In the greenroom at Monk's Bar, Birdie La Rouge shimmies into a black sequined dress then checks to see how quickly and gracefully it falls back around her feet. She applies her pasties with spirit gum and then shakes her breasts at the mirror to make sure the pasties stick. They do, though later she'll have to pull them off quickly like Band-Aids. "Glue now, suffer later," she says, laughing. The dressing room is unfinished—Monk's just opened its doors recently after the former bar, AmVets, closed down—and the exposed pipes, duct taped carpet and rock walls contrast with the pretty sight of half-dressed, perfumed girls in glitter and feathers, sipping pink cocktails and picking through old-fashioned suitcases brimming with red high heels and garters. Trisha Pardee, aka Lolita Lay, tries on some giant wings while wearing just a g-string. Meanwhile, in the corner of the small greenroom, members of the old-timey bluegrass band the Lil' Smokies pluck a mandolin and thump an upright bass, eyes slightly averted—almost casual. This is a first for them: sharing the stage—and an intimate dressing room— with the Cigarette Girls Burlesque.
It's easy to mistake burlesque for striptease. But the burlesque girls emphasize the "tease" in striptease, not the "strip." It's never complete nudity: pasties and underwear, however skimpy, always stay on. And humor is as much a component as being sexy. As the night progresses, Maggie McMuffin, the troupe's brassy and witty emcee, shows up between acts clad in fewer and fewer clothes, treating the situation like it's an unpredictable mishap. Several of the girls do classic stripteases but always in elaborate costume—vintage and modern—and often sporting the rockabilly, pin-up-girl style of tattoos, piercings and glamorous hair styles. Sometimes the tease involves singing a coy, slightly off-key song. In between acts, newbie burlesque girls known as stage kittens collect the clothing to set the stage for the next act.
Meg Hansen, aka Stella Pearl, inverts the stripping model by showing up onstage in a bathrobe and almost immediately disrobing down to nearly nothing. The entire rest of her piece is a comic reverse-stripping attempt by her personal assistants, who are measuring her and desperately trying to fit her into a corset. As is the case with most burlesque, it's more Lucille Ball than Jenna Jameson.
"Stripping is about nudity—the destination—and burlesque is more about the story you're telling," says Hansen, who met Rose doing pin-up girl contests. Adds Rose, "As much of a veneer that we put on—the hair, the eyelashes, the makeup, the glitter—it's really important that people see your personality under that."
And, the mere hint at body size clues you into another aspect of the art: There are both voluptuous and skinny girls in this troupe, and by the way they perform on stage, there's no lack of confidence in that regard.
Burlesque, in its birth, didn't even involve nudity. It described mixed-gender entertainment shows that parodied the politics of the day in a low-brow manner. In 1860, Lydia Thompson and her British Blondes brought to America a show featuring all ladies who played male and female roles and wore costumes that were revealing for the time.
"As these shows progressed," says Rose, "they realized the power of showing off certain body parts, but it wasn't until the early 1900s when they had the nudity aspect. There were girly shows and at old time circuses you'd have the family fun time—the elephants and tigers and bears and clowns—but then out back there was the cooch show."
Girly shows ended up getting censored, but burlesque was revived in the 1990s with women like Dita Von Teese and other neo-burlesque artists. Missoula, actually, hasn't witnessed much burlesque—least of all local burlesque—with the exception of the talented but fleeting group the Black Bettys, which formed and disbanded a few years ago.
The Cigarette Girls Burlesque, many of whom are drama majors and former members of the Montana Actors' Theatre's cabaret shows, made their debut last February as special guests for the two-night, sold-out Bellatrix show at the Missoula Winery. They've performed subsequent shows with garage rock bands like Rooster Sauce and dark country bands like Dodgy Mountain Men. They did a halftime show for the Hellgate Rollergirls, which seemed like the perfect match of girls with a badass streak. The show in the harsh light of the Adams Center was a bust. Rose says the troupe had little time to practice. But the truth is, it just didn't set the right mood.
"We're really built for intimate places," says Rose.
Things took a happy turn for the troupe when the local Johnny Cash tribute band The Cold Hard Cash Show took an interest in them and they played their first show together in June. It's an obvious pairing. The rockabilly Cash songs go well with sly teases. Though the band has had some fame for being on David Letterman, the alliance between band and burlesque troupe provided exposure—if you will—in Missoula they each might not have gotten independently.
Now at about 12 members, the CGB is a democracy with a few veterans like Rose, Hansen and Lacy Zee (aka Vox Moxxi) taking the lead, plus creative director Brandi Christiaens (aka Mama-ry), and resident corset maker Ruby Riddle.
Veteran girls are also easy to spot on stage. At the Monk's show, Rose closes out the last act of the first Cigarette Girls Burlesque set. She shows up on stage clothed like a glamorous Hollywood actress from another era. As the big band music bumps away, she reveals a little skin at a time. She pulls off her string of pearls and dangles them above herself, leaning back ever so slightly. The anticipation isn't in what she's wearing underneath so much as in how she'll entertain you by taking off a single glove.
"Timing is everything in burlesque," Rose explains. "It's the say-all-be-all and end-all."
The Cigarette Girls Burlesque presents the Naughty List: A Burly-Q review and cabaret at the Crystal Theatre Friday, Dec. 16 and Saturday, Dec. 17, at 8 PM nightly. $15/$10 advance.