The street is dark and wet, straight out of The Third Man. Moody, too (although allusions to the 3rd M probably make that unnecessary to qualify). I’m a sensualist. I can imbue mood onto any canvas in a Film-Noir-German-Expressionist heartbeat. You know the scene. The streetlamps refract their light against the glistening pavement in circles here and there like stage lights, mysteries hide in the shadows, but otherwise there is no one and nothing around me. Only my tiny 2-cylinder foreign job, making its way across the emptiness of downtown LA at midnight, the whooshing sighs of tread on rain-drenched asphalt, though the rain itself has stopped. Not even the homeless, of which there is a copious population in these parts, seem to be in the vicinity of this stretch of brick tenement buildings and corrugated metal pull-downs. They’ve all found their way underground, I imagine, until the sidewalks dry. Is there such an underground? Or are they merely camouflaged up against the mud-colored landscape of industrial drab, invisible but present? The city is asleep by every indication of my surroundings. I pull up to the address on my yellow notepad, and park directly across the street from my destination. I don’t see any other cars, which means I’m the first one here. I don’t intend on getting out until I see a familiar car, a familiar face.
Damn Ross for this. There’s always a rabbit hole he’s got us going down, and this particular one feels especially dubious. After all, I’m dressed head-to-toe like the mutant offspring of Norma Desmond and RuPaul. It’s my own creation, The Fabulous Miss Thing, an arguably self-governing alter ego who allows me carte blanche on the stuff I could never dare as Angela. The uniform is: Platinum pageboy wig, teased and puffed out so voluminously that I was barely able to fit in my car without grazing it on the ceiling. Black satin bustier that shows an ample bosom, and which is even bosom-ier when I’m in the seated position. I could literally rest my head on my boobs if I had a mind to. The only thing covering any portion of the boobage is the white satin Miss America sash that goes over the shoulder and across the décolletage that reads “Miss Thing” in elementary school cursive glitter. A floor-length black velvet skirt, with train, that evokes Morticia Addams, whom I’ve always longed to channel. Leopard-spot platform hooker strappies that make me drag queen tall. Black opera gloves with claw-long blood-red press-on nails glued to the fingertips. My proudest possession. My proudest achievement in the area of drag queen aesthetic.
I was mistaken for one once, wearing this very getup, as I attempted to apply my fake eyelashes in the mirror of the women’s room at Club Largo. They didn’t have a dressing room for us, so it all had to be done right there in relative public, when a woman walked in and stopped dead at the door.
“I think you’re in the wrong restroom,” came the polite warning, but underscored with disgust and disapproval that I, penis-owner that I MUST have been, would have the gall to choose the women’s room for my sartorial transformation.
I responded in the lowest-register voice I could muster, but with a sass only drag queens truly know how to muster, “Honey, we’re in West Hollywood. Every room is the right room.”
Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.
( … the genuine, if ridiculous, transgender bathroom debate notwithstanding … Just let people pee!)
I presently stare out of my car window, which is fogging up because I insist on talking to myself: “Damn you, Ross! Why do you drag me to these freak fests, and then don’t even have the nerve to show up on time?”
I adjust my wig, and check my makeup in the rear view mirror. I’ll put my tiara on after I exit the car. Not enough room in here.
Twenty minutes pass. I don’t own a cell phone. Finally I give up waiting and exit the car. I look around, darting eyes this way and that, shake everything out, adjust my boobs inside the bustier, place the tiara on my head, but am prepared to wield it as a weapon should the need arise.
I hasten across the street, holding my Morticia train in my left hand to keep it from getting wet, and run across as fast as my platform heels will allow. The banging on the door lasts longer than I’m comfortable with, and I fear waking up the sleeping shopping carts who may be hovering near after all. This part of town is adjacent to Skid Row, and not exactly the Brewery District either, but some sort of limbo Purgatory in between. Artists may very well have lofts here, but I’ve seen neither hide nor hint of an artist yet. Only my own frightened bouffant shadow. Why didn’t I hitch a ride with Ross? Or Dan? Or Liz? My partners in crime this evening, if they ever decide to show up. But then again, we’d all be late if I’d done that.
