From Rapid Growth Media Article by Steven de Polo
The bebop music rises and a woman takes center stage. She sparkles with glitter, her lips ruby red. She reveals her character while playfully removing her costume. The music ends. She flashes her pasties and skips off stage. Before her there was a magic act by Velvet Dan. After, a comedy skit about politics. That’s the magic of burlesque.
Four Friends - Corey Ruffin, Rachel Finan, Rich Haralson, and Josh Dunigan – established the Super Happy Funtime Burlesque in 2006 to launch a revival of the theatrical entertainment style in Grand Rapids. Yes, churchy, small town Grand Rapids is home to one of the only regular burlesque and vaudeville shows in Michigan.
“It would be impossible to run Super Happy Funtime anywhere else in the state,” says Corey Ruffin, the bandleader who hosts the show as the dentally challenged Mr. Happy Pants.
The Perfect Place to Perform Grand Rapids has an unusually strong performance base for a city its size. It has a strong theater tradition, vibrant music scene, close proximity to Chicago and Detroit, and a relatively affordable urban lifestyle. As a result, Super Happy Funtime maintains a stable fifteen-member cast with a five person technical crew and 10-member house band, the End of Times Orchestra.
The audience for a burlesque show also exists, if quietly, here in Grand Rapids. Ambitious companies like Steelcase and Herman Miller hire smart and open-minded people while institutions such as Grand Valley State University, Aquinas, and Calvin College recruit professors and students from cross the country who demand a vibrant and challenging arts scene.
Most importantly, the city includes the architectural jewel of the Wealthy Theatre. Built originally in 1911 as a vaudeville house, the theater found new life in 2005 when it became part of the Community Media Center. The merger included $2.4 million in much-needed equipment and programming upgrades. Beyond the glitz and glamour of the neon-lit marquee and half-million dollar sound system, the Wealthy Theatre again is a special place to see a live show.
“Performing at the Wealthy Theatre has been amazing,” says Rachel Finan, the troupe's artistic director and also performs as Lala Vulvaria. “The auditorium is the perfect setting for our performances. We feel like we’re part of a great performance tradition.”
But the road to the Wealthy Theater was not a straight line. The performers earned their chops at some of the livelier venues in town. Most of the crew originally performed as Dr. Toledo’s Amazing Elixir Traveling Medicine Show on the creaky stage behind the old Morning Star 75 coffeehouse. In 2005, they once did four Halloween shows in a weekend with $3 tickets and no air conditioning.
They knew they needed to go in a different direction. Then Rich Haralson entered the picture. The tow-headed entrepreneur had the business savvy and connections they needed. Super Happy Funtime's first official show was performed in August 2006 at Haralson's Heritage Hill home for a house party of 300 close friends.
Partnerships and Practice
That party’s success led the group to book a monthly Sunday night show at the Sazerac Lounge. Owner Brett Alward was very supportive of the group, which with their theatrical lighting and piles of glitter was unlike the rock bands he normally booked.
Around that time, Corey Ruffin and Rachel Finan applied for one of studio apartments developed in the Martineau Building along the strip of Division now emerging as the Avenue for the Arts. They not only could live downtown, but work as artists: Ruffin teaches private music lessons, while Rachel teaches yoga and leads a butoh workshop.
The live/work studio, as well as a rehearsal room in the basement of the building, provided Super Happy Funtime with new practice opportunities. They scheduled weekly rehearsals that allowed the actors and musicians to hone their craft.
“The shows began getting more theatrical, more complex as the performers gained experience,” says Josh Dunigan, who serves as the technical director. “But the physical dimensions of the Sazerac stayed the same. That was a challenge.”
The group began reinvesting its profits in the production. They supported the local business community, thus keeping the dollars local. They bought costumes at vintage clothing stores like Scavenger Hunt. Props were found across the street at Goodwill. The burlesque dancers bought theatrical makeup and spirit gum at Theatricks. They print posters and programs at Screaming Gnat Studios.
Neglected by the major media, they got support from Recoil and Revue magazines. Local companies like Curless Auto Repair, Magnum Tattooing, and Rich Haralson’s Strictly Auto Glass donate gift certificates to the audience.
The group received professional styling support from Fusion Salon and Shanti Salon. Extra chairs were rented at Baker Party Rental. The cast fueled up at the Wealthy Street Bakery and Local Mocha. After the shows, the hungry cast ate late-night meals at the Grand Coney or Z’s Grille and Bar. Even the Grand Rapids Police Department’s Vice Squad has been by.
Eventually, the Sazerac shows began selling out with 175 people squeezing into the bar even as ticket prices rose to reflect all the work that went into each performance.
“We knew we had to find a bigger venue,” says Producer Rich Haralson. “We needed a space that could handle our technical needs while having the capacity for our audience.”
The troupe booked a show at The BOB during their massive 2006 Mardi Gras party. In fact, the End of Times Orchestra has been booked to play their Mardi Gras shows ever since. Then they scheduled a couple shows at the Intersection.
“The Intersection was an amazing experience," says Corey Ruffin. "It’s a rock club with a very aggressive vibe. Our show had to adapt to match the intensity of the crowd."
“Afterward, we realized that we were not a rock-and-roll show," adds Rachel Finan. "We still needed to find an artistic home.”
With a successful track record at the Sazerac and the Intersection, the managers of Super Happy Funtime persuaded the Wealthy Theatre to let the burlesque show take the stage.
Funtime in GR
Now the troupe performs for over 300 people at the theatre and reaches an even larger audience through the Community Media Center’s GRTV and WYCE radio station. They still book private shows at venues like the BOB and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art. And with a sold out show at the Inside Out Gallery in Traverse City, Super Happy Funtime has begun to take their show on the road to progressive cities like Saugatuck and Ann Arbor.
Yet, as Super Happy Funtime continues to grow, the company knows how important Grand Rapids has been to their success. “We need Grand Rapids,” says Rich Haralson. “Just like Grand Rapids needs Super Happy Funtime.”