For my first adventure, my friend Abbey took me out for my birthday. She’d been out of the country on my actual birthday, visiting Finland, Estonia, and Lithuania with her mom (which sounds super, super fun). When she got back, she asked what I wanted to do to celebrate belatedly, and I told her I wanted to do something that I could use for my blog. So we decided to go downtown to Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret. But first, dinner!
We started the evening with dinner at Pinche Tacos, a little eatery on Colfax and York in Denver. It’s in a historic brick building on a corner, sandwiched between a sushi place and the building’s postage-stamp-sized parking lot (one of the most impressive moments of the night was watching Abbey navigate the parking lot in her SUV. It was like watching an Olympic kayaker shoot class 5 rapids).
Inside, the restaurant has a lot of exposed brick walls and wooden floorboards, with every nook and cranny of the small space crammed with tables, chairs, and patrons. At 6:15 on a Saturday night, every seat was taken and there was a twenty-minute wait, although we got lucky and slipped onto the last two empty stools at the “high top,” a tall wooden table where you sat side-by-side with other patrons. Music blared from overhead speakers, Foster the People and Bastille and Bad Sons, with the volume so loud that we had to lean forward over the high top and shout to talk.
The menu is a strip of laminated plastic featuring a la carte tacos, and you order by putting a check mark next to the ones you want with a Sharpie. There are plenty of options for meat-lovers and vegetarians alike, with eclectic blends of flavors like shiitake mushrooms over creamed cilantro corn, and barbacoa with slices of raw radish. We each ordered three tacos, tiny, open-faced affairs maybe four inches across and piled high with ingredients. I ate mine with a fork, although other people at the high top were folding theirs over and eating them traditional-style with juice running down their faces. The tacos were delicious, and three was the perfect number, leaving me satisfied but not stuffed. At about $3.50 per taco, the price was right, too. The staff was friendly, our order came out in good time, and I enjoyed some great people-watching while we waited (a woman down the high top from me was sporting a necklace that seemed to be made out of a gold-plated hood ornament, for instance).
I wish the music hadn’t been so loud (is that a sign of middle age?), but otherwise it’s definitely a keeper.
Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret
For my adventures, I’m planning on trying as many brand new things as possible, but I decided that it was OK to use something I’d done before if A) I hadn’t done it in the last five years and B) I hadn’t written about before. Lannie’s fits the criteria for me, and Abbey hadn’t been there previously, so it seemed like a good place to start.
The Clocktower is on downtown Denver’s 16th Street Mall, a pedestrian mall filled with shops, restaurants, street performers, and panhandlers. One of Denver’s first big department stores, Daniels and Fisher, was on the site from 1911 until it closed in 1950, and the clock tower was part of the D & F building. After the department store closed, the building fell into ruin and was demolished in the 60’s, but historic preservationists had the clock tower saved and designated as a historic landmark.
The tower is twenty stories tall and skinny. It is very elegant inside, with marble floors and polished brass fixtures, and you can rent the upper part of the tower for wedding receptions if you don’t mind your guests being spread out on different floors. One of the wedding reception venues is inside the clock itself.
When you enter the clock tower, you find yourself in a white, elegant lobby, with an expensive-looking elevator right across from the entrance. A uniformed attendant sits next to the elevator, presumably to prevent pandhandlers from wandering in. If you are in the tower for a wedding reception, you take the elevator up. If you are looking for Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret, however, you turn left and walk down a set of carpeted stairs to the basement, where you enter a very different environment.
Lannie Garrett, the owner, is a well-known singer in Denver, probably most famous for her country spoof act, the Patsy DeCline Show. She doesn’t limit herself to one genre, however, and has performed jazz, big band, George Gershwin, movie songs, and disco. Her current show is a tribute to Frank Sinatra. She performs once a week or so, and on other nights the Cabaret puts on different acts. We saw ads for an a capella concert, a one-man Nat King Cole show, and a Motown cover group–but the Cabaret’s big specialty is burlesque shows.
Burlesque, in case you haven’t heard of it before, is basically vaudeville-style striptease. It’s much more artistic, and much more fun, than the kind of strip show featured in Hollywood movies, where women spin around poles in high heels and get money stuffed down their undies and everything seems kind of sleazy. Burlesque embraces and celebrates the female form, and even at the end of the number you’re not seeing anything you wouldn’t see at the beach; all the important bits are still covered.