My banging finally results in an open door, opened so violently I’m almost throttled with it. The woman on the other side looks like someone Warhol would’ve groomed, and sure enough leads me up a narrow, unlit staircase to a darkened lair startlingly evocative of Andy’s infamous Factory. She’s chatty and charming, and I apologize for the tardiness of my mates, and swear to her that they must be shortly behind me, only to be told that they’re already here. I’m the one who’s late, it turns out. Why hadn’t I seen their cars outside? I never do get that answer.
As I follow her through a maze of partitions, and strangely lit cubbyholes and cubicles, we finally arrive at the bowels, a space with film cameras and lights, a set whose centerpiece is a singular large round bed draped in bordello pink, with a bevy of sofas on the set’s periphery, meant to create a waiting lounge area, and people. People everywhere. Behind the cameras. Holding up boom stands. Standing around with giant makeup brushes in their hands. Lounging on the sofas. And the hostess herself, Dr. Susan Block, a brassy blond who is actually a real life bona fide psychologist, even if her claim-to-fame is a sex talk show for public access TV, is sprawled across the bed draped in little more than her pet boa constrictor. I seem to have entered upon some kind of Dr. Caligari kink-fest.
My escort promptly disappears as Ross and Dan wave me over to where they’re sitting on a cluster of ottomans in the waiting lounge. For some inexplicable reason, my mouth opens and an English accent comes out. I tend to do that. It’s the silly in me. And I actually have a pretty good ear for it. I guess I feel compelled to be even more incognito than my Miss Thing ensemble renders me. And true to wacky form, neither Ross nor Dan even blinks an eye, as the world we’ve created for ourselves is a strange one indeed, as befitting the name of our organization, the Orchestre Surreal. Dan jumps right on the Brit thing, and Ross just chuckles.
“Where the hell have you brought us to?” Imagine that sounding like a whispering, spitting Helen Mirren.
There are a smattering of other guests sitting on sofas, and a few pairs seem to be having sex. Wait, am I seeing that right? It’s awfully dark in here, but I swear coitus is happening around me.
“Yeah, I really didn’t know what to expect, to be honest,” Ross whispers back. “But it’ll be fun. Let’s just go with it. We’re here to promote the Ford show, so let’s just stay focused on that.”
Tonight would mark our last in a string of radio and TV spots Ross had set up for us to do, to pump our new scripted show at our most prestigious venue yet, Hollywood’s John Anson Ford Ampthitheatre.
Dan, who goes by Dangerous Dan, is an ample fellow, who nonetheless moves nimbly and deftly to points of defying physics, and who decks himself out in red and gold satin fighter shorts, and a Viking helmet. He has a staggering singing voice, and an even more staggering, larger-than-life, room-shredding personality. He dubs himself the opera singer with the lethal stinger, or the singing Viking with the destructive striking, or the Karate Pavarotti. I think he actually does walk around his life speaking in rhyme. He’s far nuttier than any of Miss Thing’s antics (and she’s pretty nutty, if you’ve ever seen her channel her inner German dominatrix for These Boots Are Made for Walking “Das Boots!”). Ross is dressed as his alter-ego, Elvis Schönberg, the musical miscegenation of the King of Rock, Elvis Presley, and the King of Early 20th-Century Dodecaphonic Music, Arnold Schönberg. Yes, you heard that right. In fact, of all the orchestra’s repertoire, the one piece that actually IS that specific fusion is a 12-tone treatment of Blue Suede Shoes. You can’t make this stuff up, folks. And yet, though this madness comes from inside that brain, Ross is actually the most mild-mannered one of the group. But brilliant. Brilliant this guy is. He’s created this thirty-piece orchestra, as its sole orchestrator, arranger, conductor, and conceptualist.
