Step Right Up

Rusty Bolts delights and amazes with feats of strength harking to the days of country carnivals and traveling sideshows. Welcome to the new age of vaudeville.

“It started with a girl.” It is a dusky autumn afternoon, and 26-year-old Drew Reynolds, stage name Rusty Bolts, is telling me how he got into the strongman business.

“It was 2011, and I was living in Charleston. My friend found out about a burlesque show—it was called Ménage Á Trois Burlesque, and he was going after the top girl.” The friend asked Reynolds to come along, and the rest is, well, he isn’t telling. But it doesn’t matter; he was the one who got hooked.

It was what he describes as the “slightly darker side” of carnival sideshow, vaudeville and burlesque entertainment, the real fringe—bearded ladies, conjoined twins, contortionists, glass-eating pain-proof men and a bit of bump and grind—that appealed to him. “I like the weird stuff; I’m kind of a weird guy,” says the self-described “history nerd,” a blacksmith from Fairfax who studied 18th-century American and European architectural ironwork at Charleston’s American College of the Building Arts.

His introduction that night to burlesque dancer and producer Evelyn DeVere—the object of his friend’s desire—and to her network of performers turned to opportunity not long after when another carnival revival in town found itself with a hole in the lineup. Fortunately, the 5-foot 6-inch Reynolds knew how to juggle, a bit anyway. “I’m not a very good juggler,” he confesses.

But that was just the beginning. The strongman stuff—Reynolds’ true métier—came next; a natural move for the 196-pound longtime weightlifter. Self-taught, he began by ripping license plates in half (he says “it’s all in the technique”), and today, can rip entire phonebooks in half in six seconds; break Louisville Slugger baseball bats in half over his leg; drive a nail through wood with his fist; bend steel bars around his neck; and withstand the pressure of a 290-pound man standing on his chest while he supports himself only beneath his head and ankles (a bit he calls his “bed of no nails”).

“I think people get tired of sitting back and watching, especially with the over-stimulated world we live in,” says Reynolds of the resurgence of vaudeville and burlesque entertainment, part of its gritty flair owing to small audiences in intimate venues interacting with performers. “People get bored fast, but they feel like they get their money’s worth here.”

“More and more people are coming to the shows,” says Mark Slomski, founder of the Richmond-based Slomski Cabaret: “I think we’re still in the middle of a revival.”

Slomski’s stage show is a pastiche of vaudeville, carnival and neo-burlesque, and includes the “sexy hula-hooping” of Bitsy Buttons (his wife), sideshow acts like Rusty Bolts, live music, slapstick and boylesque (burlesque routines performed by …. you get it). “People may find it partially uncomfortable,” says Slomski of the eclectic, earthy and often bawdy shows, but “there is a sense of wonder, and maybe it makes you laugh or get scared, or it offends you a little bit, but those reactions get you thinking and provoke conversations. It makes you feel alive.”

What we know as vaudeville—the original variety revue that has inspired a raft of familiar modern shows from Laugh-In in the 1960s to the long running Saturday Night Live—grew out of the minstrel, medicine and Wild West shows that traveled the country in the 1840s. By the 1880s, they had been subsumed under the umbrella of vaudeville, and cleaned up and packaged for polite family audiences.

“In vaudeville, there is something for everybody,” wrote Edward F. Albee in 1923 for Variety. He and his partner, the producer known as the “father of American vaudeville,” Benjamin Franklin Keith, created the largest network of vaudeville theaters in the country, dominating American popular entertainment for decades. Vaudeville was, Albee said simply, “our American National Theatre.” By the end of World War II, though, radio, talking film and, finally, television eclipsed the old live vaudeville stage show. Burlesque (by nature, racier than standard vaudeville), would fall out of mainstream cultural consciousness by the late 1920s, becoming associated with explicit sexual content intended for mature audiences with a taste for sometimes-rough humor and a lot of leg. In its true form, however, it encompassed parody and storytelling as well as the titillations of tassel-twirling dancers.  

Burlesque performances, says the self-styled “Warrior of Burlesque,” producer and founder of Richmond’s Boom Boom Basics Burlesque & Performing Arts Studio, Deanna Danger, “went underground because of the world wars, when people didn’t have the money to go to the theater.” Theater owners had to up the ante to draw audiences, “so that’s when more of the strip tease came through, and it became more about the girls and less about the story and the parody and the comedy” of original burlesque.

Danger, who has been performing and producing for six years, says that classic burlesque began making a comeback in the 1990s. Famous stripper Dita Von Teese led the way, eschewing the straightforward, take-it-all-off show for glamorous costumes and a return to slow and sexy storytelling. But, explains Danger, it’s only been in the last eight or nine years that neo-burlesque has really taken off.

“In theater, you have that fourth wall, and you don’t have that connection with the audience, but with burlesque that’s essential—we feed off the audience, and the audience feeds off of us. It’s more than just sitting and watching and you clapping and leaving; it’s an experience.”

Audiences, she says—and Reynolds and Slomski agree—are all over the map: young, old, male, female, gay, straight. “Sideshow, freak show and classic burlesque,” says Reynolds, “are the common man’s entertainment.”

Imperfect, sometimes deliciously bizarre and always unflinchingly authentic, perhaps it is the truest form of reality entertainment in an age saturated with the stuff.

“Burlesque will always be real, because it is a real person performing it right in front of your eyes with all of her beauty and all of her flaws and all the things that could possibly go wrong, so it’s much more organic,” says Danger, “and it’s always going to be like that.”

Back at Reynolds’ workshop, the strongman casually picks up two 6-inch steel bolts and quietly, easily bends them in half. A few minutes later, the thick pieces of folded metal are intertwined. “Come on, you can tell me,” I say in a low conspiratorial voice, “what’s the trick, is it real?”

Says Reynolds, “Oh yeah, it’s all real.” Those bolts aren’t coming apart. I know, I’ve tried.

Click here for a list of upcoming vaudeville and burlesque performances around the state.

This article originally appeared Jan. 6, 2015.

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