However, the root of burlesque is still women taking their clothes off. If that’s not your thing, you’ll probably be more comfortable if you stop reading now. My next adventure will be a baseball game, and you can come back for that. I promise that most of my adventures will be completely G-rated.
The Cabaret is dimly lit, with low ceilings and the feeling of a speakeasy. Like Pinche Tacos, they make the most of their small space, cramming tables and chairs onto every available inch of floor. There are some booths at the back, high-backed arrangements with padded seats that bring to mind the days of the Brat Pack. At the front of the room, there’s a wooden stage the size of a one-car garage, raised only slightly above the floor because otherwise the performers would bang their heads on the ceiling. Swathes of glitzy, mismatched fabric form the backdrop for the performers.
When we reached the entrance to the Cabaret, a woman in an old-fashioned cigar-girl pillbox hat greeted us and took our names. Behind her were shelves of plastic tiaras and brightly-colored feather boas for sale. She passed us on to the hostess, who was wearing a Goth-style black dress and had her jet-black hair in pigtails. The waiter who took us to our table was wearing a top hat and tuxedo, sort of; the sleeves and pant legs of the tuxedo had been cut off, leaving him in a sleeveless coat and shorts. Under the shorts he was wearing leggings with a black-and-white diamond pattern, a la Harlequin, and around one eye he had a bold pattern of thick black lines drawn on with makeup–or maybe it was a tattoo. Two other members of the waitstaff were wearing a belly dance outfit and a French maid dress, respectively. The cabaret seemed to embrace an anything-goes kind of dress code.
Lannie’s offers a generous menu of cocktails, wine, non-alcoholic drinks, appetizers, and desserts. They want you to enjoy yourself while you’re there. We ordered an ice cream sampler: a scoop of ice cream each in a wine glass, with about a dozen different kinds of toppings served on a glass painter’s palette. I love samplers more than just about anything. There’s nothing better than trying out a whole bunch of different kinds of food, especially when it’s presented in a fun way. We ate ice cream while we looked around at the crowd.
Interestingly, about 75% of the audience seemed to be female. There were at least four separate bachelorette parties, all decked out in tiaras and boas from the shop at the entrance, and while there were several other all-female tables like ours, we didn’t see any male-only groups. The MC later said that 75-90% of their audiences are female.
The MC herself was female, a singer named Sonia Soubrette who was wearing a little low-cut babydoll dress and the most fabulous glittery red lipstick. She was flirty and funny, introducing acts, making jokes, and even singing a couple of numbers. I loved her. She really held the show together and kept it moving.
The first act she introduced was the live band who would be playing for the evening, a duo called My Wooden Leg. Apparently, the name is a dirty joke, which seems appropriate for the entertainment at a burlesque show–but that was the only way in which the band was what you might expect. You’d think that something along the lines of a jazz band or swing group would be the right music for burlesque, but My Wooden Leg played a kind of indie rock/Romanian folk music, with one man on the accordion and the other on acoustic guitar and vocals.
The guitarist/vocalist at least looked right for the atmosphere. I would guess that he was in his thirties, slender and good-looking. He was dressed in a button-up shirt, vest, and tie, and his hair was shaved on the sides and long in the middle, like it might moonlight as a Mohawk on nights when it wasn’t slicked back. There was something artistic and broody about him, and between songs he sipped from a glass of red wine at his elbow. If Lord Byron had been born a hipster, he might have looked something like that.
The accordion player, on the other hand, was a square, balding man wearing plain jeans and a t-shirt. His stoic expression never changed, even when one of the performers wrapped a fishnet thigh-high stocking around his neck during her number. I wondered if the performer was trying on purpose to get a reaction out of him, but he just kept on plugging away on his accordion like nothing in the world could shake him.
From what the MC said, I gather that the guitarist/vocalist wrote all of their songs. The tunes were heavily influenced by traditional Eastern European music, and the lyrics were straight out of a Goth teenager’s fever dream. I know because the MC told us what each of the songs was about, including:
The days when the singer lived in an apartment over the Fort Worth, Texas stockyards
A man who played with a doll every day and kept her in a shoebox
A man getting shot by the police
Vlad the Impaler
If the subject matter sounds disturbing, don’t worry; half the time he was singing in Romanian, and I couldn’t understand him even when he was singing in English.
The tunes were melancholy and haunting and sounded slow even when they weren’t, and they seemed totally at odds with the lighthearted fun of most of the performances. They would have made me feel kind of down if I’d been a performer, but the dancers all seemed to be having a blast.