Elvis Schönberg’s Orchestre Surreal is a wild ride, indeed, always pushing against the boundaries of genre, and daring to suggest a world stripped of those borders. So here it is in a nutshell. Hopefully our Blue Suede Shoes has given some hint. It presents radically different artistic expressions and genres that, in Elvis Schönberg’s world, have every obligation to collide. The result is a deconstructing of known and unknown songs with the wit and whimsy of Spike Jones but the musical complexities of Frank Zappa, with a little Juan Garcia Esquivel and Joe Frank thrown in, while showcasing easily the wackiest wacky-savant orchestra of thirty musicians in recent history. It’s Hendrix meets Strauss, The Doors meet Rite of Spring, Creedence meets Prokofiev. Unholy marriages that couldn’t be more anointed under any other baton but our Elvis’s. It actually does require a learned crowd to fully get his thing, even with the sometime foray into the scatological. It’s a mélange of high-brow and low-brow, to be sure. But we are about to appear on what seems to be some sort of porn set, so just how high-brow can we be?
Ross’s ensemble is tux & tails, but with zebra stripes of bright red and green. Gumby hairdo. Black horn-rimmed glasses. He’s a very handsome and fit fellow, but you’d almost never know that to see him costumed as Maestro Elvis. And of course Elvis never leaves the castle without his conductor’s baton.
“Where’s Liz?” I suddenly think to ask. And just as I ask it, she appears, cute little girl/woman, clad in her actual Catholic school uniform, with the skirt hemmed extra high. Yes, she’s all that, and a talented violinist, who, of the string section members, was the only one willing to tag along on this crazy adventure. But she’s also clearly just as wigged out as I am about this cable access sex circus, and expresses her concerns to Ross that whatever happens tonight her parents can never know about this. Ross does his best to calm us women down.
“We’re just here to pump the show, that’s all.”
I continue with my English accent, and Ross dares me to commit fully. Susan Block doesn’t know us from Adam. She has no idea if I really talk that way or not. I’m all in! How could it possibly be any nuttier than what we’re already inside of?
As Dr. Susan speaks into a camera, she evokes a bit of Elvira in slinky style, except that the words coming out of her mouth are smart. She’s talking politics, and it turns out the woman’s got a head for it. She introduces her first guest, and it’s a gentleman dressed very like an Ivy League professor. I expect, in spite of our Midnight Movie surroundings, some kind of intellectual discourse as betrayed by Dr. Susan’s progressive spoutings. But no. The Professor proceeds to read dirty poetry to a young woman dressed as Alice (she of the original rabbit hole), who does nothing but sit there spread-eagle. Blue Movie Performance art! It’s all so La Dolce Vita, or, what’s Fellini’s one about circus folk?. . . La Strada. Or Jodorowky’s Santa Sangre. This scene is just kinky enough to be slightly nightmarish. I’m thinking Caligula, the Bob Guccione cut.
After Alice and the Professor finish their bit, they join Dr. Susan and her snake on the big bed. I just about freak at this witness.
“We’re not getting on that bed with that snake!” I spit into Ross’s ear. Well, Judi Dench is spitting in his ear. Even in my panic, I have fully committed to the Brit thing.
“Really? I think it’d be kinda fun,” he says. I have to give it to Ross (even though there is no way he’s winning this one); he has the best attitude about leaping into unsure waters, and a kind of bravery I do not possess for traversing the unknown. Or even just the bizarre. It’s precisely why he can create as brilliantly as he does. No one’s told him, “you can’t do that!” Or if they have, he ain’t listenin’.
Well, the bizarre I’ve given into tonight. I’m fully on board. But there is no way I am getting anywhere near a live boa constrictor.
There are a few other guests that we sit through, all displaying their wares and various talents, and all of whom have some kind of sex angle.
“We don’t have a sex angle. What are we doing here?” Dan asks Ross. “I have a wife at home.”
