The Reverend Pastor Father Brother Ben Wisdom explains his spiritual path

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WHAT: Brother Nutria
WHEN: Tues. (Sept. 20), 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Hi-Ho Lounge

With his work as a producer and host for the Snake Oil Festival and Slow Burn Burlesque along with emceeing Bella Blue’s Dirty Dime Peepshow, Ben Wisdom has carved out his niche as the fallen preacher man who has succumbed to, revels in and even peddles the sins of the flesh. It’s as if Jimmy Swaggart had decided to stay on Airline Drive. It’s something into which he’s evolved over the years, and when he’s at the top of his game he’s one of the funniest comedians in New Orleans. He’s even become a radio host with his show “The Ministry of Misbehavin’” on 102.3 FM WHIV and WHIVfm.org, Tuesdays from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. But there is a context to his conversion, and he was gracious enough to share his journey with us as his band, Brother Nutria, prepares for its gig on Sept. 20 at the Hi-Ho Lounge.

I have a pretty interesting and fun life. I’m a burlesque emcee and show producer in New Orleans, Louisiana. I love “the city that care forgot” as well as a healthy dose of downright debauchery, so burlesque in the town I love is a good fit for me. However, I haven’t always been down with the “ways of the devil,” or the promiscuity of the Crescent City. In a different life I was a devout follower of Pentecostal Christianity. I was baptized three times. I spoke in tongues. I even, for a brief time, considered becoming a preacher.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen, I guess? My going from devout holy roller to filthy burlesque emcee was a long journey, and as you can probably guess, my relationship with religion is now and really always has been complicated. And, that’s why I can’t seem to get it out of my act. I’m known for some of my, I guess you would call them catch phrases — “amen and amen again,” and “hallelujah and hallelujah to ya.”

I often incorporate religious themes into my performance, and I even have a character, The Rev. Pastor Father Brother Ben Wisdom, that is a full-on, bent, Pentecostal preacher who extolls the virtue of having no virtue. This character was first born at a Slow Burn Burlesque show called, “Jesus’ Big Birthday Bash” — it was our twisted version of a Christmas show). I further developed the character in a show I co-produce with my partner and co-creator, Little Luna, called the “Unholy Roller Revival,” which is a mock tent revival that we have put on every year at the variety arts festival that we also produce, called Snake Oil Festival. I use the Preacher character as a lens to hold up to what I consider to be the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the people who use Christianity to rule us.

And, now, the preacher character is going through another evolution. A year ago, I joined a group of great guys (MarkAlain Dery, Nate Pendergast and Kit Keen) here in New Orleans, and we formed the band, Brother Nutria. We all share in the songwriting duties, but I probably write two-thirds of the lyrics, and as you might have guessed those lyrics are full of thoughts questioning the world view as seen through the eye of so-called modern Christian America. We have song titles like “Gospel Billy Preacher,” “Ready to Sin” and “Holy Ghost Drone Strike.” In the latter, we sing, “We’re all good people. We’re all sanctified. And, when it comes to Christian white folks, his love is double wide.”

ben-smokeI was introduced to religion at a young age. My father was raised in a conservative Catholic household in New Orleans. My mother was raised in non-denominational, full gospel churches is Forth Worth, Texas. As young adults and parents, mine weren’t super religious, despite their upbringings. Before I was about 9 or 10, I don’t remember going to church that much except for with my grandparents. However, my most vivid early memory is from when I was somewhere around 4 or 5 years old. It is a memory of my parents allowing me to attend the Pentecostal tent revival being put on by two of my Dad’s friends, who were former drug addicts turned holy-rolling missionaries. Their son was the same age, as me and we were fast friends. I can recall the sites and sounds of that night. We were in some field in or around Vidalia, La., which is right next to Ferriday, the hometown of Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis, which is where we also lived. In the field they had set up trailers for the ministers and singers. There was a humble stage at the center of it all. That stage was equipped with some ancient PA system that amplified each of the speakers and singers to the point of over-modulation. It was all lit in the dark night by blinding construction lights of some kind.

There was a smell of boiled peanuts in the air.

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Check out the best in New Orleans burlesque, circus and sideshow for 2015

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I’ve looked at the New Orleans burlesque and circus scenes for 2015. This was capped off with a series of “best of” polls recognizing the work in several areas. The reasons for the polls were many. It seemed like a nice way to help put a cap on what became for me a year of covering a vital facet of New Orleans’ performance scene. It also seemed like a nice way to shine a spotlight on both the performers and productions throughout the year, both to provide exposure for the scene and to serve as an informal taking of the pulse on what fans were responding to.

The appearance, rollout, structure and even idea of the poll, however, made things more complicated than expected, and the rollout seemed to enjoy all the smoothness of the Obamacare website — a bit of excitement, a healthy dose of confusion, and some fairly heated discussion about its very existence. So there were basically two concurrent discussions — why do it, and why do it in the manner presented?

The first discussion was by far the most complicated, because for many in the scene it raised the possibility of turning what serious, artistic-minded people do into a popularity contest. (More than one performer told me privately it was like being back in high school again, with the prom queen title up for grabs. Some politely requested not to be listed in the polls.) This particular discussion inspired Bella Blue to blog about it with a post titled “Competition vs. Community.” In it, she set up the two notions as a false choice and argued that, in the real world — one that acknowledges that burlesque is also a business — competition can be just as beneficial as community. She went on to point out that burlesque can be about both the art and the commerce; that polls can be fun and motiving; that going for titles (or “crowns”) and striving to be the best doesn’t necessarily have to come at someone else’s expense.

(Indeed, when Bella Blue was voted the No. 16 burlesque performer by 21st Century Burlesque, and Trixie Minx didn’t make the poll, it didn’t seem to hurt her popularity or business or art at all.)

