74 And Sunny: How LA Does Burlesque

New York and London have The Box, but LA even does cabaret with an extra flourish

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Well this is one way to spend a Friday night. On my knees in a Gaytown nightclub, with some strange guy in glitter sunglasses standing over me, holding a shoe-shaped goblet full of questionable white fluids.

“Open wide!” he says.

I was up for getting barfed on like Susan Sarandon. At least that’s what it said in the reviews of The Box, the famous club in New York – and London now too – created by Simon Hammerstein, of Rogers and Hammerstein fame (he’s Oscar’s grandson).

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Apparently the star of Dead Man Walking was in the front row when one of the performers “blew chunks” as they say out here. Sarandon wiped the carrots off her chin in delight. It was all part of the show.

“That’s what we do, we bring theater into nightlife,” says Hammerstein. “The Box, touched on a lot of colors – some sexy, some transgression, some theater of cruelty. It’s not all shock. The press just likes to talk about the celebrities and the fake vomit.”

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And the “guy” performer, who turns out to have a vagina. And the Twincest burlesque act. And the black diva in the Nazi outfit…

“Yes, all that stuff!” he laughs. “But that’s the Box. We’ve got a different concept going in LA.”

Hammerstein’s LA club is called Esque, and it’s based at DBA (Doing Business As), a venue on Santa Monica Boulevard that has changed hands a few times, but always retained its notoriety.

Back in the day it was Peanuts, a flaming disco full of drag queens. And then it was Voyeur, where young stars would snort their way to rehab every Saturday night - you’d see all the gorgeous wannabes outside among the TMZ goons trying to get a snap of Lindsay Lohan’s panties, while inside, it was all S&M dancers, whips and what-have-you. Naturally, the Republican National Committee was caught up in a scandal there.

So plus ca change. Only now, you’re not just a voyeur – at Esque, you’re part of the show. The performers come right up to your booth and mess with you. One minute I’m chatting to club’s PR rep and then some girl in a grizzly mask comes up and starts biting my arm.

Elsewhere a beast character is carrying a girl around, who’s wearing nothing but sheer netting and a Teddy bear mask, and handing her to club goers to cradle like a baby. And there’s this cute little Japanese nymphette who’s skipping about the place in a thong. I was half-hoping she’d skip over here, when the big black guy with the cum-potion dragged me out of my seat.

“The theme is a Dionysian ritual,” says Yozmit, one of Hammerstein’s core players. “It’s a royal ball, and the people are all our slaves!” Slaves who pay $2000 for a table, mind. Slaves you see on billboards.

A Korean performance artist in his early 40s, Yozmit created the concept with Hammerstein, and plays a Queen on the night, the royal kind. In one scene, he reveals prosthetic breasts at first, then a prosthetic penis, and then he removes them both.

“First they think I’m a girl, then a boy, and then at the end, I’m all tucked up, so they think I’m a girl again! A lot of guys ask me out.”

Esque is perfectly pitched for LA, a city full of performers. They can’t wait to be part of the show. And it gets a bit weird at times. At the end of the night, Yozmit performs this shamanistic scene, in which one dancer dribbles creamy white fluid – they’re big on the whole fake-cum thing – from his mouth into Yozmit’s. He then spits it into a bowl and presents the bowl to the crowd as some kind of elixir.

Photograph by Maggie West

“People drink from it!” says Yozmit. “This is just before we have an orgy scene in the middle of the dancefloor. We drag in people from the crowd to interact with the dancers.”

It beats the usual oontz-oontz club scene. And the lines out front are as long as they ever were during Voyeur’s heyday. But I’m not kidding myself - I’m too old to know what the hottest club in LA is. Hammerstein is too. “I’m 36,” he says, “and in nightlife years, that’s like 100.”

All I know for sure is that Miley Cyrus just showed up and took over our booth. She’s with a pack of girls, all checking their iPhones. I think one of them’s pregnant. Oh look, she’s goofing around pretending she’s giving head. Seems fitting.

“Hey what’s in the cum drink?” I ask the glitter guy.

“Sambuca and coconut milk?” he shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“All right, whatever. Let’s do this.”

Esque at DBA, every Thursday and Friday, 7969 Santa Monica Blvd, West Hollywood

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