Actually, burlesque dancers just seem to enjoy themselves more than the average person. They all have funny, suggestive, and/or sexy stage names, like DeeDee Derrière, Alexis Scissorlegs, and Midnite Martini, and they go at their performances with a happy gusto that makes it all right for the audience to have fun, too. Burlesque dancers come in all shapes and sizes, from short and flat-chested to tall and curvy and everything in between, and every shape is beautiful. A lot of the numbers are humorous, and all of them have a wink-wink, nudge-nudge naughtiness to them that invite the viewer in on the fun.
To help with that, the MC and the performers encourage the audience to whoop, whistle, and clap during the numbers, and the Cabaret even provides toy noisemakers at each table that you can spin to show your appreciation. The room is noisy and the energy is high, and everybody is having a good time.
The show I saw was called the Hurly-Burly Circus, and the idea was that it was a mix of circus elements and burlesque. Two of the performers definitely fit the bill: Alexis Scissorlegs, a burlesque dancer who performed on stilts (!), and Midnite Martini, who performed on an aerial hoop and aerial fabric a la Cirque du Soleil. Both were amazing artists, and they ended up being my favorite dancers. It was mindboggling to me that Alexis Scissorlegs could not only dance on stilts and do splits and handstands and all sorts of crazy acrobatics, but that she could look sexy doing it, too. Midnite Martini did a number with the aerial fabric that she ended by winding herself up in the fabric and then dropping toward the floor; it was incredible. If I tried that, I would crash into the ground and break my leg.
Alexis Scissorlegs and Midnite Martini both performed twice, as did two other burlesque dancers. There was also a belly dancer who did a solo number and then joined the other two burlesque dancers for a hilarious cabaret version of The Triplets of Belleville (a French animated movie). That was one of my favourite numbers. The MC sang a Cole Porter song and another song, both of which were lovely, and right after the intermission she chugged a PBR, which I guess could be a kind of a sideshow act (in keeping with the circus theme). I was curious to see if she’d smash the can on her forehead after chugging it, but she didn’t.
The only part of the entertainment that I didn’t like was a stage magician who performed twice. I guess they were thinking that magicians were a part of the classic traveling circus so they should include one, and if he’d been a sexy guy dressed in Victorian evening clothes who sawed women in half, I could have gone for it. But the magician they picked was a stocky, forty-something street magician from Las Vegas wearing a loud purple suit and nerd glasses, and his act was made up of card tricks and disappearing hard-boiled eggs, which he dragged out into tedium by humiliating a couple audience members and cracking a lot of cheap jokes. I wanted to give him the hook.
At least he kept all his clothes on. THANK GOODNESS.
The last act of the night was both the weirdest and the most spectacular. Alexis Scissorlegs (she of the stilts) came out in a silver sequined halter top and matching bellbottoms, wearing a huge blond afro wig and 70’s-style sunglasses. The stagehand (a woman whom the MC kept referring to as either the “stage kitten” or “the stripper picker-upper”) had come out during the introduction and hung a strap from the rigging in the middle of the stage, and during the number the dancer held on to the strap and used it to spin around in midair, usually while in the splits or some other impossible pose. With her big globe of hair and all the stage lights glittering from her silver sequined outfit, she looked exactly like a human disco ball. It would have been perfect accompanied by “I Will Survive” or “Stayin’ Alive.”
Instead, My Wooden Leg performed a soulful, melancholy song which the MC introduced by saying, “If you sing along, this song has the power to revisit any evil done to you back on your enemies.” Um, what? No one could sing along, since the words weren’t written down anywhere (and they might have been in Romanian anyway), and you couldn’t even really clap along with the beat. It wasn’t that kind of song.
So there was a spinning human disco ball up on stage, dancing to this bizarre accordion folk rock tune that maybe was supposed to be some kind of magic spell.
It was surreal.
When we left the Cabaret, it was after 10 p.m., and we walked back along the 16th Street Mall to where my friend’s car was parked a couple blocks away. Downtown was busy, and it seemed like all kinds of celebrations were going on. A bridal party went by in two bicycle-driven pedicabs; another pair of newlyweds was having their picture taken in the middle of the sidewalk; and in the middle of the Mall, a man in a t-shirt and khakis was dancing ecstatically to music that only he could hear.
I felt like we had just attended a celebration, too, because burlesque, at its core, is a celebration of the human form, no matter what shape it happens to be in. A wonderful evening’s entertainment, and a wonderful (and fitting) way to kick off my 40 adventures.