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"Charlotte is all DJs and live bands for the most part," says native Charlottean Hannibal the Magician (who commands five grand for corporate gigs, but performs for Big Mamma pro bono because he enjoys her shows so much). "You've got the Blumenthal running The Lion King, and four weeks out they're advertising it as the biggest thing in the city. But you've got local people at a grassroots level who are really turning out some great, fine alternative art that is largely being ignored here." But Big Mamma's audience is a mixed bag. "When I go out and mingle with the crowd," Hannibal admits, "there are people from corporate America all the way down to the Penguin crowd. The wife of a CEO from one of the big Fortune 500 companies in Charlotte hasn't missed a show, and she brings a bunch of her friends."
"We get everyone from 18-year-olds to my oldest patron, who is 72. My audience is probably 70:30 ratio of women to men," says Big Mamma, who only expects the numbers to continue to climb. "Burlesque is huge right now. I just got back from Las Vegas for the 50th Anniversary of Miss Exotic World. All of the legends perform once a year for this reunion. There were about 2,000 people there."
But according to Big Mamma, while burlesque is hot in Atlanta and Nashville, as well as the Queen City, the boom is not a Southern phenomenon. "We're at the end of the train," she notes. "It's just burgeoning here, but it's been going on for two years in L.A. But Charlotte is growing. I think the city is tripping over itself to move faster. It isn't big enough yet to support all the artists that are here yet, but it will be, and there's a lot more interest coming in. All of the large condos that are going up downtown, like the Trump Tower, and all the big businesses that are moving in are going to bring people who have a more refined taste and want to progress."
"And the Charlotte citizens that were born here -- the hardcore Southern Christian people -- are moving out to be in quieter places like Indian Trail or Monroe," Hannibal adds. "They're reaching that point in life where the noisiness of the city just doesn't appeal to them anymore."
Big Mamma relies on a revolving core group of burlesque babes from several Southern locales to flesh out the bill at each performance. In addition to Tits McGee, Talloolah Love and Miss Lolly Pop (and her husband, Larry the Panty Boy), this evening's review will showcase the estimable talents of Monique Honeybush and Veronica Lashe. (Diamond Ice, the fan dancer, couldn't make it.) Also on hand are Hannibal the Magician, country crooner Hick'ry Hawkins, and Lefty LeBlue, who shares emcee duties with Johnny Anonymous.
While the material skews closer to a G-string than a G rating, there is absolutely no hardcore content (if you're looking for a half-hearted pole dance from a bored exotic dancer who'd rather be anywhere else, you've come to the wrong place), which is not to say that there isn't stripping; there is, and plenty of it. The emphasis here, however, is on the titillation, not the tits, and nowhere is this more evident than in the fact that Big Mamma's shows glorify -- not objectify -- women who do not fit the current archetypes of feminine beauty.
"I love the fact that the women in the show are all kinds of body types," says Tits McGee, who has been with Big Mamma since the first Charlotte show. "One of our goals is to show the audience that you don't have to fit within a very narrow confine of what society deems attractive. Society doesn't necessarily think plus-size women are sexy, but look how sexy these women are. They're stunning! Every time Talloolah Love and Veronica Lashe come up to do a show with us, I'm just in awe of them. I think it's amazing that we can all go up there and perform, and people think that we're beautiful in our disparate ways, and that we can find that beauty in ourselves and present it onstage."
By the time Johnny Anonymous and Lefty LeBlue take the stage to announce the opening number, the Visulite is packed with everything from the merely curious to rabid fans. Lipstick lesbians mingle with middle-class housewives next to vintage hippies and ramped-up Gen Xers looking for the next new thing. As the spotlight hits Big Mamma, turning her dress an iridescent gunmetal blue, the room swells with her potent voice: "What good is sitting alone in your room? Come hear the music play. Life is a cabaret old chum, so come to the Cabaret." The audience is hooked.