The Chatter: February 2014

Firsthand accounts of what's happening in Baltimore.

Velvet Elvis

December 15, 2013
E. Fort Avenue

The slightly battered, retro, red-leather stools are filled, but turned away from the bar as patrons peruse the rear “gallery” wall. At the end of Idle Hour’s narrow corner bar, DJ Mike Yonko spins 45s, including “Blue Christmas” and “Suspicious Minds,” in keeping with tonight’s “Velvet Elvis Off”—a combination art competition and charity auction.

Bartender/curator Jen Gallia explains that the 14 works (starting bids range from $2.99 to $250) will be sold to raise money for BARCS, the Baltimore animal rescue shelter. Meanwhile, themes in the kitschy paintings swing wildly across the pop-cultural spectrum.

“That’s Tebow-Elvis,” a customer swilling a beer notes to his girlfriend, pointing to a painting of a solemn Elvis in a pose made famous by the former NFL quarterback. “That’s Jimi-Elvis,” he continues, gesturing to a psychedelic portrait of the King, “and at the end is Hound Dog, Poker-Playing Elvis.”

Other works include a glimmering, velvet-pompadoured Elvis next to a tray of deep-fried peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches and a surreal cutout featuring Elvis’s face, Lou Rawls’s body, and Phil Ochs’s guitar with Graceland in the background. Ultimately, Joe Glorioso, an ad agency art director, wins Best Work—receiving a tiny cut of the canvases’ sales.

“Painting on velvet is hard, like painting on a sock. Just absorbs everything,” Glorioso says, referring to his silhouette of the icon, circa 1971, in cape and faux rhinestones, spreading his arms beneath a spotlight pouring down from above. Upon inspection, a crucifixion image of Jesus is revealed on the King’s plastic, oversized belt buckle—reconfigured from a dime-store bracelet.  “Elvis is like a religious figure to people,” says Glorioso, who grew up watching the singer’s movies with his mom. “I just wanted to take it up a notch.”


Neo-Burlesque

December 20, 2013
Eastern Avenue

The Creative Alliance is packed for the third show in a five-performance burlesque run, and the tassels will be twirling soon enough, but first, emcee Murray Hill—a tuxedoed “drag king” channeling a Catskills-era Don Rickles—wants to get to know the crowd. “The woman in the ‘I Love Female Orgasm’ T-shirt, are you with the guy on your left or the woman on your right?” Hill asks of an audience member near the stage. “Both,” the woman replies. “This is my husband and she’s my girlfriend. It’s a polyamorous relationship.”

“You gotta love Baltimore,” Hill says, smiling mischievously as the crowd breaks up. “A polyamorous . . . so does he get to watch when you two . . . or join in?” The women, who’ve had a few drinks, laugh nervously, and then stammer briefly before responding.

“C’mon ladies,” Hill (real name: Betsey Gallagher) chides. “Get your story straight. He’s sitting right here.”

After Hill’s opening shtick, the night’s first exotic dancer, Perle Noire—shimmering red dress and feather boa—va-va-vooms down the runway, leaving behind one long white glove at a time. She’s followed by a tap dancing, bare-almost-all flapper named Gin Minsky.

Eventually the show’s stars, 6-foot-6 inch “Mr. Gorgeous” and 5-foot, flame-haired powerhouse Trixie Little, take the stage together, mixing acrobatics, dance, and sex appeal like a pair of campy, X-rated figure skaters.

This is the ninth year that Trixie, aka Keri Burneston, has brought the show here, which Creative Alliance co-founder Megan Hamilton calls “a bedrock of our holiday programming.” Asked how, exactly, burlesque reflects the holiday season, Hamilton says many Baltimoreans have made a tradition of bringing family members who return home this time of year. “And,” she notes after a pause, “there are the twerking gingerbread men.”


True Meaning

December 28, 2013
E. Lombard Street

“Habari [How are you?],” Maulana Karenga booms in Swahili, greeting the overflowing Kwanzaa crowd inside the Reginald F. Lewis Museum’s theater. “Nzuri! [Good!]”

Born Ronald Everett, not far from the Eastern Shore birthplaces of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, Karenga founded the weeklong celebration of African culture 47 years ago. Active in the Black Power movement and a scholar with two Ph.D.s, Karenga explains Kwanzaa is a means for African-Americans to “reaffirm our rootedness” in African culture and “reintroduce African communitarian values.”

Karenga’s African-wisdom teaching is followed by Baltimore’s Sankofa Dance troupe, local beatboxer Shodekeh, and Griot storytelling. Throughout the day, “Mama” Sallah directs crafting workshops, including weaving traditional red, black, and green Kwanzaa mats.

“I’ve celebrated Kwanzaa since 1976,” Sallah says. “In West Baltimore, in those days, you went house to house celebrating Kwanzaa every night.

If you did it right, it took three days of cooking to prepare—chicken, fish, collared greens, sweet potatoes, corn bread, bread pudding, rice pudding, banana pudding, apple pie—150 people might come by. At every house, there was one room to put the kids, and it would be a party all night,” she continues with a laugh. “Now it’s too commercial.”

Issue date: February, 2014
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