“There’s always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you”, chirps Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) in Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 – er – ‘classic’ flesh-fest, Showgirls. Well if it’s hunger you need, then San Francisco’s schlock-fest doyenne Peaches Christ is certainly younger and hungrier than most for this film and is bringing that schlock-fest passion to London in October. Teaming up with the Amy Grimehouse and a gathered ensemble of San Francisco queens, kings and no doubt a few British princesses for good measure, Peaches is bringing her volcanic-ally explosive night Showgirls to the Rio Cinema and Bearbarella to Manchester’s Cornerhouse.
This writer was fortunate enough to catch Peaches’ sixteenth Showgirls night at the Castro Theatre. This is what British audiences have in store when a peach bursts your cherry….
Christ’s A Night of a Thousand Showgirls is a now famed event in gay San Francisco – an annual on-stage tribute to the gobbling turkey that is Verhoeven’s critically mauled flick. Recently celebrating its seventeenth slide down the pole of affectionate ridicule, Peaches Christ’s pre-show extravaganza has built up quite a head of steam. Infinitely bolder and cleverer than the film itself – which is only glorious because it knows not of its pitfalls (“you got something wrong with your nipples?”), A Night of a Thousand Showgirls is a must in the Castro’s must-ladened calendar and this Showgirls virgin was luckier than Kyle MacLachlan’s [then] bottom wrangler.
Located in ideal seats by our Showgirls-savvy friends in the beautiful old paddle steamer of a cinema that is San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, the night’s merriment was already apparent. Audience participation is to be as key as audience enjoyment. This is what the Rocky Horror Picture Show fan movement was before provincial tours starring Blue Peter presenters diluted the naughtiness for midweek audiences. Here is a party where day-glo drag drifts through the aisles, bearded Vegas showgirls mingle with fluorescent leotarded weaklings, a quarterback in oddly becoming stilettoes trots to the Gents, space vixens glitter alongside Gaga reinventionists, girls are boys, boys are girls, boys are boys and the statuesque RuPaul’s Drag Race candidate and drag loyalist Honey Mahogany shows them all how it’s done (“too real”, dismisses host Christ with a wink at Honey, “too real!”).
The thing to remember with San Francisco is that people put in the effort. For scant fiscal returns, this town is bustling with many a creative hustler like Verasphere’s Mrs Vera and Mr Tina, Club Something’s David Glamamore, Honey Mahogany and – in this instance – Peaches Christ (and her alter-ego Joshua Grannell) who push their friends and collaborators’ time and talents to bring out a one-off yearly night that celebrates cinema, cinema-going and the city’s crucial LGBT scene. From an elaborate and hilarious pre-show film written by Christ to on-stage dance numbers and the night’s signature moment (which we will come on to), this is an event that celebrates Verhoeven’s filmic monstrosity but more crucially tips a hat/wig/Michael Myers hockey mask (I’m sure I saw one) to the creative counter-pulse of San Francisco itself. Quite clearly revelling in the support of the current and proven generation on the drag and cabaret circuit – Mahogany, Lady Bear, Cousin Wonderlette and Penny L’eggs – as well as giving a step up to newer creations still finding their feet (and kitten heels), my night with a thousand showgirls soon became so more than a bit of camp filler for an otherwise bad film. And to label anything of this thinking as camp or drag is to miss the point. This is not about expression, not impression. These girls and boys are not aping Showgirls, they are using it as a spot-lit springboard for their own identities however temporary or fleeting. Marshalled by Peaches as – naturally – Gershon’s bi-hi Cristal Connors, this pre-film rollercoaster is a slick affair whose edges are only rough because that makes everything funnier. Life is always going to be a lot more entertaining when you can take the rise out of something so risible as Showgirls. But there is nothing suspect about the cast’s insight into the phenomenon of this movie. Real support players from the 1995 original join the choreographed mayhem, the production values echo the tackier excesses of the Las Vegas settings and part of the momentum to the hilarious chaos is the audience’s familiarity with Christ’s set-up and shtick.
And this is all before the evening’s signature moment unfurls itself like Nomi Malone spewing forth from a Verhoeven volcano. “Free lap dance with every large popcorn” boasts the posters throughout the Castro. Was there really to be a thousand showgirls filling the rafters in the two-tier Castro Theatre? Well maybe not quite a thousand, but the finale of Christ’s elaborate spectacle is a now infamous tsunami of drag as at least a hundred acts, personas and gender benders tear into the audience searching for prey clutching a box of large popcorn. They just happen to feel like a thousand. This is the moment the night scores its infamy as the drag dial is turned to “Ken Russell” and all manner of faux-hedonistic ribaldry and slap and tickle fun spills into the very suspecting audience. Popcorn ejaculates in all directions, camera flashes make out the dry humping and comedy squats of the writhing figures and – like San Francisco itself – the lines of sexual orientation are fantastically blurred.
This is also the moment of no return for Showgirls the film. It cannot follow this. But it does, albeit with a slight sadness from this audience member that Peaches herself has not re-shot the whole film with her pals (though the filmed homages over the years are no doubt building up and could one day see no need for Elizabeth Berkeley and her unrehearsed twists to camera). But wait. What is this? Watching Showgirls in this context becomes an utter joy as its’ weird and sometimes brutal twists become total car-crash entertainment, its excruciating dialogue are gems of bad hindsight (“here, wipe your nose”), MacLachlan gets his twin peaks out for the boys and eventually nothing that road kill of a movie vomits up surprises us. The upshot is a totally immersive grand guignol of an experience, all refereed by Peaches Christ’s and her A-grade enthusiasm for the B-movie in us all. And I would put money on the Vegas gambling tables that to do this all over again next time is even more fun. But for now, my Showgirls cherry was not just popped. It was rolled in glue and petrol-blue glitter and stamped on with an eight inch heel. Get yourself to the Rio Cinema in October. Now.
“Aren’t you gonna come here and give me a big kiss?”. Actually, I think I might.
As part of the BFI’s Days of Fear And Wonder, Peaches Christ’s Bearbarella is at Belfast’s BlackBox on Thursday 9th October as part of Outfest, Glasgow’s Film Theatre on Friday 10th October and Manchester’s Cornerhouse on Saturday 11th October.
In association with The Amy Grimehouse, Peaches Christ’s Showgirls is at London’s Rio Cinema on Friday 17th October.
And of course Peaches Christ has a great top shelf of a cine-skewed site.