“Trying to get an audience to our show?” Ross says, frustrated, to the umpteenth person (well, just me, Dan, and Liz) who questions why we’re here. The reality of this business, and this town, is that the hustle has to go right alongside the art, or you’re sunk. So here we are, paying our dues in the most extreme way the phrase could possibly mean.
Before we know it, it’s our turn. Dr. Susan has been informed that her next guests will NOT share a space with her snake, fornication is still going on upon a nearby sofa, and the hostess herself seems warm and intelligent (easy to assume the worst, and the worst is what I have been assuming). She’s actually written for The Alternet and The Ecologist, on civil liberties and freedom of speech. She’s no dummy; she just decided that being a “sexologist” was her calling.
We climb upon this bed prop, which is no easy feat wearing the getup I’m wearing. Plus there are four of us, not counting Dr. Suzy. So, five! Yes, I have continued with the English accent, and so the first question upon the cameras rolling is, “where are you from, Miss Thing?” When I answer “Compton” with the straightest of faces, which is no joke, which is the absolute truth, but sounding like Kate Winslet, the room laughs. Hmmmm, unintended humor.
Dr. Susan Block is actually a stimulating hoot to chat with, as she tells her television audience all about our upcoming piece at the Ford Amphitheatre, and describes Ross’s music as politically charged by the simple virtue of its strange-bedfellows juxtaposition of seemingly conflicting musical elements, and what those relationships say about the world we live in. She really does get us, and of course Dangerous Dan is making the whole room laugh with his Robin-Williams-on-speed quick wit and bull-in-a-china-shop physicality, and so this cable access spot is actually working the way it needs to. We’re being entertaining. Unless, of course, no one’s watching. And I can’t say there isn’t a part of me that’s kind of hoping no one I know is. My prejudices are about me, for sure. Plus, there are Liz’s parents to consider.
Still, I’m actually having a good time being Miss Thing, or at least the Edina & Patsy version, and regaling stories along with my orchestra cohorts about our upcoming show, whose plot involves gamma rays, aliens, human sacrifice, Dangerous Dan running for president, and Miss Thing saving the world.
Dr. Suzy keeps trying to get Liz and me to show the audience a boob or two, which neither of us is about to do, but we beg off with chuckles and coyness, instead of indignation, because we’re HERE. No place to be presenting as superior and self-righteous when we’re all sprawled out on a big-ass porn bed, and would, each one of us, be hauled off to Parker Center if the police decided to raid the place. But yes, Dr. Suzy is certainly giving it her best shot at a sex angle between the two chicks, as this is what her show IS. Ross, as Elvis, talks about his vision for the orchestra of laying the foundation for a New Avant Garde. Dan stands up on the bed at one point and does an impromptu and unaccompanied rendition of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma, rapping a good portion of it and making the bed tip and bounce like the last hours of the Titanic. He ain’t called Dangerous for nuthin’. Liz gives us all a little sampling from her violin, all the while Dr. Suzy comes awfully close to licking Liz’s bow. The Doc is playful and frisky, and she wants us to be playful and frisky, and we’re only willing to go so far, which she’s probably not that happy about. It’s definitely a surreal 20 minutes, to be sure, as I keep one eye forever cocked to make sure that snake is nowhere slithering. But at the very least, our spot manages to include all the details about our vaudevillianesque show, aptly named Symphony of the Absurd.
At a certain pivotal point within the years that we’ve each been a part of the Orchestre Surreal, I think we’ve all come to an understanding that we’ve stepped into something that might just take us to another planet. And there is always a certain amount of danger whenever flight is taken and horizons are breached. Absurd is most certainly a part of what we’ve invited with this category-obliterating, no-holds-barred musical universe that Ross has created, and that we’ve all collaborated on by bringing our various characters along for the ride. As unsure as the twists and turns may sometimes be, there is honestly no greater thrill than to be a part of something so unique, so singular, so seductive and subversive at the same time. After all, crazy promotional efforts like tonight’s John Waters odyssey aside, Elvis Schönberg, in the form of mild-mannered Ross Wright from Laguna Beach, California, and his fecund Orchestre Surreal, are stripping away the barriers of cultural, generational, and artistic divide, just as surely as we are also mischievously riffing on fossil fuels, hermaphrodism, and stiletto fetishes.