That’s all to say that, as Bella Blue noted, a discussion about polls in particular or competition in general is perhaps something that might have been needed for some time. On a personal level, I appreciate that ambivalence in spirit while firmly believing the overall benefit is invaluable. I’d add that New Orleans has not one but two awards for the music and theater scenes. When someone as legendary as former Meters bassist George Porter Jr. openly campaigns for votes on Faceook in Offbeat’s “Best of the Beat” awards poll, well, it helps put things in perspective.

As for the structure of the poll, there was discussion primarily about which performers and productions initially were placed on the poll, and where everything and everyone belonged — which led to some unnecessary confusion. If this had been conducted in my previous position, it would have benefited from a larger team in place and perhaps a longer build-up and promotion. But being a “one-man show,” so to speak, I went with my knowledge of the scene or scenes — admittedly a work in progress — in creating a core group of nominees for consideration and added names based on reader suggestions. I also took the advice of some producers and divided the circus and sideshow performers into separate polls.

So I moved forward with the polls, with two clearly stated guidelines: Readers were welcome to add their own candidates/nominees, and readers should refrain from voting multiple times for their favorites. Readers were very good, often passionate about the former, but not so much about the latter. So the votes had to be analyzed, and multiple voting was tossed.

But taking that into consideration, I decided to present the results in a more inclusive fashion, with winners broken down into a “Top 10” or “Top 5” list, and listed alphabetically — along with an occasional “honorable mention” to make note of some pretty tight voting in some categories. A first-time poll, and a rather unscientific one at that, didn’t need to focus too heavily on the very top vote-getters.

For me, ultimately, there were few surprises. The balloting, with some notably obvious exceptions, reflects what in my mind is out there: a lot of talented performers who have made their mark, and productions that are establishing a legacy. As for the future, I might offer some thoughts in another post, but for now, let’s enjoy this informal take on the best of New Orleans burlesque and circus arts.

And once again, check out my overview of this landmark year here.

BEST OF NEW ORLEANS BURLESQUE, CIRCUS AND SIDESHOW

PERFORMERS
Best burlesque performers in New Orleans 2015
Bella Blue
Cherry Brown
Leo Danger Lace
Remy Dee
May Hemmer
Roxie le Rouge
GoGo McGregor
Trixie Minx
Charlotte Treuse
Angie Z
Honorable mention: Xena Zeit-Geist

Best circus performers in New Orleans 2015
Chatty the Mime
Guglielmo
Lady Satine
Magic Mike
Ooops the Clown
Honorable mention: Thugsy Da Clown

Best sideshow performers in New Orleans 2015
Kitty Kaos
Dr. Sick
Lydia Treats
Donny Vomit
Kali von Wunderkammer
Honorable mention: Eli Rose

Best burlesque/circus show emcees in New Orleans for 2015
Dante the Magician (Bustout Burlesque)
Chris Lane (Fleur de Tease)
GoGo McGregor
Dr. Sick (Big Deal Burlesque, Bustout Burlesque)
Rev. Ben Wisdom (Dirty Dime Peepshow)

PRODUCTIONS
Best burlesque/circus show in New Orleans 2015 — annual production
Cirque du Gras 2 (Feb. 13-16), St. Roch Firehouse; produced by LadyBEAST
New Orleans Burlesque Festival (Sept. 15-18), multiple locations; produced by Rick Delaup
NOLA Nerdlesque (Nov. 19-22), Frenchmen Theater at Bamboula’s; produced by Persé Fanny, Vincent Galliant
Snake Oil Festival (June 19-21), Howlin’ Wolf; produced by the Rev. Ben Wisdom, Ginger Licious and Little Luna
Storyville Rising (May 16-17), Café Istanbul; produced by Kali von Wunderkammer

Best burlesque/circus show in New Orleans 2015 – specialty
“CREAM!: A Night of Decadent Burlesque, Drag, and Cabaret,” at One Eyed Jacks (Bella Blue and Kitten N’ Lou)
“The Demon Boobs of Skeet Street: A Sweeney Todd Burlesque,” at Old Marquer Theater (Picolla Tushy presents The Bluestockings)
“Doctor Who-Ha: A Doctor Who Burlesque Play,” at Eiffel Society (The Society of Sin/Krewe du Who)
“Home: A Burlesque Tribute to New Orleans,” at Republic New Orleans (Remy Dee)
“In Wonderland” (Cirque Copine)

Best burlesque/circus show in New Orleans 2015 — monthly/seasonal
Big Deal Burlesque, at various locations (Roxie le Rouge)
Bustout Burlesque, at House of Blues (Rick Delaup)
Dirty Dime Peepshow, at AllWays Lounge (Bella Blue Entertainment)
Fleur de Tease, at One Eyed Jacks (Trixie Minx)
Fly Movement Salon, at Café Istanbul (Liza Rose)
Honorable mention: Bad Girls of Burlesque, at House of Blues/The Parish (Rick Delaup)

Best burlesque/circus show in New Orleans 2015 – weekly
“Blue Book Cabaret,” Saturdays at Bourbon Pub and Parade (Bella Blue Entertainment)
“Burlesque Ballroom,” Fridays at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse (Trixie Minx)
“Vixens & Vinyl,” Wednesdays at Spitfire Bar
“Talk Nerdy to Me,” Saturdays at Dragon’s Den (The Society of Sin)
“Comic Strip,” Mondays at Siberia (Chris Lane, Ooops the Clown)
Honorable mention: “Whiskey & Rhinestones,” Thursdays at Gravier Street Social (Bella Blue Entertainment)

No, seriously, check out my overview of this landmark year here.