Weekly Burlesque: Interview with Ronnie Magri

First, tell us a little about the Throbs.

I joined The Throbs in the late ’80s, and we got signed to Geffen records. I suppose we were the hot-shot New York band of the time. We were supposed to be the New York Guns ‘N’ Roses, which was the kiss of death.

It was a great band though. We got Little Richard to play piano and had Alice Cooper’s producer Bob Ezrin — we worked till ’91 and we got dropped because we weren’t grungy.

I kicked around New York a bit and ended up moving to New Orleans in ’95. (The Throbs also played a reunion show at Don Hill’s in January of 2009.)

How did you end up in New Orleans?

While I was making The Throbs record with Little Richard, he was talking about New Orleans a lot, and I moved there thinking I was going to play R&B, but that wasn’t happening. I kept going back and got into ’20s/’30s/’40s-type jazz.

The first year I went, all I did was listen. I didn’t play; I took it all in. I would just go sit and listen to people and would go watch my favorite drummers. I didn’t play at all; I was just a fan, an observer of the music.

That’s how I got into more jazz, which I wasn’t into in New York. The thing about New Orleans is that music is a necessity there. It’s just not that important to people in New York now, but there were so many clubs and bands in New Orleans to play with — a real community, people willing to help you out.

Tennessee Williams had a quote that New Orleans was the only city that ever loved him back. In New Orleans, people care and want to help you. It was easy to just sit in with people, and then the next thing you’re getting a call to do gigs.

It just rolled. It was about helping each other out. Here a drummer would do a gig dying sick because he was afraid he’d lose his gig. It was a different vibe to get into the New Orleans jazz scene.

Ronnie Magri at the Shim Sham Club

What was the Shim Sham Club?
It was a club in the French Quarter, operating under the name Maxwell’s, and for years it was just a beautiful theater that was just falling apart. They would have bad music there.

A friend of mine named Morgan Higby (associate producer of Shortbus) lived in LA and New Orleans, and he called me up one day and said he’d bought Maxwell’s Cabaret. He’d done a movie (Matters of Consequence) that featured the Pussycat Dolls in 1999.

When he moved to NOLA, he wanted to do a burlesque kind of club. He decided to rename the space the Shim Sham Club after a place Louis Prima‘s brother Leon had owned, along with the 500 club where dancers like Lilly Christine had performed.

On opening night, we did a burlesque show with Sam Butera, who had never played New Orleans even though it was his own town. We did a show thinking that it would be a one-night-only thing, and when you put all that work into a show for one night, it’s over so fast and you have the costumes and music and acts.

Morgan decided to try it monthly, then weekly, every Sunday, two shows a night, and that was it. It just took off from there. New Orleans has such a history of burlesque.

That got a lot of the press behind us. For better or for worse, New Orleans has been known as sort of like a museum, where nothing was really about the future — it’s all about the past — so we’re recreating this, and the press ate it up and helped us get a crowd of locals and tourists, young and old.

We couldn’t rely on any one type of audience. We got that it wasn’t a hipster underground thing.
We had the club owner behind us. We could use the space for rehearsals. He paid for the girls’ costumes, paid the girls, and paid for the band. The music that had to be written, so we had backing. I don’t think we would have been able to do it that long if it hadn’t been for him.

Who were the dancers?

Kitten LaRue and The Atomic Bombshells came from the Shim Sham dancers, and I’m proud to see what they’ve done. There were about a hundred dancers that went through our revues, and I think half a dozen of them stuck with it.

There were still some burlesque dancers that were still alive — Kitty West the Oyster Girl, Wild Cherry, and Linda Brigette. They would come to give lessons.

Those women would come down during rehearsals and give the girls pointers. I was there for a couple of those sessions, and it was not pretty.

They would tell the girls straight out, “You’re walking like a truck driver.” That was one of Kitty’s favorite lines. A couple of the girls really wanted to learn and listened anyway.

The show was open for five years until Morgan left New Orleans and the people from the shows scattered all over the country. Dita performed with us several times.

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