As the director calls cut on our segment of The Dr. Susan Block Show, and we climb off of the giant bed, I ponder the mask I wear as The Fabulous Miss Thing. It’s certainly the E-ticket to wild and crazy adventures, as Angela would never be caught dead in a place like this, or would leave immediately upon discovery. And honestly, it would be my loss. Because there is nothing more dull than a meticulously planned life without the wild fringes to remind us that we are no cookie-cutter emblems of humanity; but merely humanity, in all of its thousand absurd shapes, timbers, tempos, and Day-Glo hues. But even more poignant, if poignancy can be had by a tiara-wearing cartoon character, is that Miss Thing is also the e-ticket to infinite possibilities on stage. As Angela, because I am mostly out there in the gigging world as just myself, it’s pretty hard for me to “do” sexy and over-the-top for the folks, besides which performance for me isn’t about trying to sell sexuality or outrageousness to an audience as a commodity (all deference paid to the Gagas of the world). But even if it were about that, being some Jessica Rabbit sex fantasy is virtually impossible for me to conjure anyway, because it’s too distracting, frankly, from truly connecting to a song. Besides, it renders a feeling of silliness because I don’t actually buy it. And if I don’t buy it, how on earth can I sell it? But the minute the mask is on, the minute I am The Fabulous Miss Thing instead of Angela, replete with self-assured adjective as an integral part of the moniker, I am it, and effortlessly (even if I do draw the line at boob shots for a porn crowd). I can sport a British accent and dare anyone to call me out for my lunacy. And none of Miss Thing’s antics creates any distraction from owning her song, in fact the antics are as much a part of the song as the adjective is to the name, because she IS a very purposeful trip to the moon and back. There is just something about the safe respite of the shadows behind the mask that allows me to own that Vamp Scamp, or even Crazy Lady, so completely that there is no possibility of being rejected. That is, after all, the subtext, isn’t it? Putting oneself out there in a giant way, whether as Femme Fatale, Clown, or Diva (all three of which are Miss Thing), invites scrutiny and possible rejection. Angela’s heart couldn’t take it. She’d much rather be the ego that is stripped down to the bare knuckles, operating merely as conduit, so that the art itself shines. But as for Miss Thing, not only can her heart endure rejection, but she is so larger-than-life, so seizing the world by its Misters, that rejection isn’t even an option.
That last thought stops me in my tracks for a second. Is it actually possible that there could be lessons to be learned from The Fabulous Miss Thing? Or is it perfectly alright that Miss Thing is one phenomenon, gale force who will be reckoned with, while Angela is simply another, preferring to give the floor to the work itself, and that both have their place in my artistic expression?
As an official break is called, while cameras reload and sets get moved around and that damned snake seems to be back in the picture again, Dr. Susan steps off the bed and thanks us for joining her. We sign release forms, shake hands, and thank her for inviting us on, and for helping us to promote our upcoming show. And as Ross, Dan, Liz and I walk out of the vast downtown warehouse into the wanton L.A. night (actually, deep into the dark, dark morning by this point), our shadows tower and loom against a far wall. I fully expect Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton to come peering out from around a corner with fedoras cocked and guns drawn, or some moody Bernard Herrmann score with a tenor sax wailing its noir cry. The appropriately glistening streets have never been more appropriate, as the prisms of refracted light from the streetlamps in the here-and-there puddles threaten to mesmerize us into thinking this has all been a dream.
And as Miss Thing hops into her cheeky little sports car (yes, I can magically conjure my old Toyota Tercel jalopy into Angelyne’s hot pink Porsche if I believe it enough), one more bit of surreal gets checked off a list that apparently plans to go on, and on, and deliciously on.
Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, is a recipient of the Heritage/Soulword Magazine Award in poetry, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.