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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Snake Oil Festival closes out with the “Unholy Roller Revival” Sunday (photos)

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A crowd of about 200 enjoyed the third and final night of the second annual Snake Oil Festival on Sunday (June 26) with the “Unholy Roller Revival” hosted by co-producer the Rev. Ben Wisdom, with Dr. Sick and the Asylum Chorus providing a mesmerizing soundtrack for New Orleans and visiting national and international performers.

I’ll have more fleshed-out thoughts on the evening once I nail down some details, but wanted to share this photo gallery (with a quick video) to give you an idea of how much fun the night was — a hellfire-and-brimstone celebration of dance, music and flight. And while the local performers showcased New Orleans’ burlesque and sideshow talent, arguably the most intriguing performance came from an out-of-towner — sort of. Lune Noirr, an Asheville, N.C.-based performer who reportedly will soon set up shot in New Orleans, gave a brilliant dance performance in a costume as kinetic (and timely) as one could see at the show.

Other performers: New Orleans’ Ember Blaize, Tsarina Hellfire and Queenie O’Hart, as well as Kitson Sass (Minnesota), Mariposa Bop (London), Mena Domina (Santa Fe, N.M.) and Miranda Tempest (Toronto).

The Snake Oil Festival was produced by the Rev. Ben Wisdom and Little Luna and featured about 70 performers over three nights showcasing burlesque, circus arts and circus sideshow acts, with workshops held during the day. Check out my preview in the New Orleans Advocate, as well as a mini-review from 2015.

Again, more to come soon.

Charlotte Treuse voted among top 50 burlesque performers by 21st Century Burlesque

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Charlotte Treuse performs at the 7th annual New Orleans Burlesque Festival.

New Orleans burlesque performer Charlotte Treuse, a regular local and touring performer,  has been voted No. 46 in the 21st Century Burlesque readers poll, the results of which are being released incrementally by the magazine Sunday (Jan. 24). The performer, who also was voted among the top 10 favorite New Orleans performers in a recent poll, was recognized in 2015 for her competition at the 7th annual New Orleans Burlesque Festival (watch video below), as an opening act at New Orleans’ inaugural Snake Oil Festival, participating in the Miss Viva Las Vegas burlesque competition, and touring nationally.

“I don’t really know what to say!” she said. “This came as a complete surprise to me. I’ve never made the list before!”

Treuse moved to New Orleans from Portland in 2012, three years after competing in the inaugural New Orleans Burlesque Festival, where she was named first runner-up in 2013 and 2014. She regularly performs with Bella Blue (Foxglove Revue) Trixie Minx, Gogo McGregor (“Vixens and Vinyl”) and Xena Zeit-Geist (The Society of Sin, including the upcoming “Sinner Sisters Damnation Cabaret”). She also works as a costume designer and has designed outfits for New Orleans’ own Perle Noire.

“Before I relocated here I would come a couple times a year to do the festival and to headline Bustout Burlesque at the House of Blues,” she said. “Moving to New Orleans was the best decision of my life! I’m so grateful for the support of my peers, who have turned into a family, and this magical city that has helped foster my art form.”

In 2015, New Orleans burlesque producer and performer Bella Blue was voted No. 16 in the poll.

The rest of the poll results should be released soon, and further New Orleans connections will be posted if/when they arise.

Boylesque performer Russell Bruner, who lived in New Orleans briefly and performed at Lucky Pierre’s as well as the Snake Oil Festival, was voted No. 36. (He’s also performed at the New Orleans Burlesque Festival. Watch his performance below.)

Another performer, Dallas’ Missy Lisa, checked in at No. 32; she also performed at the 7th annual New Orleans Burlesque Festival. (Watch her performance below.)

A look back at New Orleans burlesque, circus and sideshow in 2015

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The year 2015 in New Orleans burlesque, circus and sideshow entertainment might go down as one of the more memorable in a scene that might be approaching a turning point. As producers sought more ambitious shows and performers sought greater exposure, the scene felt by year’s end like it was on the edge of something bigger.

