox should continue to sparkle in kind.

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