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Grand Rapids Flaunts Variety With Super Happy Funtime Burlesque

Neighborhood

THE FEED


Rachel Finan during a Sarah Palin-themed burlesque dance this summer at Bells Brewery. Finan is one of the producers of SHFTB.

Rachel Finan during a Sarah Palin-themed burlesque dance this summer at Bells Brewery. Finan is one of the producers of SHFTB. /Steven Depolo

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Is Grand Rapids prepared to strip down to the bare essentials? Ready or not, the Grand Rapids art scene has grown to include revealing the unclothed human body paired with provocative social and political commentary. Residents of West Michigan fall into two groups in regards to Super Happy Funtime Burlesque: They’ve seen it and loved it, or they’ve seen it and hated it. As the show gains popularity, begins to tour, and proves it can persevere any local attempts to shut it down, residents and public administrators alike are beginning to take ownership of Super Happy Funtime Burlesque. An obvious next move would be to promote it as entertainment unique to Grand Rapids. “We’ve been doing this for four years, I’d like to think we’ve become an institution,” said Corey Ruffin, who fronts Super Happy Funtime Burlesque as Mr. Happy Pants. A combination of Vaudevillian acts, outrageous skits and burlesque dances fueled by Ruffin’s band End of Time Orchestra, Super Happy Funtime Burlesque is the profanity slinging, booby swinging variety show that you’ve always wanted, but would never expect to find in Michigan’s conservative corner. The secret formula of music, funny and naughty has slowly propelled the show from experimenting in dark coffee houses years ago, to packing the 410 capacity Wealthy Theatre last July during its Fourth Anniversary Show. Along the way, the show is breaking the mold for the traditional stage show. “I thought I knew what burlesque was before I went to Grand Rapids MI this weekend,” Ann Marie Weinert, aka Red Hot Annie, said of her collaboration with Super Happy Funtime Burlesque at the anniversary show. Weinert has been performing burlesque in Chicago since January of 2008. “They have - quite literally - redefined burlesque for me. These are vaudeville performers - the type who practice and practice and practice. There were acts of flexibility and strength, but there were also ensemble skits. There is no comparison in Chicago,” she said. In the last year, Super Happy Funtime Burlesque has toured to other, even more traditionally conservative Michigan locales such as Traverse City, Holland and Three Rivers. The last of these was to The Riviera Theatre in Three Rivers. Ruffin explains that the positive response from the show in Three Rivers is a surprisingly common trend when taking the show on the road. “These are normal looking people from young people to those with gray hair,” Ruffin said. “After we played the Riviera, a group of young kids in the audience stayed after the show to thank us.” For young people in conservative towns, it’s no surprise hearing sexual references, casual cursing and the mocking of authority figures is a cathartic experience. Add social commentary to the formula, perpetuating the already present us vs. them feel of the show, and the lines between being entertained and becoming a believer begin to blur. “There is this mindset posed on the working class that you have to subscribe to a set of morals determined by the upper class,” said Ruffin. “A gray cloud attitude, don’t-rock-the-boat thing.” “With the mass amounts of ‘entertainment’ available, it’s easy to say, ‘(The show) can’t be that great’ and not want to let your guard down,” Ruffin said. “Meanwhile you have to watch three movies a night, or spend all day watching television to find something you haven’t seen before.” Certainly no one had previously seen the re-animation of beloved hometown President Gerald Ford as a brain-eating zombie. “It was when the primary between Obama and Clinton was getting heated, before McCain took the lead. We looked at each and said ‘We don’t like either one of these candidates.” Ruffin explains. Enter Ford, a post-mortem hero of sorts to wipe the democratic ballot clean. But the skit was staged for the family-friendly, non-burlesque Super Happy Funtime Old Radio Hour taking place at Wealthy Theatre and simultaneously broadcast on WYCE. The skit turned out to be a blemish on an otherwise well-executed event. “We played original music from the era and hit all the formats of radio: an episode of Flash Gordon, news, commercials. The Ford bit was something we didn’t even think of being a problem until the reaction after the show,” said Ruffin. Part of the reaction included the same show being taken off the bill of Meijer Gardens 2008 Winter Concert Series, scheduled for days later. Fearless performance art will offend some and amuse many others. It’s highly unlikely the call to cancel the show came from Fred Meijer himself. Regardless, ever since the Gardens show was cancelled, a stop-animated Fred Meijer has offered a disclaimer before each Grand Rapids Super Happy Funtime Burlesque show, warning of inappropriate content mostly by giving examples of inappropriate content. No inhibition means nothing is sacred. Ten years ago Ruffin said he was willing to take the risk that comes with trying to make a living from his musical and artistic projects. “I’ve been living hand to mouth ever since. There is still risk involved.” Part of that risk is having not seen a doctor since age 18. On the eve of health care ‘reform’, this is an all too familiar scenario. Knocking on the wood table in front of him, he admits he’s now in his early thirties. Between the band, the actors and the burlesque performers, any money gained in ticket sales is usually just enough to cover expenses or invest in the next show. “This show is what we want to do. It’s our goal to do it fulltime. After four years, I feel that it’s time.” It’s not the partial nudity that carries Super Happy Funtime Burlesque, though it is the aspect of the show that gets the most reaction. It’s not the band and it’s not the actors. As a collective performance constructed from a super-concentration of talent, mostly harvested in the Grand Rapids area, Super Happy Funtime Burlesque says anything, shows almost everything, and makes fun of anyone. And they do it very well. Some easily chalk it up as mere entertainment. But, at the end of the show, for every pair of hands that come together as result of being satisfactorily entertained, there is another whose clap is a thank you for provoking liberation of thought; a dissection of convention. In this regard, Super Happy Funtime Burlesque has been successful in cementing its status as one of the most unique destinations in West Michigan. For more visit www.superhappyfuntimeburlesque.com and www.redhotannie.com.


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