Four of the top burlesque producers were emblematic of both the growth and challenges of the industry. Bella Blue, who in January was voted the No. 16 burlesque artist in 21st Century Burlesque magazine’s popular readers’ poll, was able to do the unthinkable and stage a weekly burlesque show, “Risq,” at Harrah’s New Orleans Casino. Trixie Minx, whose Fleur de Tease gave Bella Blue her start, launched her “Fantasy” show for an adults-only cruise. (She also ruled as the “Queen of the Insane” for krewedelusion and used the year to help promote the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic.)

Both Minx and Blue enjoyed notable performances outside New Orleans — Blue as the featured performer at the international Boylesque Festival Vienna, and Minx (with Piper Marie) in “The Burlesque Show” at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City in late December.

Roxie le Rouge continued to build on her reputation as the most consistent exporter of the form by taking variations of her Big Deal Burlesque across the Southeast while continuing to perform with Fleur de Tease. Her Big Deal shows enjoyed increased attendance to the point of sell-outs.

Rick Delaup’s two regular shows — Bustout Burlesque and the 2014-launched Bad Girls of Burlesque, at the House of Blues and its Parish room, respectively — continued to draw large crowds. (Stupid Dope tabbed Bad Girls as “the most dope show in town.”) He marked Bustout’s 10th anniversary in 2015, and his 7th annual New Orleans Burlesque Festival broke attendance records while crowning Miss Stormy Gayle as the Queen of Burlesque. It came after the Bustout Burlesque regular’s return to New Orleans after spending the past few years in Los Angeles.

Even Miss Exotic World, the competition held at the annual Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend, featured New Orleans connections. Former New Orleans performer Perle Noire, who earlier in the year finished second in the 21st Century Burlesque poll, finished as first runner-up. (A former Bustout Burlesque regular and Queen of Burlesque winner, she also returned to New Orleans to perform at Bella Blue’s “Risq” show.) Dallas’ Ginger Valentine, a frequent guest performer with Bustout Burlesque and who’s recreated the famous “Evangeline the Oyster Girl” act, repeated her 2014 finish as second runner-up.

But there were some challenges. Bella Blue’s attempt to bring drag and burlesque together on Bourbon Street hit a snag when news of the dismissal of performer Ruby Rage (presumably over her weight) from the “Blue Book Cabaret” lineup at Lucky Pierre’s led to Bella Blue ending her relationship with the club. Lucky Pierre’s closed later in the year. “Blue Book Cabaret” wound up at Bourbon Pub and Parade and remains there. She was successful with another burlesque/drag mash-up with “CREAM!” at One Eyed Jacks over Southern Decadence, inspiring her to do a similar show, “Touché,” at the Joy Theater for this year’s Mardi Gras.

Her weekly “Risq” show was shelved at Harrah’s over the football season, though there remains a chance it will return in 2016. Also, she found a permanent home for her New Orleans School of Burlesque inside the Healing Center on St. Claude Avenue. And as popular as the New Orleans Burlesque Festival has become, one African-American performer, Chicago’s Jeez Loueez, expressed concern after her experience as emcee for the “Bad Girls of Burlesque” show at the House of Blues. In a YouTube video, she discussed everything from the traditional aspects of the festival to the use of such black-culture dance forms as twerking — and the lack of performers of color. (This was in keeping with related issues raised by New Orleans performers right before the festival.)

And by year’s end, some performers complained about a lack of work in town, which could either be a blip or an indication the scene might be hitting another peek.

Still, 2015 remained a year of major highlights. Other aspiring producers brought a flood of new and possible annual shows to the stages over the course of 2015. Blue Reine’s seasonal “The Roux: A Spicy Brown Burlesque Show” became so successful that she announced on Jan. 1 that it will become a festival in September. This underscores Reine’s reign as New Orleans’ main host for shows featuring performers of color. Another performer, May Hemmer, launched her first-ever New Year’s Eve party, “A Gatsby Affair.”

Kali von Wunderkammer brought two new festivals, the Southern Sideshow Hootenanny and Storyville Rising, to town, while the Rev. Ben Wisdom teamed up with Little Luna and Ginger Licious for the wildly popular Snake Oil Festival at the Howlin’ Wolf. (That festival will return in 2016.)

Von Wunderkammer and Remy Dee each produced Katrina-themed shows in August — Dee with her “Home: “A Burlesque Tribute to New Orleans” and Von Wunderkammer with “Broken Levees, Broken Hearts” on Katrina’s 10th anniversary, Aug. 29.

Both The Society of Sin (led by Xena Zeit-Geist) and Picolla Tushy presented a flurry of themed shows throughout 2015. The Society of Sin tapped into nerdlesque with narratively driven shows such as “Dr. Who-Ha,” and Picolla Tushy created such literary-minded shows as “Summer Lovin’.” (“Dr. Who-Ha” will enjoy an encore performance at this weekend’s Wizard World Comic Con, Jan. 8-10.)

As burlesque continued to establish its foothold in the scene, the circus arts enjoyed a stronger presence as well, most notably through the work of producers LadyBEAST and Liza Rose and their tapping into a wide variety of performers. They were notably featured in LadyBEAST’s Cirque du Gras 2 during Mardi Gras and Rose’s monthly Fly Movement Salon, an incubator of circus arts performers. The pair also formed the all-female troupe Cirque Copine, which presented the popular “In Wonderland” show in Bywater.

(Bella Blue wasn’t the only performer to go international, either. Circus performer Clay Mazing performed overseas for Syrian refugees, first with Clowns Without Borders and later with his own Emergency Circus. And Magic Mike, the Fleur de Tease regular, competed in the 2015 FISM World Championship of Magic, held July 6-11 in Rimin, Italy.)

LadyBEAST and Rose plan more larger-scale productions in 2016 as the circus-arts performers and producers stake out a larger claim of territory in the wide and often hard-to-define world of variety performances. Stay tuned for more from them.

So what else to look for in 2016? Bella Blue promised a big announcement at her “Touché” show on Jan. 28, so there’s that. Trixie Minx always has something up her sleeve, as does Roxie le Rouge. Rick Delaup’s New Orleans Burlesque Festival will probably continue to be the biggest show in town.

But what should happen for New Orleans’ burlesque and circus scenes in 2016? What would it take to get burlesque mentioned in the same breath as, say, the city’s venerable music and theater scenes? What defines a successful burlesque scene? Regular work for its performers, or at least enough to keep them in New Orleans, might be a nice place to start. Performers, while on social media, constantly question whether they can keep doing what’s fun when they’re faced with mounting bills. Only a handful of the city’s burlesque artists do it as a full-time concern, and a vast majority of them spend a lot of emotional capital on moral support for one another. Musicians face a similar challenge, but when you’re literally bearing your body along with your soul onstage, it seems somehow different.

I’ll save my thoughts on what might make for bigger and better burlesque and circus scenes for a future post — mostly, frankly, playing off what the producers and performers might like to see. But based on private and on-the-record interviews, it would be nice to see, among other things, a scene with producers and performers working more collaboratively, both outside and within. I was reminded of comments by J.D. Oxblood, co-creator of Burlesque Beat magazine and frequent New Orleans visitor: “What’s most exciting about the New Orleans scene is the crossover with the drag community and recent attempts to move into traditionally tourist-dominated spaces. But like many cities, New Orleans seems to be dominated by just a few producers — who may be amenable to out-of-town performers, but less welcoming to outsider producers.”

It would be interesting to see how the scene plays out in 2016, and whether it continues to grow or suddenly plateau, but one thing is certain — growing exposure of what’s happening in the city can only benefit its performers and producers. That said, here’s a look at the “best of” in these two scenes.

Read the results here.